Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

Traveling the Guatemalan Highlands

If you ever want to anchor yourself to one spot and preclude all hope of vacation travel, open a small business. There is no weightier ball and chain to keep you tethered to your workplace.

Then again, if you are in the coffee business you have great excuses to take "business trips" to outstanding places, and I was lucky to accompany some coffee brokers on a trip to some of the finest farms in Guatemala. We ventured north into the far-reaches of the Huehuetenango highlands, up remote 4WD roads, and to more established, traditional family "Fincas" to the west. We visited wet-mills and dry-mills in the old capital of Antigua, a popular tourist destination just and hour from Guatemala City. And we visited the offices and cupping room of traders in the capitol. Most importantly, I was able to visit several farms that we have already carried, and produce the finest coffees I have cupped: Asobagri Co-op in Northern Huehuetenango, Finca El Injerto in Western Huehuetenango, Finca Huixoc in La Democracia and Finca El Injertal, adjacent to the Huixoc Farm. Click on any small image to see the full-size picture.

Guatemala Overview Map
Detail Map: Tom's Trip 2001

For Large Image, Click on Image

I flew into Guatemala City, an amazingly fast flight via Houston. There is a breathtaking landing as the mountains rise up to meet the plane as much as the plane descends to meet the land!

guatemala city in the morning
Guatemala City

We immediately departed to the North in a rented 4WD vehicle ... its usefulness would be proved a few days later! We were able to get to the town of Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan that evening. In the morning we departed at sunrise: we had to meet folks in Huehuetenango at noon! But we couldn't resist a touristy moment as the sky lightened over the lake. It is surrounded by Volcanos, and coffee farms abound in the rich soils of the volcanic slopes. lake atitlan at sunrise
Lake Atitlan at sunrise
The paved highways in Guatemala are excellent. But when you do find a pothole they can swallow the entire care ...beware! The terror of the roads are the speeding buses. And in the highlands, the fog can descend rapidly, and visibility can slow you down to a crawl. Like this! fog in the guatemala highlands
Fog at 8500 feet altitude, Hwy 1
When you can see, this is the incredible landscape! Here we were at our highest point, over 11,000 feet! This is far to high for coffee cultivation, and most subsistence is herding goats and sheep.
San Marcos Highland Pass, 11,000 feet
Guatemala is as diverse in its landscape as it is in its cultural and people. Here we paused to photograph a rock outcropping on our way from the city of Huehuetenango to the coffee farms around Barillas. To gauge the scale, see our friend from the Asobagri Co-op, Rejino, ion the road, and the Nissan at the foot of the rock.

Huge rock on road to huehuetenango
On the road to Barillas

Our first coffee visit was to member-farmers of the Asobagri Co-op. The farms are organized around the small towns-villages, and each small group of farmers has his own plot of land but aids the others in cultivation and processing. Here is the new trees on the plot of Herman Damto Samayoa, who is the oldest member of the family group in the town of Nueva Esperanza, (translates "New Hope") new coffee trees
Nueva Esperanza; Sr. Samayoa
Our trip is mid-April so the coffee cherry is very green, but fairly well-developed in size. There are still blossoms on the branch, and you can see this healthy cluster on Sr. Samayoa's plot hints at good things for the nest crop. But the cherry is on the branch so long (4-6 months) and so many things can go wrong! Drought, frost, hail ... unripe green coffee cherries
Unripe coffee cherry
Here is a healthy tree of the traditional arabica cultivar Bourbon Typica. It is not as handsome as newer varietals in terms of leaf color etc., and is less productive in terms of coffee cherries per tree. But you can see that a healthy tree in healthy organic soil can be very productive nonetheless! bourbon cultivar trees
Cultivar Bourbon
The entire village of Nueva Esperanza is based around several generations of the same family, all coffee farmers and members of the fair trade co-op. With the outside aid of co-op representatives and the help of others in the village, they share organic farming information, improve their process, and they collectively mill the ripe cherry into parchment and dry it on their own patio. Nueva Esperanza village, 5000 feet
The village of Nueva Esperanza, in English "New Hope"
Because coffee prices have been so poor (even though the co-op is organic and fair trade) some farmers also raise Cardamom, mostly for export to the middle east where it fetches high and stable prices. (Cardamom is ground with coffee in making Ibrik or Turkish coffee) cardomom pods and flowers
Cardamom pods and flowers
Nueva Esperanza is without phone or electricity, but has a good stream running through it. The wet-milling of coffee is done either in the hand-crank machinery or the co-op collectively purchased a very small gas-powered wet miller too. We have bought this coffee for 2 years now, and the cup quality is exceptional! With each farmer milling their coffee, the chances for inconsistent cup quality is big ... but the co-op is so well-organized and the farmers so caring and motivated that the coffee quality is simply outstanding! the village
Nueva Esperanza
And they love to drink coffee in Nueva Esperanza ... they simply do it in their own traditional way. Coffee is roasted in the outer parchment layer on a flat wood fired clay cooktop. Because the coffee has this thick skin still on the green bean, it does not scorch. They take their coffee with sugar, not the way I like it but would I dare tell them how to make a good cup of coffee? Hell no! roasting coffee traditionally
Roasting coffee on a wood stovetop
This will seem like a big ad for Nissan, but the rental Pathfinder really took a beating in an area of Guatemala where the only other vehicles are hard-core 4WD Toyota Landcruisers, or horseback. (I took the picture from a mid-70s Landcruiser). Here we are fording a small stream. Fording, not fiording!
Go Pathfinder!
This might not look so dramatic, but this was a super scary bridge over a torrid, rushing river. It's a cable bridge with very deteriorated boarding, and just enough holes and gaps in the planking to make you say a Hail Mary or 10. the scariest bridge in the universe!
More... Go Pathfinder!

