Farm: Finca Santa Clara
Processing: Fully washed and dried in greenhouses
Altitude: 1,600 to1,830 metres above sea level
Owner: Ricardo Zelaya and family
Town / City: Antigua
Region: Antigua Valley
Overall: Lavender, blackcurrant, honey
Santa Clara - Guatemala
The Zelaya family has been growing coffee for over 100 years and four generations. This renowned family owns farms throughout Guatemala and grows one of only a handful of genuine ‘Antigua’ coffees (coffees grown in the Antigua valley area bounded by three volcanoes – Agua, Acatenango and Fuego). Finca Santa Clara is located on the fertile southern slopes of the Volcán de Agua in the Antigua Valley at 1,600-1,830 metres. Ricardo Zelaya has managed the farm, which was bought in 1974 by his Grandfather, since 1988 and is the 4th generation of the Zelaya family to have produced coffee at Santa Clara. Since taking over the farm, he has increased the size from 17 hectares of coffee plantations up to 95 hectares as well as building a wet mill, drying patios and a greenhouse to improve the processing of the coffee.
Ricardo is one of the first producers to bring the Geisha variety to Guatemala, and his experimentation and forward-thinking is paying off. This exquisite 100% Geisha coffee has been handpicked by special pickers employed (and paid higher wages) particularly for their skill at selecting only the ripest and most perfect cherries. The method of ‘special’ picking is one that the Zelayas have used to great effect in the lots that they submit to the Cup of Excellence competition. They’ve recently begun to expand their offerings of lots, such as this one, that utilize the same method of picking.
The Zelaya family is passionately committed to both quality and sustainability. The family’s farms are scrupulously well-managed right from the careful selection of varietals planted, to the close supervision of the dry and wet mills. The coffee is shade grown, which protects the plants from direct sunlight, maintains soil health, and provides an important habitat for birds and insect life. The family’s mills are also eco-friendly and feature sedimentation tanks that prevent pollution of the local river systems.
On Santa Clara, the workers are seen as members of the family, which is why, in 2010, Ricardo began a scholarship program to help workers pay for the education of their children. This program is funded by Ricardo and has the support of buyers from abroad, who have supported the cause since 2012. Managed, now, by his daughter Bel, who has a degree in Special Education, the dream is for the project to achieve formal non-profit status and expand to include not only all the children whose parents work on the farm but also those from surrounding communities
Ricardo has been committed to renovation, investigative plantings and experimentation in processing from the very beginning. He produces microlots according to varietal and processing method (they do honey and natural processing as well as fully washed coffees, such as this lot). He is exceptionally forward looking with regards to the varieties of coffee cultivated, and he has also has established different plots of less usual varietals, such as Geisha and Pacamara, which will enable him to expand microlot offerings in the future. He is constructing a second greenhouse to dry larger volumes of coffee, as this type of drying improves the quality of the cup, and he is building a brand new dry mill (on site, with much of the machines being built by hand), which will give him better control over the final processing and sorting of his coffees.
Santa Clara treats their employees like family, and many have been with the farm and the family for generations. For instance, the farm Administrator, Marcos Rompiche, has worked for the Zelayas for 22 years and is the 3rd generation to work the land. The Production Manager, Israel Yool, has 16 years working for the family and is the 2nd generation to do so. Including them, the farm provides work for 25 permanent employees year-round, all of whom help Ricardo manage the processing and production for Fincas Juaja, Santa Clara, Puerta Verde and San Augustin. The family hires an additional 332 additional individuals during the harvest (including 250 for picking alone!).
Every cherry on the farm is hand-picked and then sorted by hand before being approved by the foreman for delivery to the wet mill. The farm also hires ‘special pickers’ who have demonstrated particular dexterity and are selected to hand harvest some of the farms’ microlots using impressive attention to detail. These employees can receive more than double the minimum daily wage through picking coffee at the farm. According to Ricardo, although they are very demanding about picking practices, people come back year upon year, which is a testament to the fair treatment they receive. In fact, Ricardo’s employees recently made a ‘happy’ video for him and his family to express their satisfaction with their work environment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH18B0hwXcM
For washed coffees, fermentation runs around 14-22 hours. Santa Clara is very careful with their scarce water resources, as Antigua experiences an extended dry season and water reserves are increasingly threatened by population growth and urbanization. Water that is used to wash fermented coffee is recycled after having all solids removed and is reused during the depulping stage for the following lot to be processed. This has the added benefit of inoculating the next batch as it is pulped, which speeds fermentation times and helps maintain consistent mix of yeasts and bacteria during fermentation. After being used twice in this way, the water is filtered through a complex treatment system of filters and sedimentation tanks, with all solids being recycled and composted as fertilizer.
This 100% Geisha has then gone on to be dried in Santa Clara’s extensive and well-positioned greenhouse. Coffees dried here are moved regularly to ensure even and consistent drying and temperatures are maintained constant through an ingenious air circulation system.
Geisha, of course, is far from ubiquitous in Guatemala, but Ricardo and his team are always looking into new varieties and processes in order to have more unique offerings for their clients. They are continuously on the lookout as to what is trending in the coffee market in order to be able to meet demand.
10 years ago, when they first heard about the Geisha variety Ricardo and his team became very intrigued by what they had heard about its cup quality. Their first first-hand experience with the variety was in a cupping session conducted by Anacafé, which was when they decided to plant the variety at Finca Santa Clara.
The only question was: where do we get the seed. As they wanted to have a distinct offering than other producers in the area, they asked a friend from Malawi if they could secure some seed for them. The coffee seed was given as a gift, and this is the reason that the Santa Clara Geisha cups very distinctly from the majority of other Geishas’ grown in Central America (as most of these hail from Panama).
The seed that they received from their friend was actually quite old, and initially it was a bit of a challenge to get the seed to germinate and grow. Only 15 plants survived of the initial 500 that were planted. These survivors are the mother plants of the farm’s current Geisha plantations. Despite the initial difficulties, it has been worth it, though, and although there is currently only one hectare in production, Ricardo has another hectare recently planted. The plots are in the highest part of the farm at 1,750 to 1,850 metres above sea level, which is where the Geisha plant thrives best.
So far, the Santa Clara team has been very happy with the variety and its quality, and too their customers who constantly express their love for it. The Malawi Geisha is definitely a little treasure of the farm!