Guatemala is known to travellers for many things: ancient Mayan ruins, beautiful beaches, sprawling jungles and cheap Spanish lessons. However to the international community, aside from bananas and the odd textile, Guatemala is known for one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. Coffee.
While exploring the villages around Lake Atitlan high in the Guatemalan highlands, we visited the tiny town of San Juan la Laguna for a tour of La Voz coffee co-operative. Certified organic back in 1992, they know what they’re doing and they do it well.
The Guatemala Coffee Tour
Arriving mid-morning, a gentleman approaches us asking in broken English if we’re looking for a tour; “Absolutely” we say, and ask if it’s possible in English. He tells us no problem and asks for us to wait a few minutes while he contacts the appropriate guide; though it’s clear by his multiple attempts at a phone call that it probably isn’t going to happen.
Shortly later, he returns wearing a vest and name tag, laughing, Lucas says he’ll be our guide for the morning. It turned out quite fine actually, between his minor English and our little Spanish, we managed to translate nearly everything – and get a free language lesson included!
Into the Fields
The next couple of hours are spent touring some 150 hectares of Arabica plants, each plot owned by one of 80 different contributing families.
One thing that I found quite interesting is how the farmers incorporate other plants that can be put to beneficial use. Flowers are needed to encourage pollination, but instead of simply planting flowers, avocado and banana trees are used, and all of the fruit is shared among the families.
The fertilizer is all manure produced by the local animals, Lucas was very proud of and couldn’t help reiterate many times how organic the farm was. Probably the most fascinating part of the entire tour was tasting a fresh, ripe berry from the plant. It was absolutely delicious, almost like a slightly under-ripe cherry, so next time you’re reading that bag of hipster coffee from your local cafe and it reads “Notes of Cherry” – it’s not bullshit!
Before heading back to the actual processing facility in town, Lucas asked if we wanted to see the bees. Of course we did. This was the only point where I seriously regretted wearing flip-flops. While nothing happened, wandering forty or so feet through the bush in ankle-deep twigs and leaves was just begging for a scorpion sting.
Reaching the bees, nothing was dissimilar to anything back home, aside from the fact that the hives were a little more thrown together, and like many other little bonuses for the local growers, a constant supply of free organic honey.
Processing the Fresh Coffee Beans
As soon as we arrive back in San Juan, an elderly man passes us with a 60kg bag of berries on his back, he had brought them over two kilometres from high in the hills, and does this trip multiple times daily! And you like to complain about your cubical… Shortly after, we’re walked through the processing facility which is completely outdoors. The berries are sorted first by hand, separating the good (red) berries from the lesser quality (green) ones.
The berries then pass through a mechanical separator that not only further separates the berries, but crushes the skin, exposing the bean inside. The beans are then fermented for 36 hours before being rinsed and laid out to dry on large mats in the sun, being raked every hour for five days. The beans are then packaged and shipped to Guatemala City for roasting and exportation. The second class – though still quality – don’t gain enough money in export, so they are cycled back like so many other things, into the local community.
Sampling the Finished Product
Before leaving we simply couldn’t do a tour of a coffee plantation without sampling their fine product; so they roast small batches for use in their attached cafe. Kylee enjoyed an Americano while I sipped on a cappuccino. Now by no means am I a coffee connoisseur, but I enjoy a good quality cup from time to time, and in complete truth, this was one of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had.
Check out the video here!