Our second installment of our ‘Journey to Source’ series on the blog picks up were we last left of with Jan embarking on his next Origin visit to Guatemala- a Country whose coffee farmers and workers are feeling the effects of economic and geographic conditions which have been worsening in the last several years.
Despite these conditions however, there are some farmers who have been able to adapt and invent ways in which to carry on their passion and tradition for coffee production to continue their farms.
If you want to catch up on the first leg of Jan’s trip in Honduras, you can do so here.
“After leaving Honduras, my next destination was Guatemala, where I had planned to spend two weeks. The reason why I spent more time in Guatemala was because I needed to find new suppliers for our Guatemalan Single Origin coffee. In the last number of years, Bailies have been buying a mix of conventional varieties from our long-term partner and friend Rogelio Aguirre from farm El Limonar. Unfortunately, in the last two years he has experienced problems in getting sufficient volumes due to very low labour availability in the regions, as well as high production costs. We are still going to have coffee from Rogelio this year, but sadly, just not as much as we used to.
Last year, in our Single Origin line up from Guatemala we had both El Granadillo and La Providencia from the region of Huehuetenango respectively. These are both incredibly well-run farms, but as I learned this year- they too are both facing their own challenges. Whilst at La Providencia, I took part in a very good cupping session with both Serben and Javier Palacios- whose coffee we’ve bought last year. During the cupping however, there were some heavy truths revealed about just how desperate the situation has become for the farm. Javier was telling me how difficult the conditions are and that the price of land in the area is growing significantly. He is considering selling the farm as the rising costs of production and more tempting land offers are prompting him to give up. The farm’s current situation was worsened when his coffees didn’t perform nearly as well as they did in the previous year, unfortunately placing near bottom in results from blind tasting. Despite the nature of the conversation, we had a good and honest chat about the situation, but unfortunately there were no Eureka moments that either of us could come to that might improve the situation at present.
Once leaving La Providencia with a sadness about the situation there, I went onto a slightly more positive visit at El Limonar with Rogelio Aguirre, even though as we knew, Rogelio has been facing challenges with his own farm also. We arrived quite late, so this time we didn’t have time to climb to the very top of the farm (it takes more than 2 hours fast paced to ascend). Once in daylight, Rogelio was very keen to show me his newest contraption that he had installed since my last visit. He called it his, “Cherry delivery tunnel”. He devised the machine due to the of the lack of pickers in the area. The idea Rogelio had was to build a large pipe that goes straight from the top part of the farm down to the wet mill. It is made up of over 140 pieces of 3-meter pipes. By sending cherries this way the pickers don’t have to make the round journey with each bag of the cherries, saving them time whilst also eliminating the hardest part of their job. Rogelio tested the device last year on smaller lots, to ensure that his concept would work and to also determine whether the cherries would be damaged during transport. The outcome revealed no quality difference in the final cup, which we also confirmed around the cupping table. I even got to see the tunnel in operation, and, to my surprise it was surprisingly loud! It sounded like thousands of bouncy balls rolling down a hill!
After leaving Rogelio and El Limonar, there was a definite sense of hope and a positivity at the resilience of farms like El Limonar and Rogelio’s passion and innovation that he applies to all aspects of his farm to combat many of the challenges that he and many other farmers are currently facing.
Santa Felisa was the next farm to visit. It is known as one of the most famous farms in Guatemala, and for good reason. Anabella is an incredibly professional coffee farmer, growing rare varieties on her farm and processing them in precise and controlled ways. I first came across Santa Felisa in 2016, when I was judging Cup of Excellence in Guatemala. Back then, Anabella’s natural processed Geisha came in very close second place. This was a ground-breaking feat at the time, as it was the highest scoring natural coffee in Guatemalan CoE history. In the past (and partially still in 2016) Guatemalan CoE promoted “traditional” washed Guatemalan coffees, not believing that Naturals could match the quality. Anabella proved them wrong then, and now by continuing to showcase well executed natural processed coffees that have excellent quality attributes and interesting flavour profiles. This was true this year on my visit, and I was very impressed with a number of the exemplary lots that Anabella put on the cupping table.
Another highlight for me was from my visit to Santa Ana farm and meeting Fernando, who I was introduced to by Eduardo Ambrocio (Guatemalan coffee legend and ex Anacafe Quality Controller) as I didn’t know Fernando personally. I was very impressed with his farm. Well, technically 4 farms. Fernando’s farm is split in between 4 lots, each of them has their own “farm” name despite that they are side by side and there is only one farm house and one wet mill. Fernando is relatively new to farming; with his background in telecommunications. Fernando perceives looking after the farms as his hobby and way to escape from busy life in the capital. Despite it being classed as a ‘hobby’ he is doing an extremely good job. Across the farms, he has planted about 28 different varieties and he is observing and recording the performance of each of them. Most of the lots are too small for exportable quality now, but he is hoping to find out which varieties are producing the highest quality cup profile. Once he narrows down his search for the perfect varieties, he will then replace the underperforming varieties with the good ones and scale up the production. I had a chance to taste a few varieties that are already in “production” and I was pleasantly surprised with the results already. And on top of that I was able to see a few varieties that I’ve never seen before.
My last visit was Las Nubes farm- a visit that was very pretty. After arriving, we immediately rushed to the top of the farm to see the beautiful view and sunset. It was a stunning view; we also spent time bird watching as the Quetzal birds live here in the farm. Quetzal is the official bird of Guatemala and is very rare, so it was a great opportunity. We didn’t get to see one, but we did see a toucan! (Whilst everyone was rather disappointed by not seeing a Quetzal, I was actually delighted as I absolutely adore toucans!)
Aside from the view, the farm has some constrasts. On one side it grows a lot of coffee in quite a commercial setting with very little shade. On the other side, the farm has 900 hectares of protected forest area and has incredible social programs including high quality accommodation for the pickers and workers, private school and on-farm healthcare. It was interesting to see it all and to go through the long history of the farm that dates back to 19th century. My favourite piece of historical information was that people used to pick cherries on ladders back at the beginning of 20th century! The varieties grown were very traditional (unlike today’s prevalent dwarf varieties) and were not pruned or stumped very often, which resulted in tall coffee trees that required the use of ladders to pick the higher parts of the plant.
The landscape of Guatemalan coffee production is changing, and I have to say that after my visit I am quite shocked at just how fast that is happening. Despite the high market prices this year, many farmers are overwhelmed with the challenges they are facing. Whether it’s been the lack of pickers and farm workers, coffee leaf rust or increasingly volatile climatic conditions. Splitting farms into smaller chunks and then selling these off seems more and more like a good option. The rumour is that about 8% of medium sized farms were sold off like this just last year in Huehuetenango. If this trend continues, we will witness significant changes in Guatemala that are very likely to affect the quantities produced, as well as the quality.
For this year, we managed to find some exceptional coffees during the two weeks spent in Guatemala. The logistics and contracts and shipping situation already signed and approved, some of these lots you have already been introduced to such as Guatemala El Limonar Pacamara from Rogelio. We hope to showcase more of the coffees from this trip across the rest of the summer, whilst hopefully being able to go back again to Origins such as Guatemala and continue our support and partnerships with farmers there.”