Guatemala

Guatemalan coffee has been a staple of Melbourne Coffee Merchants’ coffee offering since the beginning, and it is one of our most treasured origins.

We love the distinctly different and delicious flavour profiles that we are able to find in Guatemala, which are a result of the incredible range of microclimates that exist across each of the country’s coffee-growing regions. We have been lucky enough to work with many of the same estates in Guatemala since 2008, and every year we’ve been impressed with the quality and consistency of the coffee produced there.

Overview of Coffee in Guatemala

For over a hundred years, coffee has helped fuel the economy of Guatemala, and today the country is the eighth biggest exporter of coffee in the world. Nearly all the coffee produced in Guatemala is Arabica and processed using the washed method, thanks to the abundant water supply. Some specialty producers are starting to experiment with other processing methods, too, such as natural and honey processing methods

Coffee accounts for 40% of Guatemala’s agricultural export revenue, and it is estimated that there are over 125,000 producers of coffee across the country.  Many of these are smallholders, who are either working independently or formally affiliated with a cooperative or growers association.  There are also many larger-scale family-run estates in Guatemala, which have a long history of coffee farming and technical expertise that has been passed down over three or four generations. Often these families have had the scale and resources to refine and evolve their farming practices over time, and many have their own wet mills and in some cases their own drying facilities, enabling them a great deal of control over the way the coffee is processed.

For most of the producers we work with, coffee is more than just a cash crop. It is a family tradition and a great source of pride; something they are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about and deeply invested in.

Guatemalan coffee producers are very fortunate to have an incredibly strong system of support provided to them by Anacafé, the Guatemalan National Coffee Association, which promotes the highest standards in every aspect of coffee production. It is one of the most open, transparent and well-run coffee organisations we’ve come across, and it has some of the best cuppers in the country at its lab in Guatemala City.

Anacafé provides producers with technical assistance and education, enabling growers across the country to access knowledge about different approaches to growing coffee, and how to improve their quality of output and yield. The organisation invests heavily in research, advocates for infrastructure improvements within the country and provides extension services to producers, such as soil, water and leaf analysis (to help farmers ensure adequate nutrition and fertilisation) and sensory analysis (providing feedback on samples submitted by producers). Anacafé also helps market Guatemalan coffees nationally and internationally and has a department dedicated to promoting social development programs within the coffee sector, with a focus on food security, nutrition and health.

Key Coffee-Growing Regions

Coffee is grown across the country in 20 of Guatemala’s 22 departments. High altitudes (1,300m-2,000m above sea level), combined with rich volcanic soil (from the 35+ volcanoes across the Guatemalan highlands) and more than 300 microclimates mean that Guatemala is able to produce exceptional coffee with a wide range of flavours, which vary depending on where it’s grown.

98% of coffee in Guatemala is shade-grown. The shade trees provide nutrition, prevent erosion and offer important nourishment, infusing the soil with nitrogen and nutrients via the organic matter created by their decaying leaves. In addition, the shade trees moderate the intensity and quality of sunlight, helping to regulate the coffee trees’ respiration and photosynthesis, and protecting the coffee roots and leaves from sun damage. The shade cover also allows the coffee beans to mature more slowly, enhancing the resulting sweetness, acidity and complexity in the cup.

Guatemala coffee plantations cover more than 270,000 hectares, with an estimated 38 million shade trees and coffee plants making up 6.4% of the nation’s forest cover. These coffee ‘forests’ are typically located on steep mountain ranges, in important water recharge areas, and help to protect the country’s ecological health, aiding the preservation of biodiversity in these areas, protecting watersheds and helping to prevent erosion.

There are eight distinct Guatemalan coffee-growing regions that have been defined by ANACAFE based on cup profile, climate, soil and altitude. They are Antigua, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Atitlán, Acatenango, Cobán, Fraijanes and Nuevo Oriente.  We buy coffee from all over Guatemala, but the three regions we work in the most are as follows:

ANTIGUA

The Antigua valley is bounded by three giant volcanoes – Agua (Water), Fuego (Fire) and Acatenango. Of the three, Fuego is the only one still active. On many visits we have been in town when the volcano erupted, adding some chaos (in the short term, the ash can stick to the leaves of coffee trees nearby and prevent the trees from photosynthesising), but ultimately providing mineral-rich ash for Antigua’s soil. This volcanic matter helps the soil retain its moisture, offsetting the region’s lower rainfall.

