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Guatemala

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.

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Parts 1,2,3

Okay, there was no commotion, other than the sounds of the mill. Had you going though, didn’t I?

Now to the guns. At another part of the Serben compound we got to see their cupping lab. Inside were two vintage Probat roasters that looked awesome and steampunk. In this lab the staff roast, grind and cup the various coffees they receive in order to determine cup characteristics and potential defects. Just before we left I learned why there is so much security, though it should have been obvious by now: coffee is a hot commodity, especially in locations where a lot of it is concentrated, like a dry mill. It is not entirely uncommon for tractor trailers flush with bags of coffee to be hijacked by bandits brandishing assault rifles, the drivers shot and tossed by the side of the road. That stolen coffee ends up sold on the black market. In order to prevent such attacks, or at least to reduce them, mill owners have had to spend a lot on security. Now a lot of trucks are equipped with GPS, and if they are immobile for more than 60 seconds, the mill calls the drivers to inquire why. They travel in convoys of at least 3 trucks to better their chances of arriving at port alive. In response, the bandits (which some believe actually have the support of corrupt local police) have upped the ante and have started to raid the dry mill in the middle of the night, killing guards and stealing tons of coffee. This is why the mill looks like a maximum security prison from the outside; but rather than trying to prevent escape, they are trying to prevent people from getting in.

The final full day in Guatemala we visited the HQ of ANACAFE for an awesome lunch and a tour of their state of the art cupping facilities. Then we were off to one of Unitrade’s retail cafes for a pick-me-up, during which a short woman with a green t-shirt rubbed up against me and stole my camera (I was under the impression that I was hot stuff, but really it was just theft. Meh.). Not to be discouraged because everyone else on the trip has pictures, we departed to Unitrade’s offices for a tour and a cupping of regional coffees from Guatemala. For some reason there was some kind of caged owl in their parking lot.

And thus ends the overly verbose account of our trip to origin. Minus the theft, I would recommend an origin trip to pretty much anyone – not just coffee professionals. It is an altogether different and I think more enriching experience than a resort trip. With the dynamic locations, and dust, and coffee pulp, and wildlife, and education, and the kids, and the beer, and not to forget the discussions with our tripmates, I have grown and learned more than I thought possible; I also am hungry to learn even more and to continue to expand my horizons. The main thing I think I will take away from this trip? To not allow strange women rub up against me, in public at least. Kidding! It is the awareness that in coffee, and in specialty coffee in particular, we are all linked in a chain from seedling to cup; that we all, for the moment, occupy certain links in that chain; and that by increasing dialogue and education we can strengthen these links and even begin to transcend them – coffee drinkers, roasters and baristas become farmers, farmers become cuppers, roasters and coffee drinkers.  We are all partners in the process.

Continued from part 1 – The next day we had the opportunity to visit two wet processing mills and one farm in the Nuevo Oriente region. The first mill, El Boqueron, was a large, impressive commercial mill. They receive huge amounts of coffee and when we arrived the patios were practically overflowing with parchment, not to mention their mechanical dryers were going non-stop. In fact, we were told that they had too much coffee – some of it was beginning to turn all moldy and gross. Anyway, since we had already been to a wet mill, it was easier to understand what was going on, albeit on a much larger scale. Their mechanical dryers were housed in a very dusty, very loud building; in Guatemala most specialty coffee is patio-dried while commercial and domestic coffee is put through mechanical drying.

Next stop was an epic journey in rugged Toyota Hiluxes up the bumpiest terrain my ass has ever had the misfortune of encountering, past a beautiful and very stinky sulphurous lake to the heavenly El Retiro Estate, a villa nestled between 5 farms amongst mountainous forests and wildlife. After a brief tour of farmer José Herrarte Osante’s villa and a light lunch, we headed back to the pickups for a more leisurely trip to one of his “farms”. It is difficult to call it a farm because it looked just like a forest. The coffee trees were dwarfed by 400-year-old shade trees that provided a towering, lush green canopy. There is no “managed shade” here. Mr. Osante does not plant trees on his Rainforest Alliance-Certified farm – they grow naturally. If one happens to fall he does not have it moved; it will provide habitat for the creatures residing there and eventual fertilizer for other trees. In addition to this, he showed us quite a few coffee trees that have been in production for over 60 years! Most farms re-plant trees after about 10 years after their production drops off. What I

remember the most about this farm is how tranquil and quiet it was. Like stepping back in time to Jesus riding a velociraptor. Or Ferngully. It was like that but more awesome.

Then Mr. Osante took us to his very own wet mill. It was a much more modest operation than El Boqueron, but just as impressive. He had beans of differing quality on different patios, and it was quite illuminating. The specialty beans were a gleaming white-tan colour while the commercial beans were specked with black and green. Then he took us through the workings of his mill (he had started using more water-efficient eco-pulpers) and revealed that he was also in the process of building his own dry mill and applying for an export license. He seemed to be very eager to step up his game and to try new things in order to improve the quality of his coffee. He could be considered a good candidate for a direct relationship. A girl can dream!

On the way out we spied some more construction going on, in addition to the dry mill. In a clearing not too far from the drying patios I saw some raised African drying tables being constructed. Perhaps Mr. Ossante wishes to experiment with Honey Process or Natural Coffee? Only time will tell.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I don’t answer the above question but instead take you to a very special school in Acatenango.