Where Coffee Comes From – Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 3)

Jan 12, 2013 | Central America, Girls Trek Too, Guatemala

October 23, 2012

A converted flatbed takes us on a 15-minute drive outside of Antigua to the oldest coffee plantation in Guatemala. Finca Filadelfia (Philadelphia Plantation) is a pretty, well-ordered farm and resort, where sun-warmed green trees and saffron ranch houses fill a slender pocket between rolling hills and three volcanoes. Volcán de Fuego puffs in the aftermath of his recent eruption, while his brother Acatenango holds his breath. Agua stands alone in a coronet of clouds that spin in a convergence of Pacific and Caribbean winds.

Our caffeinated guide, Roberto shows us pretty red coffee beans as jewel-like as cranberries.

We buy tour tickets for 18 dollars each – steep by Guatemalan standards – and meet our effusive, caffeinated guide, Roberto. Then we climb into another truck for a two-kilometer drive deeper into the plantation. The property comprises 900 acres and 400 workers, if you include the 200 migrant workers who come here from November to March, handpicking pretty red coffee beans as jewel-like as cranberries.

A vast tribe of three-meter-high Arabica coffee bushes squats between tall, skinny Australian trees that spread long, lithe limbs of shade over the delicate coffee. The farm sits at an elevation of about five-thousand feet. That altitude combines with the valley’s rich volcanic soil, regular rain, and temperate climate to make this a perfect spot for coffee – which is not native to Guatemala but has made itself at home throughout the country.

A tribe of Arabica coffee bushes squats between tall, skinny Australian trees that spread long, lithe limbs of shade over the delicate coffee.

We get out at a complex of small buildings and nurseries. In a courtyard, three women spend eight hours a day using small hands, lissome fingers, long nails, and razor blades to graft tiny Arabica plants onto Robusta roots. This will allow the plants to grow full-bodied, less acidic, less bitter Arabica coffee without having to rely on shallow, weak Arabica root systems that fall easy prey to parasites. Dale is amused by the youngest woman’s super-long, coral-painted nails.

I ask her, “Do those make it harder for you?” “No, actually they make it easier.”

I ask her, “Do those make it harder for you?”

“No, actually they make it easier.” She seems amused, though like many Guatemalans her smile is slow, her chuckle soundless. People must ask her that question a lot.

The nursery’s dozens of rows of seedlings will grow into bushes in three or four years.

We cross the lane to a nursery with dozens of rows of seedlings, which will grow into bushes in three or four years. A little further down the lane, we see their future: coffee bushes fill in either side of the seam of road that splits the plantation. Their small ruby beans grow in clusters like grapes. Roberto invites each of us to pluck one so he can explain how they become coffee.

Their small ruby beans grow in clusters like grapes.

To make coffee, the red husk is removed – which we do by squeezing the beans between our thumbs and fingers until a tiny green bean squirts into our hands. We pop the skins into our mouths to taste the surprising sweetness. This plantation makes the skins into coffee marmalade, which I suspect is delicious. Meanwhile, the moist little green beans don’t yet represent coffee. That part is contained in an even smaller seed hidden within.

This plantation makes the skins into coffee marmalade, which I suspect is delicious.

We drive back to the factory buildings, where a Rube Goldberg series of machines and processes turns beans into coffee. One machine husks the beans. Then they ferment in a tank. Later, they float down a water chute to a courtyard to dry in the sun. The dried beans will pass through forced air, and then human hands, to separate them into good beans and bad. The middle-sized beans are best: not too bitter, not too bland. Those rotate in a giant roaster for half an hour, then shoot through pneumatic tubes to a conveyer belt to the packing room, where workers seal them into pretty foil bags.

A Rube Goldberg series of machines and processes turns beans into coffee.

In the packing room, we meet the coffee taster, a young man sitting behind a lazy Susan lined with glasses of brewed coffee. Like a wine taster, he slurps and spits, slurps and spits, spinning the next glass toward him as he goes: slurp, spit, spin…slurp, spit, spin. Within about thirty seconds, he tastes half a dozen samples or so. With that dubious enticement, we head to the veranda of the ranch-house restaurant to drink “complimentary” coffee.

Like a wine taster, the coffee taster slurps and spits, slurps and spits.

I order café con leche (coffee with milk), which is delicious but gives me a headache. It’s not the coffee’s fault. I always overreact to coffee, which is why I rarely drink it. We picked this tour with my husband, Mr. Quadruple-Shot Americano, in mind. Dale orders espresso, which makes him grin with pleasure, though he already drank a café con leche plus an espresso at breakfast.

Dale orders espresso, which makes him grin with pleasure.

Finca Filadelfia sells coffee to Japan, Korea, and local distributors. It doesn’t export to the U.S., except via tourists like us. We buy two bags adorned with the moneyed name of Roberto Dalton — not our guide but a descendant of the original owner, a Texan who started this plantation in 1870.

What was here before the plantation? The Mayans once grew cactus here to attract cochinillas, insects similar to cockroaches, which produced bright red dyes and lipsticks. Before the cochinillas came indigo. And before that, cacao, the main ingredient of that miraculous Mayan creation: chocolate. Cacao requires more space and is less lucrative than coffee. So now coffee is king, until the next shift in world tastes.

A couple of weeks later, someone will offer us a tour of a Fair Trade coffee farm where Mayans run their own cooperative and share the profits. We’ll realize we never checked whether Finca Filadelfia was Fair Trade. We’ll find out it’s not labeled as such. That’s not an automatic indictment. Still we’ll wonder what kind of conditions their migrant workers live in and whether they’re children go to school. I’ll wonder if they thank God for a job or dream of a better life. Perhaps both.

From now on all coffee will smell like Guatemala to me…

We’ll keep our coffee. Why waste it? But from now on all coffee will smell like Guatemala to me: like the sun-bathed valley where we learned the complicated process it takes to produce it, like the sweat-bathed pickers we never met who will soon bring in the next harvest.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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