The highlands of Guatemala produce several of the world’s finest and most distinctive coffees. The mountain basin surrounding the austerely beautiful colonial city Guatemala Antigua produces the most distinguished of these highland coffees: Guatemala Antigua, a coffee that combines complex nuance (smoke, spice, flowers, occasionally chocolate) with acidity ranging from gently bright to austerely powerful. Fraijanes displays similar cup characteristics. Other Guatemala coffees, perhaps because they are more exposed to wet ocean weather than the mountain-protected Antigua basin, tend to display slightly softer, often less powerful, but equally complexly nuanced profiles. These softer Guatemalas include Cobán, admired for its fullish body and gentle, deep, rounded profile, Huehuetenango from the Caribbean-facing slopes of the central mountain range, and San Marcos coffees from the Pacific-facing slopes. Coffees from the basin surrounding Lake Atitlan in south central Guatemala typically offer the same complex nuance as Antiguas but are lighter in body and brighter in flavor.
There are many excellent Guatemalan estates. To name just a small selection: in the Antigua Valley San Sebastián, La Tacita, San Rafael Urias, Pastores, and Las Nubes. In Huehuetenango Santa Cecilia, Huixoc, and El Coyegual. In the Coban region Yaxbatz, Los Alpes, and El Recreo. In San Marcos, Dos Marias.
Small-holder coffees predominate in Huehuetenango and Coban, but transportation difficulties and wet weather during harvest may compromise quality. Perhaps the best small-holder Guatemala coffees come from peasant farmers in the Lake Atitlan basin, who are organized into cooperatives that run their own mills and turn out meticulously prepared coffee. These cooperatives are clustered near the lakeside towns of San Juan La Laguna, San Lucas Toliman, and Santiago Atitlan. A San Juan La Laguna cooperative markets its excellent coffee under the poetic name “La Voz que Clama en el Desierto.” The Lake Atitlan cooperatives that I have visited practice coffee production at the ultimate end of environmental correctness: organically grown in a dense, bird-sheltering shade canopy of native trees and plants. The coffee is processed with passion and precision, although delays in getting the freshly picked coffee fruit down the mountainside to the cooperative mills sometimes imparts a slight, giddily fermented twist to the cup. Atitlan cooperative coffees are a perfect choice for those in search of both cup quality and a coffee grown in exquisite harmony with earth and the aspirations of people on it.
The highest grade of Guatemala coffee is Strictly Hard Bean (SHB). The regionally designated coffees (Antigua, Atitlan, Cobán, etc) are tasted and approved as meeting flavor profile criteria established for these regions by ANACAFE, the Guatemalan coffee association. Those coffees that do not meet regional flavor profile criteria are only allowed to be sold as Strictly Hard Bean without regional designation.
Generally, Guatemala has preserved more of the traditional typica and bourbon varieties of arabica than many other Latin American growing countries, which may account for the generally superior complexity of the Guatemala cup. Most Guatemala coffee is grown in shade, ranging from rigorously managed shade on large farms to the serendipitous thickets of small growers.