Isn’t economy air travel glorious? Who cares! We got to escape the horrid winter cold, visit some amazing locales and meet dedicated and passionate coffee people! We flew in to Guatemala City at dusk.
Travelling with myself (Roaster) and Andy (Owner, Green Bean Buyer) this time was Brett (Ex-manager at Crafted, national barista competitor, Head of our upcoming Tasting Bar), as well as Shawn and Jay of Rooster Coffeehouse, certainly one of the best places to grab great coffee in Toronto.
The first morning we were greeted by Nicholas Hammond of CAFCOM (a supplier of Guatemalan coffee) and owner of Finca Catalan de Las Mercedes, or “Catalan” as he likes to call it. Accompanying Nicholas for a great deal of this trip was Angie, his fiance. Nicholas is 26 years old and has a degree in agricultural engineering, so he is driven and knows what he wants to achieve. A perfect fit for us here at Pilot.
The first place he took us to was a wet mill (or beneficio) that he oversees in Acatenango, called “Puerta Blanca”. I have no idea what that means. (OK it means “white door”) This is also the mill where Nicholas washes his own coffee. It mills around 1500 lbs of cherry each day. At this location and altitude (around 1500m) the coffee undergoes a 12 hour fermentation, and the drying time is around 9 days. There is not much patio space so there are also mechanical dryers, using wood as a fuel source. The pulping equipment and washing channels get covered in chalk powder during downtime to prevent the growth of bacteria. The pulp waste from the cherry is collected and given to local farmers as fertilizer.
The first thing that always strikes me when going to a wet mill is the smell. It is unmistakable and oddly comforting and difficult to describe. In any event it is always a pleasure to see what happens to coffee before it reaches your cup; the wet milling process is just one small part of a larger chain.
Next we were taken to Catalan, over 2000 meters above sea level. And let me tell you: I was instantly in love with the place. I had never seen such healthy-looking trees! And so much gesha! This is right when Nicholas told us that the 25 bags of Catalan we received this past fall was a blend of all the farm’s varieties. We had suspected as much when our initial cupping revealed bursts of jasmine unlike a typical Guatemalan coffee.
The farm is at such a high elevation that leaf rust thankfully does not pose a threat; instead frost is a risk one runs into at this height. Also there is a slightly higher risk of UV damage, but the effects of that are not fully understood; and in any event the entire farm has shade trees (as does something like 98% of all coffee grown in the country). Nicholas uses both Ingas and Gravilea for shade, and also has a few avocado trees around.
His farm is surrounded by 600 acres of natural reserve and Nicholas does his best to preserve what he can: whenever he reclaims land for more coffee, he replants trees elsewhere. He also gives portions of his land over to his employees to plant whatever crops they wish for food. Corn is most common. He has 5 year-round employees and up to 100 during harvest. A good year can see Catalan producing up to 150 70kg bags of green coffee, but you really have to wait for it: again because the coffee grows at such a height, the harvest won’t complete until April.
What we are really excited about is the massive potential at Catalan. We are interested in securing the entire lot from Nicholas this time around, and not only that, but he is also going to separate the coffee by variety! So this time we will be able to offer three coffees from the same farm: Red Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon and the aforementioned Gesha. This is a first for us and a first for Nicholas, and we are honoured to be able to join him in this journey. He has bigger plans for Catalan in the future as well: he wants to build a wet mill on site so that he will have more control over the processing, and also to experiment with fermentation, soaking, pulping and drying.