El Injerto is a beautiful, large, traditional coffee farm. It is a third generation Finca, overseen by the grandson of the original settler, Sr. Aguirre. He is a trained agronomist who makes every decision about the coffee farming and milling based on methodical testing, and with the benefit of newer coffee technology. He uses his own wet-milling process that bother ferments and aqua-pulps the mucilage from the parchment coffee, patio dries and mechanically dries based on weather, and has a complete dry-mill and bagging operation! The farm demands a lot from workers, but pays 50% more during harvest for each Quintal of cherry picked!

It's hard to look at images of such a lush and diverse farm and think that this is not a great bird and animal habitat. Not shown here are Sr. Aguirre's pristine and uncultivated forest lands. Unfortunately, I think some of the coffee farmers find the scrutiny of their practices by well-meaning American environmentalists (I consider myself one) to be ill-informed and hypocritical. After seeing the farms, I agree.

stream at el injerto
Finca El Injerto

Bio-diversity of a large coffee farm:
How does this compare in terms of bio-diversity to a US farm, a corn or soybean field? and yet we demand coffee farmers to constantly prove they are ecologically sensitive. They are because they have been farming the same land for 120 years, and want to continue to do so!

Each coffee varietal on the El Injerto farm is separated and here we see the very large Maragogype cultivar halfway through development, a long way from being ripe coffee cherry. Oddly, it seems to develop at a more uneven rate, as you can see green cherry that is fully sized and other that is very small.

El Injerto is the most pristine and orderly coffee Finca I have ever seen. Every step of the process is perfected. In fact it is the first time I have seen serious use of vermiculture (worms) to improve composting of the coffee cherry fruit layer (skin and musilage) after the coffee seed is removed.

maragogype or maragogipe cultivar
Maragogype Cultivar at Finca El Injerto

The coffee nursery at el injerto

Nursery at El Injerto

There is a culture to this farm that is traditional and distinctly Guatemalan. And it seems that every family farm has a canine mascot, in this case it is "Bull." Sr. Aguirre himself is imposing, well-educated but he will not stoop to English with some gringo visitors such as us. So "Bull" is the only English word I heard him utter in our 2 day visit. Sr. Aguirre guides you about the farm like you are on a school field trip, like you don't know a thing about coffee. But listening to him speak, with his years and years of practical cultivation and technical experience, you become convinced that you truly don't know a thing about coffee! Certainly not in the way he does ... Bull, the pitbull
As a catholic, I appreciate this!
The niche at El Injerto.

Finca Huixoc is an old family farm with an Hacienda, founded in 1911, some 20 years after El Injerto but still quite early for this region of Huehuetenango.

Huixoc was one of the best Huehue coffees this year (along with the El Injerto, El Injertal and Asobagri coffees). I think all of these coffees were superior to most everything in the Anacafe Guatemala cupping competition from 2001. Huixoc is located on a west-facing hillside adjacent to El Injertal, and like El Injerto has all its own milling and drying facilities on the premises.

