This year, our annual Coffee Hunter Field Trip took Flo and me together with eight customers to Guatemala. This would to be our fourth Field Trip and we believe that these excursions are the single most important way to illustrate Mercanta’s unique way of doing business to our Specialty Coffee roaster customers.
Mercanta has recently expanded operations in Central America. Our representative in Guatemala is Christian Schaps and 2007 will see the Mercanta Central American lab upgraded to the same high specification as the UK facility at our offices in Kingston upon Thames.
Christian and his team worked hard to put together an excellent itinerary for this Field Trip. This is always a challenging job – Guatemala is a large and diverse country with tricky mountainous roads and Mercanta buys coffee from growers all over the map. We wanted to visit as many growers as possible without spending the entire trip on the bus. We also wanted to visit medium-sized private farms as well as co-operative type operations and small growers who deliver to private mills.
We began the trip in Esquipulas at the farm of Don Fabio Solis. Located near the Honduras/El Salvador/Guatemala border, Finca Las Nubes won the first Guatemala Cup of Excellence competition in 2001 and Mercanta has bought the majority of Don Fabio’s estate grade crop ever since.
Las Nubes is a beautiful farm located at high altitude (above 1,400m). The coffee is superb and his two containers per year of estate grade production is fully accounted for by appreciative roaster customers worldwide.
Don Fabio Solis and Finca Las Nubes is one of the best untold stories of Cup of Excellence. An unknown isolated farm suffering from poor market access and financial problems six years ago has since been transformed with the support of Mercanta and key roaster customers into a sustainable, improving, dynamic family business. Don Fabio and his family are wonderful hosts – a few of us had the good fortune to stay on the farm overnight. A marimba band entertained us at the barbeque and everyone enjoyed a delicious lunch.
From Esquipulas we travelled on to Cobán where the weather changed to the cloudy, damp conditions typical of this region. Our host at a small new farm called Kapil Ha was Roni Asencio. Roni is an acclaimed agronomist well known to Mercanta for many years from his efforts at Santa Ana, an excellent quality farm in the Sierra De Las Minas region. Roni has now been contracted to improve quality control and to open access to international markets for three more farms. Kapil Ha (meaning ‘lots of water’ in K’iché) is a beautiful small farm undergoing renovation and renewal. We expect to see the first specialty grade production from Kapil Ha next season (2007/08).
Roni then took us to Santa Paula whose first direct export shipment last year was well received by European Specialty Roaster customers. A classic Cobán with heavy bodied sweetness and less acidity than other Guatemala regions, Santa Paula is ideally suited for fine espresso blends. Roni and his team are carefully renovating Santa Paula to take account of the unique local climatic conditions. Under Roni’s stewardship, Kapil Ha, Santa Paula, and Santa Sofia are destined to become top estate for our portfolio in future seasons. We were treated to a superb barbeque including a legendary piece of beef and a local turkey leg stew before heading on.
From Cobán, we travelled to Lake Atitlán. On which shores, we met growers from Nimak Kape harvesting on small plots alongside this beautiful high altitude, crater lake ringed by volcanoes. Here, a number of small growers combine to deliver ripe red cherries to a private mill which prepares the coffee for export. Nimak Kape exhibits a winy/fruity full flavour with juicy berry and black cherry notes. We crossed Lake Atitlán in a small boat accompanied by a five litre mini barrel of Dorada Ice beer which was duly consumed by the time we reached Panajachel on the other side 30 minutes later. This crossing set the tone for a great night out in the lakeside tourist and backpacker town of Panajachel.
Back on the bus the next day for the trip to Amatitlán, not far from the capital Guatemala City. We have been working with Finca El Bosque for four years now. This excellent farm is owned and managed by the Flores brothers. The El Bosque mill is located just off the main thoroughfare in the valley below from where we climbed in 4x4s to the farm itself at 1,400m overlooking the valley. El Bosque is more or less situated on a mountain of its own and grows Bourbon, Catuaí and Caturra varietals. Finca El Bosque has built up a dedicated following amongst our specialty roaster customers. The Flores brothers split the agronomy, marketing, harvesting and various other tasks amongst themselves. El Bosque only started direct sales relatively recently and our relationship with them has allowed us to develop some ‘boutique lot’ ideas as well as seeing on-going quality improvements. Owing to urban development and proximity to Guatemala’s rapidly expanding capital, El Bosque is rather uniquely situated and we are looking forward to further developments from this top quality estate. Our guests enjoyed a coffee picking competition and a picnic lunch at the farm.
After the El Bosque visit, we continued to the Anacafé headquarters in Guatemala City. Anacafé excels as a producer organisation working on behalf of Guatemala’s estimated 65,000 coffee producers.
Anacafé director William Hempstead delivered an overview of Anacafé operations and our group was treated to a wealth of information and marketing materials. Anacafé has even incorporated GPS imaging of farm locations into their website (visit www.guatemalancoffees.com) along with a host of invaluable additional information to provide a comprehensive marketing resource for roasters and customers. We also cupped coffees from all over Guatemala with the ‘new’ Acatenango region standing out.
Friday arrived after a hectic week of travel and visits. A beautiful sunny warm day greeted us for the trip to our old friends at Finca San Francisco Tecuamburro in the Fraijanes region. Access is particularly challenging but Don Sergio Barillas and his powerful 4×4 – fully loaded with a keg of beer and our entire group – completed the trip to the farm comfortably. The farm is located on the side of the Tecuamburo volcano at an altitude of 1,500m and the coffee has quickly become an all-time favourite with many of our roaster customers. Sweet, crisp, balanced, with a fine acidity, body and equilibrium. The family have a wonderful ranch house where we enjoyed ample food and drink. San Francisco Tecuamburro has a couple of sulphur lagoons near the farm and enjoys particularly rich soil and a very agreeable climate. Mercanta has been purchasing an increasing number of containers from this farm each season owing to its growing popularity. Clients in more than a dozen countries enjoy this fine example of a Guatemala estate coffee.
To sum up, we can perhaps draw some global conclusion from our trip through five distinct growing regions:
- The continued and accelerating separation of the specialty and industrial/commercial coffee business. From tree to cup, every step of this path is different.
- Guatemala offers specialty roaster customers an unparalleled choice of widely varying fine coffee tastes under one roof/sky.
- Anacafé is amongst the top three origin marketing organisations in the world for depth of materials, resources and information.
- For Mercanta, Guatemala will continue to develop as a key source of fine, traceable coffee. We expect Guatemala to reinforce its position as our number two producer origin.
- Lack of coffee pickers (migration to the USA, rising costs, migration to cities, lack of accommodation at some farms, all-at-once ripening cycle, etc.) is a hidden threat to production for many Central American producers (not only in Guatemala). The market is overlooking this issue.
- The Cup of Excellence programme has helped uncover dozens if not hundreds of previously unknown producers, regions and micro-climates. The beneficial follow on effects of the Cup of Excellence programme should be highlighted more extensively.
On Friday evening, Christian had arranged a farewell gala dinner at Jake’s restaurant – one of Guatemala’s finest. Since our group did not have the opportunity to visit all the farms that we deal with, the gala dinner was an opportunity to invite those whom we could not visit on this occasion.
We all thoroughly enjoyed the trip and we wish to offer our thanks to all the growers we visited we look forward to testing these fine coffees in the coming months. Thanks to Christian Schaps from Mercanta Central America for organising a very well constructed trip and thanks to our specialty roaster customers who took a week out of their busy schedules to join us on this latest successful Coffee Hunter Field Trip.