If you are a java lover, chances are, you have tasted some of the coffee Guatemala has to offer.
With a long history of coffee production, this Central American country establishes itself as a coffee hub for its delicious, complex flavors produced throughout its coffee-growing region.
From Lake Atitlan to Huehuetenango to Antigua, the coffees grown in the country vary in acidity, body, and flavor. Let's take a trip through the coffees of Guatemala and learn about its coffee production.
History of Guatemala Coffee
It's not known exactly how the plant ended up in Guatemala, but many believe Jesuit missionaries brought coffee along with Catholicism when they arrived in the mid-18th century.
At that time, Guatemala's economy fueled itself from its cochineal and indigo dye industry. The development of artificial dyes that could be produced cheaply in the 1800s sounded the death knell for the natural dyeing industry.
Guatemala's government cast about for a new industry that could underpin its economy and turned to the coffee cherry.
Although the country did not have a culture of enjoying roasted coffee, thanks to government support, coffee farms began to flourish in the mid-19th century. By 1859, Guatemala had planted over 500,000 coffee trees around the country.
The first shipment of Guatemalan coffee beans to leave the Central American country was on a ship bound for Europe soon after. Antigua and the area around Lake Atitlan were among the first to cultivate coffees for sale.
Seeing an opportunity, the Guatemalan government began appropriating communal land held by the Mayan people and handing it over to independent farmers.
By 1880, there was virtually no communal land left, and coffee accounted for 90 percent of the country's exports. Seeing the potential for profit, foreign companies moved in to buy farms in the growing regions and create more extensive plantations.
This situation made things difficult for smaller growers who could not compete on a larger scale. This disparity continued for 100 years, but in the late 20th century, things finally began to improve for smaller producers of the region.
Power in Numbers
Small growers realized they could band together to protect their interests. There is now an organization of 20,000 smaller growers who market their product through a company called the Federación de Pequeños Productores de Café de Guatemala (also known as FEDECOCAGUA R.L., translated as the Federation of Small Producers of Guatemalan Coffee).
Following in the footsteps of Colombia, its coffee powerhouse neighbor to the south who had successfully started a coffee association just a few years earlier, Guatemala established its national association in 1960. Anacafé (Asociacion Nacional del Café) is a vehicle for the promotion of the Guatemala coffee industry.
The association has created a Guatemalan Coffees brand, identifying eight coffee regions, which we will discuss in more detail later in this article.
Anacafé publishes a coffee magazine, represents Guatemala at the International Coffee Organization, and has created labs to analyze soil, water, and coffee plants.
They also provide the people of the region with inexpensive soil testing and have started a foundation that supports the children of coffee farmers, providing those from remote areas with teachers.
From the late 19th century until 2011, Guatemala was consistently one of the world's top five coffee producers. The Central American country has dropped a little in the rankings (it was 10th in 2018), but it still has 130,000 farmers in the business.
In recent years, however, declining coffee prices has driven many independent farmers out of business, forcing many to leave the country entirely. Migration to the United States has increased, due primarily to the fact that it is becoming more and more challenging to make a living growing coffee in Guatemala.
We're going to take a look at what is unique about coffee from Guatemala, but first, it's essential to understand some basics about the beans and the trees from which they come.
What Makes a Good Cup of Coffee?
The roast of a coffee and the preparation method you choose once you've brought it home, all contribute to the quality of a cup of coffee. But if you've bought poor-quality coffee, there isn't much you can do to salvage it. What, then, makes a good coffee bean?
Coffee can grow in many different types of soil – but that doesn't mean that every soil type is the best for growing coffee. The absolute best soil for growing coffee is volcanic.
Volcanic Earth comes packed with essential nutrients for coffee trees, including boron, calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. The well-draining ground is a bonus, as coffee trees need a consistent supply of water that doesn't pool around their roots.
