Generous Guatemala

When I was making my first tentative foray into green coffee at Cofi-Com, one coffee in particular fascinated me: the musically sounding Guatemalan Huehuetenango. The name rolls off the tongue, tropical, sunny, and tuneful all in one. Give it a try. Hue-hue-tenango.

So, for my last editorial contribution for the year, we’re off to Guatemala. It is a country with coastlines on both the Pacific and Atlantic, nestled between its four neighbours, Mexico, El Salvador, Belize, and Honduras.

Before we get into the coffee side of things, it’s important to understand the country’s culture and how it’s influenced today’s coffee producing society.

Since independence in 1841 from Spain, Guatemala has experienced a roller coaster ride of dictatorships and coups meddling in its affairs, and in recent years, civil wars. A peace accord signed in 1996 helped the country grow economically, although political challenges remain.

Forty-one per cent of Guatemalans belong to one of 22 Mayan ethnic groups. Three quarters of Guatemalans speak Spanish, and the remaining speak any of the 23 officially recognised Amerindian languages. It’s a country that has breathtaking volcanoes, Mayan temples, stunning lakes, rainforests, and wildlife that range from the panther to the vampire bat.

Coffee is big in Guatemala, accounting for 40 per cent of agricultural exports. Approximately 90,000 coffee growers cultivate more than 270,000 hectares – that’s around 2.5 per cent of the country’s land mass. About 98 per cent of Guatemalan coffee is shade grown and washed Arabica.

The coffee industry’s guiding hand is the Guatemalan National Coffee Association (Anacafé), which has been building the reputation and quality of the country’s coffee since 1960. The association’s main objective is to focus on how coffee affects long term biodiversity, the environment, and, of course, the farmers. One of Anacafé’s innovative projects is the geographical information system, which has geo-positioned 95 per cent of co-operatives and more than 3500 farms. When completed, this will allow complete digital transparency from farm attitude to soils and varietals.

The majority of coffee we know and enjoy from Guatemala is Strictly Hard Bean (SHB), defined as growing above 1370 metres. Two other categories of Hard Bean (grown at 1066 to 1370 metres above sea level) and Extra Prime (grown 762 to 1066 metres above sea level) are still grown, but it’s the SHB coffees that are in demand. Lowland farmers growing Extra Prime are now involved with forestry projects as an alternative to coffee.

Out of Guatemala’s 22 departments or regional administrative areas, 20 grow coffee. To differentiate coffees, Anacafé` defines eight specific coffee growing regions of Guatemala:

Acatenango Valley
n This area is recognised for its coffees that are grown under dense shade up to 2000 metres above sea level. Minerals from the ever erupting Fuego volcano keep the soil rich in mineral content. Coffees have noticeable acidity, fragrance, and balance.

Essentially a valley area surrounded by three volcanoes – Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango – the climate has everything coffee needs, such as sunny days, cool nights, low humidity, and wonderfully rich soils. Coffees from this region are sweet and aromatic.

Traditional Atitlán
Coffee is grown on the slopes of volcanoes that overlook Lake Atitlán. The soil is very rich in organic matter, and coupled with volcanic minerals it creates a coffee with body and citric, bright acidity.

Rainforest Cobán
Locals joke this area has two seasons, rainy and rainier. With around 4000 millimetres of rainfall annually, Cobán is always cloudy and cool. Due to the climate, coffee is mechanically dried. Flavour characteristics are fruity notes, good body, and balance.

The full article features in the December 2016 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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