Trip report – Guatemala

The Guatemalan coffee industry is steeped in tradition. With famous growing regions like Antigua and Huehuetenango, high altitude, mountainous regions and volcanic soil, the coffee consuming world loves Guatemalan coffee. Guatemalan coffee is grown at privately owned estates and to a lesser extent, at small-holder farms. There is very little experimentation with processing as the typical Guatemalan flavour profile is sought after by the coffee roasting and drinking communities. With consumption growing and supply dwindling, a lot of specialty quality Guatemalan coffee is being bought before it has even been processed and dried. This means that having a long term relationship with farmers is the best way to secure good coffee year after year. Guatemala is a dangerous country, in which drug cartel involvement is ever present. Estates are paying for security guards to walk around the farm’s perimeter to try and deter theft.

Antigua and Huehuetenango are 2 of the most famous coffee growing regions in the world. The quality and consistency of coffees from these areas are unsurpassed. In fact, a few producers that we spoke to in these regions had already sold their whole harvest of coffee, before the coffee had been processed and dried. This says something about the consistency of quality from this area.

A large proportion of Guatemala’s specialty coffee comes from privately owned estates. A very small amount of these estates are experimenting with different forms of processing and varietal planting. These experimental farms are rapidly growing in popularity and are selling their most unique and tasty lots of coffee through online auction systems (e.g. El Injerto Estate and Santa Felisa Estate). The majority of Guatemala’s specialty quality coffee is simply washed and sun-dried, the traditional way. To get consistent supply of coffee from specialty coffee farmers, long term relationships must be built. If the farmer can sell their coffee to a long term customer, rather than taking the risk of drying and processing their coffee, then trying to sell it to the coffee market, they will.

Cartels use the coffee industry to launder their money. Farmers are offered premium prices (sometimes more than double the market value) for their coffee, regardless of quality. This coffee is bought in cash by the cartels, then sold to the local market, sometimes at a loss. When the coffee has been sold, the cartels have a traceable, ‘legitimate’ income. This may sound like a win-win situation because farmers are getting high prices for their coffee. The reality is that if cartels continually buy coffee at inflated prices, the quality of coffee will drop. Cartels don’t care about quality, so farmers will do everything they can to maximise the quantity of coffee they have available to sell. This means less sorting and grading. If the quality of coffee drops, the farmers lose their legitimate buyers, and if cartels know that they are the only customer, they will drive prices down to well below market value. This is not a good situation.

The coffee farming community in Guatemala is aware of the potential growth in world consumption, so new areas are being planted with coffee. New Oriente and Acatenango are two of the ‘new’ growing regions that are producing specialty grade coffees. Farmers that have successful coffee estates are expanding their farmable land and are planting new varieties to prepare for the specialty market, which seems to be growing. Hopefully this means more great coffee in coming years.