Posted by Matthew on 6/11/2023 to Countries of Origin
Ah, coffee. The magical elixir that can sharpen you up enough to say “Quetzaltenango” five times in a row without stumbling. (Try it!). That’s the rather colourful name of the region in central Guatemala from which we source our cooperative-grown coffee.
Guatemala is worth talking about because it’s such a tiny powerhouse. Not only is its coffee known for its exceptional quality, but this country of 17 million people produces almost as many beans per year as Peru, at twice the population, and at least 80% of what Mexico, a nation of 126 million, produces!
As with other Latin American coffee countries, the origins of Guatemalan cultivation are interesting. By some accounts, the Jesuit missionaries imported coffee plants to decorate their Antigua monasteries in the 18th Century—a heavenly duty for the bright bean. Others have it that German immigrants began planting coffee trees in the mid 19th Century. Whatever the case, by the early 20th Century coffee had replaced indigo (a flower whose pigment was used to dye cloth) as Guatemala's most important export, and the country was already producing and exporting some of the best coffees in the world.
Climate, altitude and volcanic activity
Guatemala has eight distinct coffee-growing regions: Antigua, Atitlán, Cobán, Fraijanes Plateau, Huehuetenango, Oriente, Nuevo Oriente and San Marcos, where our Guatemala Nahualá comes from. Each region produces coffee with its own unique taste profile.
For example, Antigua coffee is known for its heavy-bodied, chocolatey flavour with bright acidity. Huehuetenango coffee is lighter-bodied with a fruity, floral taste, and San Marcos coffee is known as earthy and nutty with a hint of stone fruit. I would say that ours is exceptionally well balanced, but more chocolatey than nutty. It’s just slightly smoky and has a spicy bright mouth feel, followed by a clean aftertaste and finish.
So what makes Guatemalan coffee so special? Climate, altitude and volcanic activity. The volcanic soil is rich in minerals, providing fertile ground for a nutrient-hungry crop. As you might imagine, Guatemala is perennially lovely and warm, which helps. But the lowlands are too hot for coffee; virtually all of it is produced at least 1,000 metres above sea level and some of it around 2,000 metres up. Naturally, Guatemala is blessed with numerous mountain ranges. The altitude slows the coffee plant's growth, which allows the beans to develop more complex flavours.
There is more to it than that, of course. Guatemala’s coffee farmers are dedicated to producing the best possible product, and many of them use sustainable farming practices that help to protect the environment and ensure the long-term viability of their industry. But that part is a recent story—it wasn’t always so idyllic.
Big bump in the road: a 35-year war
A big bump in the road for the Guatemalan coffee industry (and Guatemalans in general) was the civil war that started in 1960 and lasted right through to 1996. The war, ironically enough, came on the heels of a redistribution of land from large landholders of European descent to landless peasants, mostly indigenous.
Landowners rebelled, war broke out and the coffee industry suffered. The redistribution plan ultimately worked, by the way—our shade-grown, Certified Organic, Fair Trade coffee comes from Cooperativa Nahualá, a group of 126 families working together to achieve a living wage, reinvest in their farms, and support scholarship programs and reforestation efforts in the Ixtacapa River area.
Today coffee is the country’s second-biggest export after bananas and before palm oil. Since its production is largely artisanal in Guatemala, the coffee industry employs a lot of people (125,000 families), making it perhaps the most important source of income for the greatest number of people of any national industry.
In addition to the civil war, Guatemala also faced challenges from coffee rust, a fungus that attacks coffee plants and can devastate entire crops. In 2012, a coffee rust outbreak caused production to take a 15 per cent dive. The industry quickly snuffed out the rust and rebounded; coffee is once again thriving.
Guatemalan coffee is as good as it gets. With its rich history, unique taste profiles, and dedicated farmers, it's no wonder that aficionados around the world have fallen in love with this delicious brew. So the next time you're sipping a cup of Guatemalan gold, take a moment to appreciate the dedication and hard work that went into producing that perfect cup.