Guatemala is one of the world’s top exporters of high grade coffee, and the second highest exporter of coffee in general in Central America. So, it’s hard not to take part in the coffee culture while here.
We therefore decided to spend a morning with a local farmer and a translator, and went into the fields where the farmer’s family has been growing coffee for generations. The family is now part of a cooperative, which helps the farmers share their coffee with the world while also providing them with the necessary loans for more plants or more land. We were more than happy to support the cooperative by asking for a tour of their process.
The Coffee Making Process
Step 1: You Need a Coffee Plant. The first step is growing a coffee shrub. Farmers do this by harvesting a ripe “cherry” from an already grown coffee tree. They pick the cherries that look the most red from the center of a branch, squeeze out the coffee beans inside the fruit by hand, and let them grow for 6-8 weeks in water at home.
(Image from Rogers Family Co)
Once roots have started to grow, the beans with the longest and straightest roots are placed in long cylindrical plastic bags (pilones) to grow for another 10 months. It is then ready for planting, taking 3-5 years before the plant will start to form fruit and be ready for harvest!
The farmers are smart and plant other fruit trees around the coffee plants, such as grapefruit, macadamia nut, orange, and avocodo trees. These not only shelter the plants from heavy rains and sun, but also provide the farmers with a source of income until their coffee plants are ready.
Step 2: Harvest the Fruit. Once a plant starts giving off fruit, it is ready for harvest! Harvest season runs from December to April, and during this time, the farmers are out for at least 12 hours a day collecting baskets full of ripe, red cherries. Each of these baskets holds about 25 lbs of cherries, and for this farmer, at least 5 baskets are collected a day.
Step 3: Retrieve the Coffee Bean. After a days work of harvesting is done, the coffee beans themselves must be retrieved from the fruit. This must be done on the same day as harvesting or the fruit goes bad; which makes for a long day of work!
The coffee beans can be expelled from the fruit by hand (just squeeze the fruit between your fingers and two coffee beans pop out). However, to make it more time efficient, the farmers use this machine to depulp the beans:
They fill the basket with fruit and then ride the bicycle which runs the machine that squeezes out the beans.
Step 4: Remove the Coffee Honey. If you’ve ever squeezed coffee beans out of a fruit, you’ll find they’re quite slimy. The coffee beans are coated in a cleary, sweet liquid, called “coffee honey”. While sweet to the taste, this must be removed from the coffee beans if you want to make good coffee.
To do this, the now-exposed coffee beans are placed in large sacs for 24-36 h to let the honey drip down and settle at to the bottom of the bag.
Step 5: Dry, Dry and More Drying. Now that the honey is gone, the coffee beans themselves need to be dried. In the case of our farmer, she climbs onto the roof of her house and spreads the coffee beans across the tin of her roof. Depending on the weather, these will sit here to dry for 1-3 weeks until they look like this and are crispy to the touch:
Step 6: Dehusking. Once dry, all the beans go into a locally owned dehusking machine, which gets rid of the dried husk that has formed over the beans, and you are left with these tiny green coffee beans:
This whole process takes the initially harvested 100 lbs of fruit into only 12 lbs of coffee beans!
Step 7: Pick Out the Bad Ones. Once all of the green coffee beans have been collected, they go into a machine that sorts them by size so that there is consistency in the final bag of coffee beans.
That sounds great, except that even after this is done, all the beans have to be hand sorted to pick out the bad or misshapen beans. This is what makes Guatemalan coffee high-grade, while the defect beans are sold for cheaper prices in the market as low grade coffee.
Step 8: Roast the Beans. The little green coffee beans are now ready for roasting. In the case of our farmer, she has a small clay stove which is warmed by a little fire from below. She roasts baskets of coffee beans, constantly mixing them, with timing that she has perfected with years of experience.
The smell of the roasting beans was wonderful (and I don’t even like coffee).
Step 9: Grind the Beans. The farmers sell whole bean as well as ground coffee. When ground, the roasted coffee beans are placed on a stone mortar and ground by hand by rocking another peice of stone on top of the beans until a fine powder is achieved.
After this was all complete, we sat down with the farmer to enjoy a cup of coffee. We spoke to her more about the process, learning that this entire operation is repeated daily, with multiple steps occurring at the same time.
The whole thing really made us think twice about complaining about spending $3+ for a cup of coffee, when we see all the work that goes into making a cup…
Food of Guatemala
Guatemalan food has been called “survival food” by some. The country is not known for it’s gastronomy, as most meals are made up of rice, beans and tortillas. We tried a few of the common dishes, including Guatemala’s nation dish, Pepián, a spicy meaty stew:
A popular national drink is Michelada, a beer mixed with clamato juice, lime and spices. It’s like the Guatemalan version of a Canadian cesear! Shane ordered one, and looked like quite the fancy boy enjoying one of these (with my delicious mojito on the right):
However, the bigger cities in Guatemala offer a variety of international options, as well as food from the adjacent country of Mexico. We definitely had our hit of tacos, burritos and quesadillas!
The best was a restaurant called TacoMex, which offered 3 delicious tacos for 12Q (ie. $2). Amazing!
Also, where do you think we are here? There is a clue if you look closely…
If you saw Ronald McDonald in the back, you’d have realized that we may have stumbled upon the fanciest McDonald’s in the world in Antigua:
“De la Gente” is a co-operative Guatemalan coffee company run by a group of individual coffee farmers. They are one of the few co-operatives in Guatemala and all of the profits go directly to the coffee farmers themselves. Most of the producers in Guatemala sell the “green coffee” to North America for a very low price, but De la Gente is one of the few that processes and roasts their own coffee so there is no middle man or company to pay.