I remember the exact moment I first fell in love with coffee. It was at the end of a tour in Antigua, Guatemala when I was 17 years old. The tour itself was not very good. We mainly explored a factory-like setting. I also recall my mother asking twice about Fair Trade certification and being brushed aside twice by the tour guide. At the end of it, though, they served us freshly made cappuccinos. It was delicious and I was in heaven.
Guatemala produces some of the world’s finest and most distinctive coffees. So it’s no surprise that going on a coffee tour in Antigua is one of the top things to do. As a sustainable traveler, I found As Green As It Gets, a cooperative founded by Franklin Voohes, who helps the local farmers with marketing, ensures that they receive a fair price, arranges tours and gets them get loans. According to As Green As It Gets, farmers earn between 40% and 250% more through the cooperative than they would selling their product in the local markets available to them. These small farmers personally harvest and process high quality and ethical coffee beans. As Green As It Gets simply connects us to the best coffee in the world.
Here’s what I experienced and learned:
The tour began in San Miguel Escobar, a district of Ciudad Vieja, which was the first capital of Guatemala. From Antigua, my friend Deanna and I took a taxi to the plaza with the yellow church. There, we met with the owner of the farm, Alberto, and his son, who would be our guide.
The family owns ten plots of land scattered alongside the volcano Agua. Each plot has 48 trees per plot and each tree produces 2 lbs of coffee. In one year, his family of 8 produces 1000 bags of coffee. As we hiked the trails that wound with the coffee trees and maize farms, our guide explained the intricate and laborious process.
In the volcanic and mineral-rich soil, the family begins the process by planting seedlings in a small ditch. Depending on the type of tree, it can take 3-5 years before the fruit is ready to be harvested. The cycle begins in April, when the tree grows a beautiful and delicate white flower. The flowers eventually produce a green fruit, which is what we saw as we explored the farm. Then around November – December, the fruit turns red, which is when their family must carefully pick it.
On the farm, larger trees must perfectly shade the coffee trees, otherwise the tree will grow stunted and not produce any fruit. Depending on the type of tree, it can have as few as 5 growth cycles. At this point, the land is depleted of minerals. To fertilize the land again, the farmers cut down the coffee trees and plant maize in between.
After our hike, we walked back to our tour guide’s home, where his family processes the coffee beans. First, they shell the bean from the fruit, which is done with a bicycle-like contraption. They used to do it by hand, which was a very tiring process, so they were happy with the update.
Afterwards, they ferment the beans for 24 hours and then wash them. Next they spread their beans out on their concrete patio to dry. This step can take up to 10-12 hours and has to be carefully raked every few hours to ensure even and consistent drying. Once the coffee has dried, they have to pick out by hand the quality beans, sorting them out by color, defect and size. This can be a very time consuming process but it is more effective to do it by hand than by machine. The lesser quality beans can be sold as a cheaper quality product.
Preparing the Coffee
Normally, the family roasts the dried coffee beans at a larger farm. However, as their guests, we learned how to roast the beans the traditional way. Using an old-fashioned stove, the mother heated it up with the logs of old coffee trees. Once the hot plate was hot enough, we poured on the dried beans and stirred it for about 10 minutes. It was super sweaty work! Afterwards, the mother ground the roasted beans with a mortar and stone, which they also use to make tortillas. They offered us to try it but it looked hard. Feeling lazy, we both declined.
Next we poured the ground coffee into a pot to boil. After a few minutes, it was finally (finally!) ready to drink. We sat down outside with our guide and enjoyed a cup of super strong brew.
Drinking Guatemalan Coffee
Throughout the whole tour, I couldn’t help but compare the it to the one I took when I was 17. While that was the first time I loved the taste of coffee, it wasn’t nearly as amazing. On this tour, we hung out with the owners of the farm, were invited to their home and enjoyed a cup of coffee with them. It was a much more personal and rewarding experience. Hiking through the farm with its awesome views of the volcano was also quite special.
This time I also realized how much work it takes to produce a single cup of coffee. Too often, large corporations that dominate the market marginalize local farmers who take great pride in their work. A small farmer in Guatemala may seem far away, but we each have a direct impact on each other through coffee that we choose to enjoy.
Know Before You Go
- Wear good shoes as you’ll be hiking through fields along a volcano. While the hike is not arduous, there are some steep parts.
- Bring water. It gets hot out on the field!
- It’s about 50 quetzals for a taxi to San Miguel Escobar and takes about 15 minutes to get there from Antigua.
- The tour itself costs 200 quetzals.
- Contact As Green As It Gets for your tour!