Coffee experts agree that coffee grown at higher altitudes are generally superior to those grown closer to sea level. This notion might seem counter-intuitive since fruit-producing plants need warmth and sunlight to flower. Higher elevations bring lower temperatures and, often, more clouds that block the sun's rays. The cooler temperatures actually work to the coffee plant's benefit, slowing down the growth of the leaves, and forcing the plant to put its energy into bean production. This extra attention results in coffees with better flavors.
We all know that fresh water is necessary for plant growth. At least 60 inches of rain for 8-10 months out of the year is required to grow the best coffee plants.
With its mountainous topography, numerous volcanoes, and tropical climate, it is no wonder that Guatemala has the ideal conditions to produce top-notch coffee.
Guatemala has several regions that meet all the ideal conditions. Coffee trees like high altitude; a moderate climate; rich, volcanic earth; consistent rainfall and sunshine. Guatemala's tropical climate and long wet season support excellent bean growth. The regions of Antigua, Acatenango, Atitlan, Coban, Huehuetenango, Fraijanes Plateau, San Marcos, and Nuevo Oriente. Each region produces coffees that leave distinctive flavor profiles in the cup.
Guatemalan Coffee Regions
If you've read anything about Guatemalan coffees, you may have read that they tend to be sweet with notes of chocolate. While this is true of many Guatemalan coffees, there is a vast range of flavors with varying levels of body profiles produced in the regions.
Antigua is probably the best-known region producing Guatemalan coffees. Flanked by multiple volcanoes, Antigua dirt is among the best in the world for growing coffee, incorporating a high proportion of organic matter.
Sitting at 4600-5600 feet above sea level, Antigua gets heavy rainfall and stable humidity. Drinkers of Guatemala Antigua coffee experience an excellent flavor profile with full body and a bright, apply acidic taste as well as deep chocolate and some floral notes.
Shade-grown near the slopes of Fuego Volcano, the coffee grown here never has to worry about the soil quality. The volcano is almost always active, providing the land with a steady supply of the nutrients coffee trees like best.
The Acatenango Valley region is less than 20 miles from Antigua but is a good deal higher at 6500 feet above sea level. The harvest from Acatenango has a heady aroma with the flavor of grapefruit, syrup, and almonds.
Volcanic soil abounds in Guatemala, and Atitlan is no exception. Not far from Guatemala City, and around Lake Atitlan, at 5100 feet, Atitlan stakes its claim. There are many coffee farms in this warm, damp climate, all producing bold, balanced, complex coffees with notes of spice, chocolate, and fruit, especially cherries.
Sitting between 4300 and 5000 feet, the rainforest of Cobán is rainy 8 to 10 months out of the year, with an annual rainfall of 118-128 inches. Cobán is nearly always cloudy, thanks to winds off the Atlantic Ocean. Coffee from this region is complex: a medium body with mild acidity and flavor notes associated with wine.
One of the few coffee-growing areas of Guatemala without volcanic soil, Huehuetenango, is at exceptionally high elevation – up to 11,800 feet above sea level. Its altitude makes it one of the driest coffee growing regions in the world, and the moderate climate means it is also frost-free.
Though it doesn't get much rainfall, rivers and streams bless this area of Guatemala, keeping the soil hydrated. Huehuetenango coffee has flavor notes of wine and spice.
Thanks to volcanic ash, this plateau is rich in minerals that produce excellent growing conditions. The coffee is grown between 4000 and 5000 feet above sea level with beautiful weather and temperatures around 70 degrees year-round.
Thanks to moderately humid air and steady rainfall, the farms of the Fraijanes Plateau offer a brew profile of medium acidity, a full-body, and a pleasant fragrance.
San Marcos is the warmest and wettest coffee growing region in Guatemala. With two volcanoes nearby, its soil is ideally suited to farming. The humidity here ranges from 70 to 80 degrees, and the elevation is 4600-6000 feet. These beans yield a pleasant nutty cup with low acidity and floral notes, depending on the roast.