Finca Huixoc, Huehuetenango
Finca Huixoc from above
The wet mill (beneficio) at Huixoc
The Beneficio (wet mill) at Finca Huixoc
When rain interrupts patio drying, sometimes the use of mechanical dryers is necessary. It is not preferred, but when done properly (that is, slowly and at low temperatures) the results are excellent. The dryers are traditionally wood-fired but concern over deforestation and the limited availability of wood has led most farms to use the parchment layer removed from the coffee seed during dry-milling as a fuel source. It's great for the farm's budget and environmentally sound. This photo is from the Esperanza wet beneficio (mill) outside of Antigua. Lots and lots of parchment (chaff)
Sacks of dry chaff
At Finca El Injertal, I couldn't resist a photo of the bougainvillea interlaced with unripe green coffee cherry. I cant spell Bouganvelillalialla
Bougainvillea and coffee.
The famous and oft-photgraphed La Merced church in Antigua, The facade is incredibly detailed (click on small image to see the full size picture). The courtyard features the largest fountain in Central America. I was especially impressed with the amazing woodwork on the many huge doorways inside the cathedral. There are unusual, massive dishes in the courtyard. cathedral la merced, antigua guatemala
Iglesia La Merced

On the main square in Antigua is the very well-known main cathedral. It was formerly known as Iglesia Santiago de los Caballeros. It was closed at the time I visited and is now reopened.

Antigua, the early capital of Guatemala, was founded in the early 16th century at the feet of the volcano Agua. Built 1,500 meters above sea-level, in an earthquake-prone region, it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 but its principal monuments are still preserved as ruins. The city, built on a grid plan inspired by the Italian Renaissance, amassed a number of superb monuments in less than three centuries.

main cathedral, antigua guatemala
In Guatemala City we had the good fortune to visit the dry beneficio Santa Isabella, operated by the exporter Camec. Very few farms, such as El Injerto, dry-mill their own coffee. The coffee is usually sent to a shared warehouse-dry mill in a city. Santa Isabella is in Guatemala City, and is a very modern and well-organized operation! Coffee comes in from the farms still in its parchment, which is ideal because it maintains the moisture content of the coffee best in this form. When an export order is made, the coffee is then milled out of parchment, sorted, screened and bagged in burlap. Here you seen the final stage of this very complicated process: machine optical sorting followed by final hand-sorting. Hand sorting coffee at the dry mill I found the stencil room to be fascinating since all the stencils are cut from sheet steel, basically by hand! The export association has a standard screen for one side of the bag and by law all exported bags identify the weight, crop year, exporter (Camec in this case) and region. The other side will have the farm designation, and those you see hanging on the wall behind Sr. Ariana. The coffee bag screening room
The cupping room at the export office of Camec is a nice setup, with a standard 4 barrel Jabez Burns sample roaster and an additional 3 barrel unit too. I had never seen sample roasters with the grinders on them, much like a cast metal Zassenhaus! Coffee Cupping room at Camec, Guatemala City In a locked back room of Santa Isabella we came across this old Otto Swadlo roaster, a respected manufacturer that is now long-gone. I believe this is a 6 kilo or 10 kilo model. They used it for sample roasting basically, and since I was the only roaster among our group of 3 coffee brokers, it was my turn to have my picture taken... Me and the Otto Swadlo Coffee Roaster

Postscript: I was very fortunate to be invited as a "tagalong" with the 3 gracious coffee brokers who permitted my presence. It was only because I was with some buyers who handle significant amounts of the best coffees that I was able to go to these farms. After returning I was asked by several people planning trips to Guatemala if I could give them contact information to visit these places, and I must politely say "no" with my sincerest apologies. You absolutely should visit Guatemala, and you should get back into the hills. It is simply incredible, and in fact I have found this web site that offers 4WD tours of the country with a focus on architecture. It looks great! But in terms of the coffee market, these coffee producers are in a crises, and need to devote all their efforts to getting fair prices for their excellent coffees. They really aren't in the tourism market, and likewise there are far to many small roasters (and I certainly hope I was not one of them) who visit producing nations and talk big, give advise, and basically screw everything up. Producers who cannot travel to their market might listen to bad advise from people who buy 10 bags of the 10000 bags they have to sell. These people need to listen to their buyers who are prepared to take big shipments, not pip-squeaks. Sometimes it seems like the web levels out the differences between the big and small a little too much. People read out web page and think we are a big consumer. We are not, and we don't try to be, nor want to be. What I am trying to say is that I greatly appreciate our hosts, the Co-ops, the farms, the exporters, and if I could wave a magic wand and make the world a fair place, your coffee would be selling for $10 lb. wholesale. I cannot put into words all the effort that goes into getting coffee from the farm to the burlap bag ready for export, and all the care and great human effort the producers put into this endeavor. For our small part, Sweet Maria's buys quality coffee from our brokers regardless of price, and will continue to support every effort to raise the coffee prices paid to the farmer for the best quality coffees.

Before I went to Guatemala, I read up on the political history of US relations in the Guatemala Archive in the National Security Archives.

Thompson Owen, April 2001

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