Antigua is a charming, small town in the shadow of three towering volcanoes. During our visit, we took a tour of the coffee farms of the San Miguel Escobar Cooperative on the slopes of the volcano Agua.
The town of Antigua Guatemala is famed for its romantic setting as well as its excellent Arabica coffee. For us, spending some time in a cute town like Antigua on our honeymoon was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the origins of our favourite hot beverage.
So one morning, we arranged a coffee tour to the San Miguel Escobar Cooperative, the only cooperative of small coffee farmers in the Antigua region. To book the tour, we went through De La Gente, a NGO based in Massachusetts which supports the cooperative in organizing coffee tours.
Antigua lies in a valley surrounded by three towering volcanoes – Acatenango, Agua, and Fuego. The volcanoes are a constant menace for the town. Yet, the volcanic soil is also highly fertile and enables abundant harvest. On the flanks of the volcanoes coffee is grown at altitude in ideal conditions.
Supporting small-scale coffee farmers
We met our guide for the coffee tour, Manuel, in Ciudad Viejo at the foot of Agua. Manuel is one of the 28 members of the Café Artesanal San Miguel Escobar Cooperative. The cooperative has been supported by De La Gente since 2005, when the NGO was founded by a volunteer who wanted to help improve the livelihoods of small scale coffee farmers.
De La Gente helps the cooperative achieve better prices, trading directly with roasters in the United States instead of having to go through cut throat coffee traders. They also support the cooperative in improving their growing and processing methods and facilitate knowledge exchange with cooperatives in other countries.
With a smile on his face, Manuel leads us through the town and onto a footpath towards Agua. Soon, the path gets steeper, leading us towards the plots of the cooperative. Manuel explains that the higher the land is, the better the coffee will be as it grows slower and, thus, has more time to develop flavors. But at the same time the plots at higher elevations are more difficult to farm as they cannot be accessed by trucks. It takes an hour or more to reach the highest plots on foot.
Competing with the Fincas
Manuel recently bought new land at a high altitude, expanding his land from 9 acres to 19 acres. With his dedication and hard work, this amount of land can sustain the livelihood of Manuel’s young family and he can save some money to expand.
Yet, compared to the Fincas that dominate coffee production in Antigua, 19 acres is nothing. If you buy coffee from Antigua, chances are you are buying from the Fincas, as they own hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres of land. “Some of the Finca owners only visit their property in their helicopters”, Manuel says with an ironic half-smile on his face.
Manuel did not inherit his land. In fact, as a teenager, he was working for the Fincas, picking coffee to support the family income. Picking coffee cherries for the Fincas is hard work that only pays a subsistence salary. In fact, although the cooperative is much smaller – together the 28 members have less land than the smallest Finca – it pays coffee pickers double the salary that the Fincas pay.
Instead, Manuel worked tough years in construction. With his hard earned money, he managed to buy some land and started to plant some coffee bushes. Soon, he joined the cooperative.
From the seedling to coffee cherries
It is a beautiful day and we are walking through brush and fields of corn to the first coffee plants. Avocado trees intersect the rows of coffee bushes that grow as high as two or three meters. Some plots are left abandoned or receive little care, but others have bushes full of coffee cherries. Their crimson color gleams in the sun.
Coffee plants need constant care. Three to five years pass from the seedling to a bush that starts to give fruit. The plots of the cooperative have no irrigation and are dependent on the right amount of rainfall. Too little or too much can destroy a harvest or even the plants.
There is also a fungal disease that has befallen some plants in the cooperative. Manuel shows us some leaves that have rust coloured spots. The cooperative treats these plants with fungicides but even then, the menace can destroy the yield and, consequently, the livelihood of small farmers.
Manuel leads us to some of his young plants that have started to carry some coffee cherries. The coffee that we drink is hidden in the fruit, as two seeds in a husk with mucilage. It takes a lot of work to get to the end product, freshly ground coffee, with its rich, aromatic smell.
Processing the coffee cherries
Most of us are not aware of how much work goes into the cup we pick up at our local coffee shop. Coffee has become such a commodity that we take it for granted without thinking twice about its origins.
In the shadow of an avocado tree, we reach for a small coffee bush and pick some cherries from it. The fruit is edible and the farmers have started experimenting making tea out of the cherries. It has a pleasant sugary taste to it and has a low dose of caffeine. In fact, before coffee was first drunk in its modern form in Yemen, people in modern day Ethiopia brewed a drink out of the whole fruit as a stimulant.
But to get what we, today, know as coffee, the fruit is peeled of its seeds and the seeds fermented. Once finished, they are washed and dried and stored properly. Each step requires a delicate hand and the right timing. The cooperative can only sustain itself because it produces high grade specialty coffee that is sold in the United States at much higher than average prices.
To achieve this status, the processing has to be thorough. Small errors may cause the quality of the coffee to degrade. Manuel explains that even storing the coffee in the wrong conditions may result in fungus growing and bad tastes. If the coffee has defects or varies in quality, the cooperative is unable to sell the coffee as specialty coffee and has to sell it to traders for a fraction of the price.
In the early days, the cooperative did not have the equipment to process their coffee. They had to rent fermentation tanks from the Fincas. But when they brought their specialty grade coffee to the Fincas, the Fincas simply switched it with low quality coffee and sold the cooperative’s beans for their own profit under their name leaving the small scale farmers with low grade coffee that could only be sold at the local market.
Even now, the Fincas are profiting off the cooperative’s hard work, Manuel explains. While the cooperative, through its hard work, helps build a growing reputation for coffee from Antigua, the Fincas’ coffee is a mass product with an average quality. However, they still sell it as expensive coffee from Antigua.
Tasting Manuel’s coffee
The sun has started to sear as the morning fades into the noon. We walk back to Ciudad Viejo where the mother of Manuel’s wife invites us for a few cups of freshly roasted coffee. She puts the green beans from Manuel’s farm into a comal that is put on the fire and stirs the beans.
When the beans are brown, she takes them and puts them on a stone mortar where the beans are ground by hand. I try it, too, but my clumsy movements end with half the beans on the floor. Manuel’s mother-in-law chuckles at my work. Once the beans are ground, she puts them in a pot and brews the coffee.
Needless to say, the coffee tastes rich and aromatic with a very well balanced acidity. It is a symphony of floral tastes on the tongue, something that is impossible to get out of a ready ground and roasted pack of coffee on a supermarket shelf.
Overcaffeinated and with four bags of Manuel’s coffee, we walk back to the plaza. It would have been a perfect day, but to our embarrassment, we find that we had left our wallet in our Airbnb and, thus, are unable to pay Manuel for the tour and the coffee. Fortunately he has some spare time and we manage to drive back to the Airbnb, give him the money and leave a generous tip to make up for our embarrassment.
How to book a coffee tour with De La Gente
You can book the coffee tour with the farmers of the San Miguel Escobar Cooperative by calling, e-mailing, or whatsapping De La Gente in advance. De La Gente also sells the Cooperative’s (green) coffee in Guatemala, the US, and Canada. For more info visit their website.