Nuevo Oriente has a proud tradition of coffee cultivation by small farmers. At an elevation of 4300 to 5000 feet, the area is rainy and cloudy, creating moist conditions that coffee beans love. The soil contains plenty of nutrient-rich metamorphic rock. All of these conditions add up to a very smooth, low-acid coffee.
You might find designations of Hard Bean or Strictly Hard Bean on your package of Guatemala coffee. Hard Bean coffee plants are certified to be grown in a region between 4000 and 4500 feet above sea level. Strictly Hard Bean coffee is guaranteed to have been grown at elevations above 4500 feet and is considered the best quality coffee from Guatemala.
You may also find Guatemalan coffee designated as E.P. (European Preparation), meaning that the beans have been sorted by hand to ensure only the highest quality make it into your package.
Want to learn even more about beans? Keep reading.
It's all about the bean
Guatemala produces mostly Arabica beans, specifically, four different cultivars.
Typica: Typica trees are taller than other cultivars, yet their bean harvest is lower. Farmers put up with this because Typica trees can be grown in more places than other trees, plus their beans make delicious coffee.
Bourbon: The Bourbon tree was initially developed on Reunion Island (formerly known as Bourbon Island) by the French in the 18th century. A farmer can harvest up to 30 percent more coffee cherries from a Bourbon tree, which is larger than a Typica. Bourbon beans have a rich, chocolatey flavor profile, and their natural sweetness carries flavors of fruit.
Caturra: Discovered in Caturra, Brazil, this bean is a mutation of the Bourbon bean, produced from a shorter tree. This Caturra tree thrives better in Colombia than it does in its homeland as it requires a lot of maintenance, but has a yield similar to the Bourbon. Its harvest produces a lighter cup of coffee with bright acidity and low to medium body.
Catuai: This tree is a cross between Caturra and another cultivar, the Mundo Novo, which is not grown in Guatemala. Brazilian scientists created the tree in the 1950s in a quest to come up with a smaller tree that could be planted more densely and was resistant to pests.
Catuai trees are short and bushy with a high yield. The beans can taste bitter; however, if the people cultivating this coffee, know what they are doing; however, Catuai coffee is a nice dark roast variety.
In addition to these Arabica cultivars, coffee grown in Guatemala does include Robusta beans. However, they make up less than 2 percent of the overall coffee production. Robusta trees are grown at lower altitudes than Arabicas. Because the coffee beans are less finicky, producers with farms at lower elevations can plant the trees to make in-roads into the coffee industry.
Guatemala's climate is wet and humid, so its producers use the washed coffee method to process the coffee. The washed (or "wet process") method, employed before roasting the bean, produces the highest quality coffees.
After farmers harvest the fresh coffee cherries, they remove the beans and their surrounding mucilage (a sticky substance that is responsible for coffee's sweetness) from the outer skin.
The beans and mucilage are then fermented for a day or two until the beans are no longer sticky. The fermentation process cultivates the oils and sugars that give the coffee its unique taste. Then the beans are washed and dried before being roasted.
Best way to drink Guatemala coffees
There is no one best way to brew these delicious beans. With their range of body and flavors, Guatemala coffees are versatile enough to support your favorite preparation methods. Whether you prefer cold brew, drip coffee, pour-over, French press or espresso, sweet florals, or dark roasted varieties, Guatemalan coffee have you covered.
Has this guide intrigued you enough to try out some Guatemalan coffee on your next trip to your city coffee shop? You don't need to travel to Lake Atitlan or Antigua to enjoy a cup of sweet organic Guatemalan coffee.
Just ask your barista what Guatemalan brands are on offer and enjoy a trip through the flavors of the country.
Or you can brew up your roast coffees at home - Amazon offers many options. Whether you choose Huehuetenango, Antigua, or any other Guatemalan coffee growing region - the list is long. Which one will you experience first, and which will you leave for another day?