Editor's note: The following is Casey's Travelogue from MoreCoffee's trip to coffee regions in Guatemala. Casey was new to MoreCoffee! and fresh off a two year trip around the World. Part of our deal was that we would allow him to go on "expeditions" and learn about coffee regions (but on a miniscule travel budget). The story is funny and you might learn a thing or two about coffee production!
Where Do I Start?
Well, let's start with the flight out. How does someone pack for a coffee expedition? Clothes are a good thing to have. A little bit of antiseptic and band-aids. Some snacks. Passport, tickets, my mini-chess game, and business cards and I was set. My bag was small enough to bring with me on to the plane which I really like (who wants to wait around in an airport for a bag when there is so much coffee out there to try, anyways?). I took the BART (the bay area train) to the airport and from there hung out until my flight left at 11:00PM. I met a random girl on the plane who tried to smuggle her pet fish on with her. She was a consultant and was staying in San Francisco on a job and got kind of attached to her fish while she lived in a hotel there - and wanted to take him with her when she left. But the lady at the counter wouldn't let her, saying "you are not allowed to bring a cold blooded animal on the plane!", so she said she would find another airline. She returned later and checked in which a different person (with the fish secretly stowed in a bag in her jacket pocket) but before she could enter in the security area the woman from the counter before ran after her shaking and yelling, "Miss! Miss! You CAN NOT bring a cold blooded animal on the plane!!", so it got confiscated and she had to call a friend from San Jose to come pick the fish up. She was nearly in tears telling me this and I mentioned that although it was sad that she wasn't with her fish, the story was actually pretty funny. She laughed and agreed. Oh yeah, she also had narcolepsy so she would just fall asleep while talking to you. I could go on and on about this, but it has nothing to do with coffee - which is the purpose of this trip in the first place!
So I eventually landed in Guatemala city after a 4 hour layover in Atlanta. I changed some cash to Quitzales and hopped on a bus to the general direction of my hotel. I like taking the buses in countries I haven't been to before because you meet so many interesting people and you see the city from the perspective of the people actually living there. I got all checked into my hotel and what not and went out exploring the streets of Guatemala City. It's an interesting place. Colors everywhere. Every house is a different bright pastel color (orange, pink, blue, green, etc...) and the smells are almost overwhelming; Alternating wafts of spices, barbequed meat, exhaust, urine, fresh bread, roasting coffee, and a plethora of other scents all drift past your nose as you walk down the road and watch people going about there lives. Going to the market, taking their kids to school, selling stuff on the street - you name it. You quickly notice two things about Guatemala. Number one is that everyone is dressed pretty nicely. Everyone looks nice and there are a few beggars here and there, but for the most part, it's quite different from many of the poor countries I've visited before in South America and Asia. The next thing you notice is that there are police everywhere. In groups on every other street corner. Alone, patrolling the sidewalk. Driving by in cop cars. Everywhere. I asked some if it was dangerous to walk down the street and they said yes. Even in mid-day. Thieves can just pull out a gun and demand everything and people will just run away and leave you alone. They said it happens all the time. I quickly hid my camera, grabbed some food and headed back to the hotel and passed out from exhaustion. I didn't sleep on the flight and I was out of energy - a quick recharge was in order. In the morning, I got up and headed to a really nice coffee house (excellent coffee, too!) and relaxed there for a bit. They actually sold Fresh Roast coffee roasters! I asked them if they sold green beans and they didn't understand. I asked what someone would do if they bought the coffee roaster and they said the person would have to order the green beans from them then come in and pick them up. Sounded complicated. I doubt if they ever sold any - but it had to do with their theme: the coffee roastery (which is what it would translate to). After that I headed to Antigua. The bus ride was awesome. Nice loud Latin pop and colors. Colors everywhere - the buildings, the clothes of the people, the food for sale on the side of the streets. Really friendly people - I have yet to meet a Guatemalan who wasn't smiling or friendly. Lush trees and forest (or maybe jungle?) everywhere. It was great.
And then I finally arrived in Antigua - the land of coffee. It's just a 45 minute bus ride out of Guatemala City so it's pretty close. But it's a world of difference. Although it's still relatively dangerous, you can walk around most parts of town at night without any real danger. The army still patrols the roads though - but not to the magnitude of Guatemala City.
So where does one start? Not one to waste time, I asked the lady at the hotel I checked in to where all the coffee was. She said to head to the beneficio. So after throwing down my stuff, I hopped in a little motor taxi and headed toward the beneficio - which is the place where they process mature coffee fruit (for farmers that don't have the facilities themselves). I arrived at the gate. This is where a fancy business card and fluency in Spanish comes in handy. Within a few minutes I was in the office of the manager. Would he show me around? Of course! He showed me where they receive the coffee fruit from the farmers (one bay for Antigua coffee, and another for the rest) and then we followed the route to the water sorting machines, to the de-pulpers, to the fermentation tanks, then over the drying platforms, then the mill and grading machines (I'll explain all these better in my next post), and then to a special quality control machine that brings in a few thousand beans at a time and measures bean density to determine which beans are bad and discards them (for sale on the cheap to the locals). We headed to the warehouse where they store the coffee before they export it and then we ended up in the tasting room, where a guy tastes every lot that goes through the plant. He was a really friendly guy and showed me all his cool gadgets and then we did a cupping he had ready (a cupping is a professional sampling - take a look at the pictures and when I get back, I will post a video of the whole process). We talked for quite a while and I learned quite a bit. He's been sampling coffee for 26 years and sometimes has 80 different lots to try a day. Imagine that!