Coffee from Antigua is perhaps Guatemala’s best-known and most celebrated and, as such, typically attracts higher prices than coffee from other regions. In 2000, Antigua received a Denomination of Origin to recognise the region as distinct, and to prevent other coffees from being marketed as Antiguan.

Coffees from Antigua tend to be heavier bodied, with notes of dark chocolate, brown sugar and red apple.  Some of our favourite coffees come from this region, including Santa Clara, La Soledad and Puerta Verde.

 

HUEHUETENANGO

Huehuetenango (or HueHue as it is often called) is in the west of Guatemala, near the border of Mexico. It is an extremely remote area, and very ethnically diverse. This non-volcanic region has hot dry winds that protect the trees from frost and allow the coffee to be cultivated up to 2,000m above sea level, producing exceptional quality coffees that often place in the top three of the annual Cup of Excellence competition.

Coffees from HueHue tend to be incredibly floral and complex, and very fruit-driven. Some of our favourite coffees come from HueHue, including La Ponderosa, Calahute and La Maravilla.

 

COBÁN & BAJA VERAPAZ

These neighbouring municipalities are known for their lush rainforest and cool and very wet climate – with an annual precipitation of 3,500m, and regular rainfall throughout the year. This results in a very slow maturation time for the coffees (which can help produce very sweet and complex flavour profiles), with staggered flowering and ripening requiring producers to make as many as ten passes throughout the season to ensure only the ripest cherries are selected.

The wet climate can provide a challenge for coffee drying, and the region’s remoteness also provides some barriers for producers. With great care, however, some truly exceptional coffees are produced in this region, including Santa Isabel and Coban, and San Jeronimo in Baja Verapaz.

MCM and Guatemala

In Guatemala, we have direct sourcing relationships with several producers, many of whom we have been lucky to work with for over a decade. These include Ricardo Zelaya (Santa Clara, Jauja, San Agustin, Puerta Verde), Rony and Lucia Asensio (La Soledad, Santa Ana) and Luis Valdes (Santa Isabel). All of these individuals are dedicated to quality and produce exceptional coffee every year, and we feel very privileged to represent their coffees in Australia.

In addition, we are also fortunate to work with Eduardo Ambrocio of Prisma Coffee. Eduardo worked at Anacafe for 2 decades and was pivotal in setting up the Cup of Excellence in Guatemala in 2001, headed up the Quality Control department for many years. We first met him in 2010 during a Cup of Excellence competition, and fell in love with the way he described, with infectious enthusiasm, the coffees that he adored, and shared stories of the people behind these coffees, demonstrating his respect and admiration for their hard work and expertise. Eduardo set up Prisma in 2013 with his wife Lucia and brother Edwin. The name is inspired by many bright colours (flavours) of coffee – and together the trio are focused on sourcing and representing the very best coffees that Guatemala has to offer, and, in particular, supporting many small producers from more remote areas of Guatemala, get access to quality-focused buyers who are willing to pay a premium for quality.

 

Through Eduardo, we have been able to begin to establish long term relationships with some fantastic small producers in some more remote areas of Guatemala including Baja Verapaz and Huehuetenango.

Our sourcing guidelines in Guatemala are as follows:

  • Our purchasing decisions are driven by which coffees taste the best on the table. We cup all of the coffees blind and look for coffees that are sweet, clean and distinctive.
  • Our selections are based on a scoring system, and we buy coffees that are a minimum of 85 points or above. Most come from single producers, and some come from producer groups (like San Jeronimo).
  • We travel to Guatemala to select our coffees (every year, however 2020 was an exception due to COVID). Visiting each year enables us to calibrate and give feedback directly to the producers we work with, and learn more about the coffees, how they are processed, and the challenges and complexities that each of the producers’ face.
  • All of the lots we select go through a rigorous QC process. In addition to cupping and scoring each lot over a 6 month period (to assess how it ships, lands and ages over time) we also record the water activity and moisture levels.  All of this information is shared with our producing partners, along with where the coffee is sold, and how it is received and presented by our customers.