by David Pohl
I traveled to Guatemala in November to meet with our grower partners and to donate equipment for a cupping lab. I arrived in Guatemala city on the morning of a presidential runoff, and was met by Edgar and Sylvia Lazo, owners of Finca Chipacay, our longest coffee partnership. My trip to Guatemala had been delayed by two months due to unrest associated with the first round of voting in September. Surprisingly the streets of the capital were quiet the day I arrived, and after a short rest back at the house we headed to the polling station where Edgar exercised his right to vote. The election went off without a hitch, and so our focus quickly turned to coffee.
Cupping Lab Equator decided to donate a cupping lab to Finca Chipacay to help them improve their ability to conduct quality control. Finca Chipacay is a second generation coffee farm in the Atitlan region of Guatemala. We buy most of the coffee that Chipacay produces and use it in our espresso. Owners Edgar and Sylvia Lazo are heavily involved in both the quality of the coffee that their farm produces as well as the quality of life of the community surrounding Chipacay (see video). The reality is that they run the farm as a non-profit, investing profits in the farm and community. Pochuta, the town up the road from Chipacay is beset by poverty and violence. The day I arrived (escorted by the national police along a road notorious for hold-ups) the Pochuta police received a call that a robber had been shot and killed on a farm a few miles from Chipacay. In fact, Chipacay had been the victim of thievery the week before, and Sylvia had just informed me that some of the farms near them had received a “right to shoot” anyone illegally entering their property. Hence, the brutal vigilante justice that accompanied this most recent robbery. In any event, before traveling to the farm I spent two days in Guatemala City roasting and cupping coffee with Edgar and Sylvia. The goal was to train Sylvia to use the sample roaster we were donating so that she could roast coffees as they were being picked on the farm. Sylvia proved a quick learner (she is an attorney after all!) and by the time we headed off for the farm she was pretty well versed in sample roasting. Sylvia was also armed with the knowledge she gained during a week long cupping course we enrolled her in through Anacafe, the national coffee organization, in August. Edgar, for his part, and for an octogenarian, embraced cupping with an enthuasism and dedication I had not expected. His observations on the coffees we cupped were insightful and nuanced. Safely at the farm (though still accompanied by the Policia Nacional) we toured the grounds and later conducted a cupping with key employees from the farm. The cupping and training were well received and the reports I have received from Sylvia and Edgar since then are that the employees have demonstrated a new-found interest in cupping and quality control. Our hope at Equator is that the cupping lab will give Chipacay another set of tools to directly improve the quality of their coffee and the lives of the community where they live. We are very grateful to have such dedicated, professional partners from which to source this outstanding coffee!
El Carmen After leaving Chipacay I spent a day at El Carmen, our other big supplier of Guatemala. This 5th generation farm is located at the end of the road and at the top of the mountain in the region of Acatenango, near Antigua. It is truly idyllic. I continue to be amazed by the beautiful coffee this farm produces as well as by the humble generosity the Mejia family showers on me every time I visit. The Mejia’s have owned this farm since the 1870’s and continue to live on it most of the year. It is a small estate, producing about 2 containers of coffee each year, though Juan Mejia just bought some neighboring land which will enable El CArmen to produce one more. The most stunning aspect of El Carmen is that the coffee is grown from 1700 meters to 1900 meters above sea level. This is probably one of the highest farms in Guatemala and Central America! In any event, I was treated to a beautiful hike up into the farm, to an altitude of 1912 meters, as well as a wonderful breakfast and lunch. This coffee is available most of the year in our Rainforest and Zulu blends as well as a single origin. New crop arrives in April.
First Flight! While out and about with Sertinsa, the Guatemalan exporter for El Carmen, I took a side trip to Santa Isabel, a large organic estate in the Santa Rosa region. We don’t buy from Santa Isabel at the moment, but Sertinsa thought it would be worthwhile for me to see a large organic farm should we have a need for such a coffee in the future. They were right. Santa Isabel is a perfectly organized, vertically integrated organic coffee farm (more on that in a minute). My guide and owner of the farm, Alex Keller, was also my pilot for the day. This was my first flight in a toy-like single-engine, four person prop plane. Besides being a little terrifying, the flight afforded me a birds-eye guided tour of the volcano-studded Guatemalan country-side. The farm itself is a model of efficiency, sustainability and innovation. Having long been a traditional, conventional farm, the Kellers decided a few years ago to convert first to Rainforest Alliance certification, to begin to make the move from chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Last year they began the transition to full organic certification. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this decision is the amount of labor involved in an organic farm – there are 40 full-time employees pruning and clearing around the coffee trees. Equally impressive is the certainty with which Alex Keller, the grandson of the founder of the farm, approaches the conversion to organic. He and his family felt the land was drained from all the years of intensive chemical farming and that its survival would require a conversion to organic farming. Being a large farm (it exports dozens of containers of coffee a year!) this decision no doubt took equal parts guts and faith. Having quickly seen the farm and all of its facilities I have no doubt this conversion will go well for the Kellers. Everything is organized, clean and efficient. One very unique aspect of Santa Isabel is that the coffee is grown, picked, milled, stored, dry-milled, packaged and loaded onto a container for export all on their farm. This vertical integration allows Santa Isabel to control all aspects of the process and it is clear that they execute very well!
Conclusion The trip to Guatemala helped Equator secure high quality coffees from top-notch farms, and allowed us to plan for the future when we may need more Guatemala. All of our partners share our desire for outstanding coffee and sustainability, and it was re-affirming for me and to have the opportunity to spend a few days strengthening these mutually beneficial relationships. David Pohl Head Roaster, Associate Coffee Buyer Web Album: http://picasaweb.google.com/davidnpohl/GuatemalaNov2007