Joel (the Manager) told me that they would be processing a bunch of coffee cherries the next morning and that I was welcome to come back and watch the whole processing process from start to finish. Sure! Before leaving, I asked if they had any samples of defect coffee. You see, the problem is that by the time I get the coffee from the importer to the US, it's usually pretty good quality, or at least doesn't have any huge defects. I really wanted to roast some and sample it so I could pick the different kinds out. They gave me a good 5 pounds of different defect coffees. We smelled one that had absorbed a soap smell from whatever sack it was in. Green coffee absorbs odors like a sponge. It's incredible. They also gave me some roasted coffee as a gift as well as another few pounds of high quality green coffee (which I will have to roast when I get back to try out).
The next day, I headed back early in the morning and watched some farmers unload their harvest. They filled the receiving bay and while we waited for the process to start (they have to get the fresh water pumps ready for the whole deal) I went back to Marco Antonio's (the pro taster) office to sample some more coffee and chat some more. After a few hours hanging out with him and his assistant, I was told that the machines wouldn't start the processing until 2:00pm so I decided to just return the next day and hang out a bit more - sample some more coffee then treat the guys to lunch and come back to see the process. So after hitching a ride in a huge diesel coffee cherry delivery truck back to town, I'm back. Today or tomorrow I'm going to head out to the country side to check out some farms.
So my next post will have more pictures from the coffee process and a better description of Antigua (I haven't actually seen all that much as of yet). When I return, I'll put a lot more coffee info and tons of pictures of Guatemala City, Antigua, and the coffee process on the site (lots of videos too - but they are all in Spanish). Stay tuned for more cool stuff!
Well, I've been busy. I've been trying to learn as much as I can from the folks at this beneficio. This entire experience has been nearly magical. It's not every day that you get to pick the brain of a guy that has 26 years experience tasting coffee! Today I went back to the beneficio and after shaking hands with the guy with the huge shotgun at the front gate and chatting a bit, headed to the catador's (taster's) area. Marco had quite a few lots to taste today and so we chatted while he counted out the defects and sample roasted the coffees. He explained each defect and its origin and we cupped a few of them so I would know what they were like. You can usually tell immediately just by smelling the green beans, but he went out of his way to roast some for me so I could discern the defect in taste, too. Joel then gave me a tour of the green coffee processing process as the ripe coffee cherries passed through each station. When I get back home, I'll do a proper tutorial with pictures of the process. I've got lots of cool videos, too. After taking the guys out to lunch and chatting a bit more, we headed back to the beneficio where Joel called a famous farm here in Antigua to see if it would be alright if I looked around tomorrow. After making sure that I spoke Spanish, they said it would be no problem and so I will be there bright and early tomorrow morning for my private tour. Great!
So what's Antigua like? It's surrounded by volcanoes and jungle, which makes it really green and picturesque. I mentioned the colors before - they are incredible. Everything, even the buses are brightly painted with at least 30 colors. The buildings are nearly blindingly bright. The cobbled roads are clean (people come by and pick up the trash), there are motor-taxis putzing around everywhere (it's like being in a clean India!), and the people always smile and give a hearty "hola!" as you walk by. There are really old sections of the city that have been preserved - fenced off churches and buildings from hundreds of years ago still stand in a half decaying but incredibly cool state. There are nice little restaurants everywhere, with quaint little courtyards to admire while you eat. There are parks and cathedrals every few blocks with nice little benches to sit and take a break on. There are lots of white people walking around here in Antigua, too. This is THE destination in Guatemala and tons of people come here to study Spanish. I usually just zip through the town on my way to meet people so I don't notice it much.
One of the coolest aspects of developing countries is the little kids. They are just so happy and free. In developed countries, all the little kids are at home watching TV or their parents don't let them just run around like they do in countries like Guatemala (I know, I know - safety issues aside). Here you see little kids running around everywhere and loving life: kicking balls, playing tag, rolling around in the grass - all with great big smiles stretched across their faces. I love it.
So just a note: All this stuff I'm talking about with the coffee processing probably makes no sense to you. I will go into much more detail when I get back home. It will certainly make sense then.
So I got up a little too early and walked around Antigua around 6:30AM as I sipped some coffee. This really is a nice place. Little kids in uniforms walk in groups to school, laughing and joking around. The sun casts a nice shadow on the surrounding mountains, the tips of their shy peaks perpetually covered with clouds. The motor taxis zip around the central plaza more frequently and solitary gringos jog quietly past, down the streets. Old Guatemalan ladies sit on the benches in the park and smile as you walk by and ladies sit on the sidewalk surrounded by piles of newspapers for sale. Street cleaners sweep the sidewalks and plazas with huge brooms and pick up any extra trash they find lying around and a 60 year old man sells hot and steaming tamales from a little cart he pushes with ease over the cobbled streets. I buy a few for breakfast along with a loaf of bread (which he pulls from a seemingly 100 year old bag on his back).
