Coffee Origins: Guatemala

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Many people believe that the Jesuits introduced coffee to Guatemala around 1750, while there are reports of it being grown and served in the nation as early as 1747. Coffee, like in El Salvador, only became a significant product in Guatemala after 1856, when chemical dyes diminished demand for indigo, which was the principal cash crop at the time.

The administration had already attempted to diversify its economy away from indigo. It established the Commission for Coffee Cultivation and Promotion in 1845, which created educational materials for coffee growers and assisted in the establishment of price and quality standards. In an effort to boost the sector, the government dispersed roughly one million coffee seeds in 1868.

When Justo Rufino Barrios became president in 1871, he made coffee the economy’s backbone. Unfortunately, his reforms led to the sale of about 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) of what was called public land, thus depriving Guatemala’s indigenous people of their land. Large coffee plantations sprang out of these. However, the attempts to boost coffee output paid off, and by 1880, coffee accounted for about 90% of Guatemala’s exports.

Following the global downturn of 1930, coffee would once again play a role in the country’s politics. After assuming power, Jorge Ubico attempted to cut the price of coffee in order to boost exports. He constructed considerable infrastructure, but he also ceded greater authority and land to the United Fruit Company (UFC), a major American enterprise. Due to a general strike and anti-Ubico protests, Ubico eventually resigned.

In 1953, President Arbenz proposed a land reform act to expropriate land (mainly that possessed by the UFC) and redistribute it for agricultural uses. The reforms were opposed by both large coffee plantation owners and the UFC (which was backed by the US State Department). The Arbenz government was overthrown by a CIA coup in 1954, and the intended land reforms were never implemented. This led to a civil war in the country, which lasted from 1960 until 1996. Many of the factors that sparked the war, including poverty, land distribution, famine, and racism towards indigenous peoples, persist today.

Guatemala’s coffee production peaked at the turn of the millennium, as many producers moved away from coffee into macadamia nuts and avocados after the coffee crisis in 2001. Coffee leaf rust has also been an increasing problem for producers throughout the country, damaging a large portion of their production.

Traceability

Guatemalan coffees should be traceable down to farm level, or down to a cooperative or producer group. While some regions in Guatemala are now protected denominations of origin, the country has a long history of traceability and estates producing high-quality coffee because many farmers have their own wet mills and process their own coffee.

Altitude grading

Similar to other Central American countries, Guatemala uses a version of the altitude grading.
Prime: grown at 750–900m (2,500–3,000ft)
Extra Prime: grown at 900–1,050m (3,000–3,500ft) Semi Hard Bean: grown at 1,050– 1,220m (3,500–4,000ft)
Hard Bean (HB): grown at 1,220–1,300m (4,000–4,300ft)
Strictly Hard Bean (SHB): grown over 1,300m (4,300ft)

Taste profile

A wide range of flavors is present in Guatemala’s coffees, from lighter, very sweet, fruity, and complex coffees through to the heavier, richer, and more chocolatey cups.

Growing regions

Population: 16,176,000
Number of 60kg (132lb) bags in 2016: 3,500,000

Guatemala has done a better job than most countries at identifying its core regions and promoting the coffees from these areas as distinct from one another. Some flavor qualities are more common in specific places, in my experience, but there are no hard and fast laws for this.

Saint mark

San Marcos, Guatemala’s coffee-growing region, is both the warmest and the rainiest. Rains arrive sooner on the mountain slopes facing the Pacific, therefore lowering occurs early as well. Because post-harvest drying can be difficult due to rain, some farms use a combination of sun and mechanical drying. Agriculture, which produces grain, fruit, meat, and wool, is a significant aspect of the economy in this department.

Altitude: 1,300–1,800m (4,300–5,900ft)

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai

Acatenango

The Acatenango Valley, named for the nearby volcano, is the center of coffee production in this region. Many growers here used to sell their coffee to ‘coyotes,’ who would ship the cherries to Antigua and process them there. Because Antigua had a better reputation for coffee, it was more expensive. This method is becoming less usual, as Acatenango coffees can be good and are becoming more well-known, making it more practical to maintain them properly traceable.

Altitude: 1,300–2,000m (4,300–6,600ft)

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai

Atitlán

The coffee farms here are located around Lake Atitlán. Sitting at around 1,500m (4,900ft) above sea level, the lake has captured the minds of writers and travelers over many years because of its stunning beauty. In the late morning and early afternoon, strong winds are common here and are known locally as Xocomil, ‘the winds that carry away sin’.

There are a number of private nature reserves here, set up to preserve the biodiversity of the area and help prevent deforestation. Coffee production is under pressure due to increased labor costs and competition for the labor force. Urban sprawl is also increasing pressure on land use and some farmers are Ānding it is more proĀtable to sell their land than continue to grow coffee.

Altitude: 1,500–1,700m (4,900–5,600ft)

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai

Cobalt

This region is named after the town of Cobán, which grew and thrived due to the German
coffee producers who held a great deal of power here until the end of World War II. The
lush rainforest comes with a very wet climate, which proves something of a challenge to
coffee drying. The region is also somewhat remote, making transport more difĀcult and
expensive but there are, nonetheless, stunning coffees coming from here.

Altitude: 1,300–1,500m (4,300–4,900ft)

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai

New east

Unsurprisingly for a region whose name means ‘New East’, Nuevo Oriente is located in the east of the country by the border with Honduras. The climate is dryer here and most of the coffee is produced by smallholders. Coffee production arrived here quite late, beginning in the 1950s.

Altitude: 1,300–1,700m (4,300–5,600ft

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Pache

This is one of Guatemala’s most well-known locations, as well as one of the easiest to pronounce. ‘Place of the Ancients’ or ‘Place of the Ancestors’ is how the Nahuatl name translates. This region has the highest non-volcanic mountains in Central America, which are ideal for coffee cultivation. This region is arguably the most reliant on coffee as an export, and the coffees produced here are very remarkable.

Huehuetenango

Altitude: 1,500–2,000m (4,900–6,600ft)

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai

Fraijanes

Guatemala City is surrounded by this coffee-growing plateau. Volcanic activity occurs on a fairly frequent basis in the area, which benefits the soil but can also risk life and cause infrastructural problems. Unfortunately, as the city grows and land-use changes, the amount of land under coffee continues to diminish.

Altitude: 1,400–1,800m (4,600–5,900ft)

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Pache

Ancient

Antigua is Guatemala’s most well-known coffee-producing region, and one of the most well-known in the world. Antigua is the name of the region, which is known for its Spanish architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the market had been depressed by coffee fraudulently labeled as Antigua, the region was granted a Denomination of Origin in 2000 under the term ‘Genuine Antigua Coffee.’ This has restricted the sale of coffee from other origins as Antigua, but it hasn’t stopped the illegal practice of bringing cherries in from other locations to be processed there. Nonetheless, clearly traceable coffees from Antigua are available, and while some are pricey, others are of exceptional quality and worth seeking out.

Altitude: 1,500–1,700m (4,900–5,600ft)

Harvest: December – March

Varieties: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Pache

 

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