Earlier this month I had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala. It was a whirlwind experience that involved visiting a couple of farms we buy from and attending the International Women in Coffee Association’s convention in Guatemala City. It was an especially sweet visit for me because I was able to get full insight into coffee horticulture, from seedling in nursery to finished coffee bean ready for export. Along the way I made some friends in our producer partners and other passionate coffee industry people.
I traveled with Equator’s VP of Operations Maureen McHugh, and together we learned about each farm’s unique and personal story. The first farms we visited were Finca La Merced and Finca El Retiro in the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala. Juan Luis Barrios is the farm owner and has embraced the complexities of running his family’s 180-yr old farm. His knowledge and dedication to these farms was evident as he took us on two beautiful hikes. He stopped to show us the oldest trees on the farm (100 years old!), plans for growing new varietals in specific zones, and his wet mill, which was designed by the Guatemalan coffee producer organization Anacafe. He has the workings on the farm down to a science, even when there are new issues that come up every day. I asked Juan Luis what a normal day looked like for him and he responded “Every day is different. There are no normal days when you grow coffee.
It’s all about diversity on Juan Luis’s farm. He grows Pine trees on his farm that are indigenous to Guatemala, and harvests them for lumber. He says this additional income source supports operations of the coffee portion part of the farm. The family is also committed to supporting the educational centers of the local community, San Martin Jilotepeque, and they have raised funds and donated money to build a library and other infrastructure at two local elementary schools.
The second farm we visited, Finca El Carmen, is owned and operated by another Juan, Juan Jose Mejia. Juan Jose is a 3rd generation coffee farmer and has a strong DIY spirit. He kept us on our toes as he joked and took us on a brisk up-hill hike of his farm on the slopes of the Acatenango Volcano, a region roughly an hour north of Antigua. Juan Jose’s farm has several distinctive traits that differentiate it from other farms. He is very meticulous and requires four separate pickings of each tree on the farm, in order to pick only the ripest cherries, and specifically a color that is known as “Juan’s red,” not light red and not dark red, but a medium-red ripeness. He directs his pickers with specific instructions so there is a low margin of error and quality and consistency of the harvest are maintained from the beginning.
Juan Jose has separated out a total of 26 unique varieties on his farm, which is an incredible feat. His wet mill operates in the traditional Guatemalan way of processing coffee through a minimal bells-and-whistles disc depulper. After the fruit is removed, the parchment coffee is fermented for a period of 4-5 days in order to remove the mucilage and to produce the proper concentration of enzymes. Parchment coffee is then washed again and separated using a long concrete channel with smaller and smaller blocks of wood that divide the coffee by density before leading to the drying patio.
Juan Jose is in love with his farm and proud to grow such high quality coffee and told me he hoped to pass it on to his youngest daughter who is 7 years old, who he referred to as “Jefe” or boss. Both producers we met were open, warm and hospitable; they fed us and told their family histories and expressed their pride and commitment to the quality of their coffee. I carry each producer’s story and hopes for their coffee now with me, and in a few months their stories will be carried through to your morning cup of coffee.