Odors of a fresh new day drift past - freshly baked bread, roasted coffee, lush green forest and a slight hint of exhaust all twist together and intermingle; a slight damp chill nips at my cheeks. Store owners stand in the doorways of their shops and joke with each other across streets - the smile and nod as I walk by. As the sun gets higher, the calm pinks, blues, reds and greens of the buildings become more intense and vibrant - making a cup of coffee almost unnecessary.
I find myself at the bus station looking for the bus to San Miguel Due as - but they never actually say
where they are going on the bus itself: you have to ask someone or listen to the guy yelling where they are going from the door as they pass by. I ask a few guys which bus I need and they say I can wait with them. After a few minutes of chatting, the vibrantly multicolored bus pulls up, hissing and growling like a dragon ready to take off. I hop on and it does. We zip past coffee farms, large fields where 10's of people hunch over picking vegetables, modest houses, beautiful mountains - we dive deeper into La Ciudad Vieja, a much more relaxed part of Antigua. A little kid stares at me from his seat in front of me - I stick my tongue out at him and he smiles but continues staring. I finally get to La Finca Ur as (Joel had set up a meeting with them for me) and I hop out on the bus as it slows down and speeds back up without even stopping, barreling down the road to the next stop. I knock on the gate of the farm estate and a kid comes up to see what I want. After dropping a few names, he lets me in and tells me to walk straight until I get to the house and ring the bell. I do just that, walking about a quarter mile past thousands and thousands of coffee plants, ripe and ready for picking. I can hear people talking from within the foliage but can't make out what they are saying as I walk up the long straight dirt road. When I arrive to the house (a damned nice one, if I do say so myself), I greet a few nicely dressed guys talking at the front gate and ask for Isidro Valdez. He smiles and shakes my hand and says that he will be right with me, the Illy family (think Illy coffee) has just arrived and he needs to let them in. Illy?? Woa! The group piles in the courtyard of the house and we all head into a room and look around. Isidro shows us a few pictures and explains the history of his house and estate (3 generations, over 200 years old) and we all sit down and have some coffee.
I leaned over and asked one of the Illy's about this incredible book I read (which will be for sale on the website pretty soon) called Espresso Coffee. It's one of the most technical books on anything I've ever read. Really well done. An incredible book. I mention this to her and ask if it was written by one of them.
"Si, por mi hermano", she said (yes, my brother wrote it). You'd better believe I got her card and email - as well as her brother's. MoreCoffee! has got some exciting new products in the works and I have a ton of questions on the research in that book. The folks from AnaCafe (the Guatemalan Coffee Association) were also there and we chatted a bit about some books they could help me out with. I'm meeting with them in Guatemala City tomorrow. How randomly lucky, eh? I've got a personal tour of a farm with the Illy's and AnaCafe. Awesome.
So after chatting for a while and checking out the farm (they were there just to take pictures for a book about coffee from around the world) I split off with Isidro's brother, Raul and he gave me a more in-depth tour and explanation of the processes at the finca. He took me to the nursery where I saw how they cultured shade trees and bourbon coffee plants and then to the worm farm where they raise worms for compost. Then to their little ponds where they raise fish for sale at the markets. We went back to the house and hung out for a bit where he showed me letters and awards from important people and organizations and then we headed to the fields where he showed me all the plants and what not. I got some pretty great pictures and learned a lot. We then headed to the in-house beneficio and I checked out how they process coffee. It was very similar to the beneficio in Antigua - just not as modern and big. Impressive none the less, though. He showed me all the old stuff from the old sugar cane days, just rusting in the corner, waiting for when he puts together the museum he has in the works. One thing that really impressed me was how well Raul treated everyone on the farm. I've spent time with the upper class in South America and they all seemed to look down on the "hired help". Not this guy. He knew everyone's name, shook hands with everyone he spoke with, affectionately yelled out hello to the coffee pickers as they walked by and generally treated everyone like a friend. It was incredible to see. When I talked to him about it, he gave me this advice: A good boss makes a good worker. Wise words. He said they even pay for the funerals for the workers that spend quite a bit of time on the farm ("It's a few thousand Quintzales - worth every cent").
So after spending a few hours doing all this, we headed into town with a few friends of his for lunch where we ate and chatted for a few hours (and polished off a bottle of whiskey) and then headed back to the estate for more chatting and drinking (hmm...before we knew it a bottle of tequila was finished off, too). The great thing about drinking with rich people, though, is that they only have the best - and you
barely feel a thing. I snapped a few pictures of the coffee pickers bringing their coffee to the street and separating the ripe from the unripe fruit and then said goodbye to the Illy and AnaCafe group and before I knew it, it was dark - I was ready for some food and bed.
What an action packed day! These guys let a stranger into their home and I felt like family - it was incredible! It was great talking business with them, too. The coffee from this farm is award winning - you may see it on the website, soon. Take a look at some of the other pictures from the trip.
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