Guatemala is one of the world's classic coffee origins, so it seems appropriate to open the Coffee Review series of blind panel cuppings with a selection of Guatemala coffees. Eleven respected coffee professionals cupped samples of ten Guatemala coffees. The participating coffees were not identified until after the cupping was completed. The reports of the eleven cuppers form the basis of the evaluations that follow.
Bear in mind that these ten coffees hardly constitute an exhaustive survey of Guatemala coffees. They were the coffees that were available at the time we did the cupping. Some celebrated names are absent. In a couple of cases I had difficulty finding any information whatsoever about the coffee aside from the few words that appeared on the bag or exporter's list. The world of coffee, with one foot in the tropics (often at the end of bad roads) and one in the roasting room, remains much more mysterious than the temperate, well-documented world of wines. Some find this mystery enticing, others frustrating. One thing it does do is force our attention onto the coffee itself and away from fancy labels and back-of-the-wine-bottle hype.
Also keep in mind that coffee is the result of a complex partnership between people and nature. There are good years and bad years in coffee as well as wine. This year's great coffee could well turn into next year's also-ran, and visa-versa. It would not be wise to make permanent judgments based on this single cupping.
In the Platonic world of ideal coffees and perfect cups that hover in the rosy glow of every cupper's memory, what does an ideal Guatemala coffee taste like?
Probably medium in body, with a substantial but understated acidity that exists in satisfying harmony with its other components. Above all, complexity and dimension. More power than an El Salvador, but more intrigue than a Costa Rica. People talk about certain grace notes, particularly chocolate or spice tones, but ultimately the sign of a good Guatemala is probably complexity and depth, with teasing shimmers of nuance that can be described in a variety of ways.
Nor is it clear whether there is a just one Guatemala ideal exerting its Platonic influence around the cupping rooms, or several overlapping ideals. The description I just gave probably best describes coffees from Antigua, the classic growing region near Guatemala City. What about Huehuetenango coffees from northwestern Guatemala, or San Marcos coffees, from farther west, near the Mexican border? Many specialty coffee professionals reserve judgment on these "other" Guatemalas, often dismissing them as blenders. Given that a San Marcos and a Huehuetenango coffee each attracted more support from our cuppers than did several Antiguas, this assumption may be worth reconsidering.
I had hoped that these cuppings would produce a bit of controversy, and this one did. One coffee that six of the eleven cuppers, including me, identified as displaying the taste defect called ferment was rated higher than two coffees with lesser (if any) defects. Ferment is caused when the sugars in the coffee fruit begin to go off or ferment while the fruit is still in contact with the bean, imparting a taste to the coffee that can range from a slightly exaggerated fruitiness to flat-out garbage-heap rotten. With wet-processed coffees like those in this cupping, ferment is usually caused by excessive delays between when the coffee is picked and when it is pulped.
How much ferment taste is acceptable if the rest of the flavor profile is powerful or interesting? When does pleasantly fruity become unpleasantly fermented? Panelists George Howell and Don Schoenholt argued that no ferment taste whatsoever is acceptable. While no one came to the defense of the apparently fermented coffee during our post-cupping debate, it was apparent to me while reading the cupping forms that, if forced to make a choice, some panelists preferred an exciting if flawed coffee to coffees that were relatively flawless but lacking excitement. Nevertheless, I don't think growers can take this apparent toleration as a license for carelessness. After all, the highest-rated coffee was as flawless as it was complex and intriguing.