There’s no such thing as the world’s best coffee. Good coffee isn’t just about cup quality, it isn’t just about sustainability, or varietals, or even location. It’s not just about the production and processing methods, the roast profile, or how it’s brewed.
However, if you asked me, Guatemalan coffee would be a contender. Let me share five reasons why I think it’s amazing – and then you can decide.
The La Horqueta volcano complex soars over coffee farms in the Acatenango region. Credit: Matthew Huttin
Coffee geeks know the effect that climate can have on bean development, ripeness, and overall cup quality. In fact, it’s almost impossible to produce good coffee without a favorable climate.
And Guatemalan coffees are fortunate to be grown in a country with more than 300 microclimates, all of which have their own unique geographic influences. Some of this country’s most influential geographical features are the presence of volcanoes, the amount of annual rainfall, the many lakes, and the proximity to the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean.
A coffee farm in the Traditional Atitlan region, bordering Lake Atitlán. Credit: Matthew Huttin
These contribute to giving each of our eight identified coffee regions distinctive characteristics and cup profiles. Take Acatenango coffees, grown near the Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes: these are considered intensely fragrant with a pronounced acidity. Coffees from the rainforest region of Cobán, on the other hand, are particularly fruity and zesty with a delicate body.
Whether you like tangy or winey notes, a strong body or elegant silkiness, a balanced or citric aftertaste, there’s plenty to choose from here.
Drying patios in Antigua region, with the La Horqueta volcano complex in the background. Credit: Matthew Huttin
While we shouldn’t simply assume that a higher-altitude coffee is always better than a lower-altitude one, it’s true that higher altitude coffees do tend to have better flavor profiles. A higher altitude means coffee grows slower and becomes more dense – and density has a lot to do with quality.
Over 90% of Guatemalan coffee is produced above 4,300 feet above sea level (1,300 meters above sea level), meaning hard beans dominate.
Of course, you should also take into account the latitude of a location. What altitude is really referring to is temperature – and that’s something created by both altitude and latitude. But as we said above, Guatemala also has an excellent variety of climates and temperatures.
A coffee farm in Volcán Camotán, Chiquimula in the New Oriente region. Credit: Matthew Huttin
You might ask: Shade? What’s that have to do with coffee? The answer is: a lot.
Shade helps to regulate the intensity of solar light, thereby moderating the rate at which coffee plants absorb solar rays. This slows down photosynthesis and respiration, allowing coffee beans to mature slower. It also has a positive effect on cup profile, specifically with regards to acidity and body.
What’s more, during the rainy seasons shade trees protect the soil – preventing erosion and allowing a slower absorption of water. And during the hotter months, they also help the soil maintain a healthy humidity.
As if that wasn’t enough, shade trees also provide different nutrients for coffee plants. For example, Inga trees release nitrogen in the ground, which in turn improves plant fertility – thereby diminishing the need for chemical fertilizers.
An estimated 98% of all Guatemalan coffees are shade grown, with the resulting shade and coffee trees making up 6.4% of the country’s national forest. And although shade is rarely a deciding factor in choosing origin coffees, it is an important aspect that deserves consideration.
Pickers working under the shade in the Fraijanes region. Credit: Matthew Huttin
4. Coffee Regions
Earlier we talked about this country’s microclimates – all 300+ of them. When you add to that aspects such as altitude and local varietals, you get eight distinct coffee regions with particular cup profiles.
The Acatenango Valley and Antigua Coffee regions are situated almost side-by-side, yet you wouldn’t know it from the cup. The former is known for its marked acidity, fragrant aroma, balanced body and clean and persistent aftertaste. The latter, however, is known and loved worldwide for its elegance and well-balanced body, along with its particular chocolate and caramel notes.
If variety is the spice of life, then Guatemala is as spiced as a gallo en perro. And if you’re not familiar with Guatemalan food, let me just tell you that’s seriously spicy. No matter what you’re in the mood for, you’ll find a coffee to match.
The eight different coffee regions of Guatemala. Source: Anacafé
Great coffee doesn’t just happen, and sometimes even favorable climates and soil quality aren’t enough to guarantee coffee quality.
Guatemalan Coffees are strongly supported by the Guatemalan National Coffee Association (Anacafé). Anacafé offers different services, including Analab (a soils, leaf, and water lab), Cupping Lab, Escuela de Café (School of Coffee), Technical Assistance, and National and International Marketing. Coffee regions have assigned Technical Assistance advisors, and coffee producers can turn to them for information and feedback on their production and/or milling techniques. In a country where most producers are smallholder farmers with a very limited disposable income, this support is critical.
In addition, Anacafé holds blind cuppings every year to find the different regions’ best coffees. The winners winners then get to represent Guatemalan coffees, both nationally and in all the international trade shows in which Anacafé participates (MICE, SCAA, SCAE, SCAJ, Taiwan International Tea, Coffee and Wine Expo, and Cafe Show). This helps to bridge the gap between producers and buyers – and anyone on either side of the chain knows that this requires continuous effort.
A woman picking coffee in the Traditional Atitlan region. Credit: Matthew Huttin
I could write a novel about the wonders of Guatemalan coffees – but by now you’ve either stopped reading or are looking up the prices of plane tickets. I really do hope it’s the latter; there’s no better way to comprehend Guatemalan coffees than to experience them first hand.
Like with every other coffee-producing country, Guatemalan coffee has evolved over the years – and will continue to evolve in the future. But no matter what your preferences in coffee are, you’ll most likely find it here.
A Guatemalan cherry picker. Credit: Matthew Huttin
Written by I. Minondo Durán.
Perfect Daily Grind