Guatemala: Harvest 2015

About a month ago, roaster and production manager Chris Janak and I traveled to Guatemala to meet with some of our partners. This was the first coffee origin trip Chris has taken with Equator and what a trip it was! Guatemala has a long history of producing high quality specialty coffee and the samples we tasted while there represented some of the best.

Our trip began in Guatemala City with a visit to TG Lab. This facility serves the dual function of roasting plant and coffee cupping laboratory. Of course we were most interested in tasting coffee and owner and sourcing director Josué Morales didn’t disappoint. He assembled several tables of outstanding coffees from all over Guatemala. Josué has established a network of farm relationships that fosters an atmosphere of experimentation and quality improvement. These relationships allow for access to an immense variety of coffees, some of which we had the opportunity to cup. In fact, we isolated a few contenders and have since evaluated the coffees again on our own cupping table in California. I am pleased to announce that later this year we will feature a very special coffee from Santa Sofia, a farm located near the town of Tactic, in Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz Deaprtment. It was gratifying to find the same exceptional results with our team of cuppers at home as we found in Guatemala City. The name Sofia resonates with us at Equator since we co-own and operate a farm in Panama called Finca Sophia.

After a couple days in Guatemala City we were itching to get out to the countryside and onto some coffee farms. After a daylong car ride to the north and west we landed in the department of Huehuetenango, and the famous coffee farm El Injerto, nestled against the Mexico frontier. Arturo Aguirre and his son Arturo Jr, hosted our visit with extensive tours of their farm and mill. We were excited to learn that harvesting was underway for their annual auction, including Pacamara variety coffee from the Pandora plot, the very coffee we were roasting at the time of our visit. Their facilities were immaculate and extraordinary attention to detail was paid at each stage of the production process. Baskets full of ripe cherries were everywhere and the well trained seasonal crews would pour over the harvest on the side of the road picking out any imperfection. Efforts like this continued at the mill where cherries were separated for quality at a mind boggling number of stages. We also had the opportunity to taste coffee in their cupping lab that overlooked the dry mill, and tasted some unique lots alongside old standers. Due to its reputation for quality, based in part on stunning 5 first-place wins at the Guatemala Cup of Excellence, the demand for El Injerto coffee outstrips supply. As such, the prices for their coffee at auction seem to go higher every year. Although we intend to participate in the auction as usual, we also expect to bring in an additional lot, directly from El Injerto. The details are still being finalized but, we hope to share the good news in the weeks to come.

Finally our journey brought us back south, to the beautiful colonial city of Antigua and our new partners at Finca El Valle. Over the last few years this farm has suffered terribly from the impact of the leaf rust fungus known as roya. Their production dropped to a fraction of what it once was and the Gonzalez family, owners of El Valle, hesitantly considered offers to sell their land. In the end they chose to maintain the farm that had been in the family for generations and resist the pressure of developers who are eager to build condominiums and golf courses in the area. Last year we joined together with the González family, our coffee importing partners Sustainable Harvest and fellow roaster Batdorf & Bronson to sponsor a Kickstarter campaign to help save El Valle. The campaign funded and we saw firsthand the work that was underway to revive the ailing farm. Two sections of the farm have already been replanted with plans for continued rehabilitation, plot-by-plot. It will take several years to complete the project but, the good news is yields are already improving. The Gonzalez family is also beginning to pursue variety separation and processing experimentation; they have already produced tiny test lots using the natural and honey methods with promising results. We look forward to bringing one of these special new coffees to our customers in the coming months. The highlight of the visit took place in the plant nursery, where we were invited to plant seeds in a sandy seedbed with the future intention of planting the resulting seedling in a plot to be dedicated to Equator Coffees and our friendship. It was a very touching moment and we look forward to returning to visit the new trees and hopefully help harvest them.

Visiting Guatemala in February and March provides the opportunity to see harvesting and processing in full swing at higher elevations. It is also a great time to taste fresh coffee, sometimes just days off the drying patios. The flavor of coffee at this stage is crisp, grassy and slightly astringent, not a complete picture of how the coffee will taste after it has been given a chance to rest. It is clear however which coffees taste best and we know that by the time the coffee arrives on our shore, it will have more sweetness, richness and complexity. We are thankful for the time spent with our partners at origin, tasting and talking coffee and, we look forward to the summer months when coffees from Guatemala and surrounding countries are landing and we as roasters take over.