Despite its relatively small size, Guatemala offers a diverse coffee geography unusually rich in variety of terroirs, local processing variations and traditional tree varieties. At one time a producer of large volumes of commercial-grade coffee, Guatemala’s total volume of exports has decreased over the last decades while the coffee it does export has generally improved in quality and distinction.
In 2019 it was the world’s 10th largest producer. The large, lower-elevation, sometimes exploitive commercial coffee estates that once dominated Guatemalan coffee production largely have converted to rubber or cattle production. Coffee has mainly been left in the hands of medium-sized, often quality-focused estates and a growing (at least until the recent leaf-rust crisis) contingent of small-holding producers, most indigenous, some organized into cooperatives that are often certified organic and fair trade.
The upshot for the aficionado is a rich tapestry of possibilities both in regard to cup profile and backstory. Unfortunately, this rich variety is probably not as well-represented in the high-end world specialty markets as it could or should be. A handful of estates and cooperatives tend to dominate.
Typical Guatemala Terroirs
Generally, growing elevations are high. Soils in leading growing regions are typically young and volcanic (Antigua, Acatenango, Atitlan) though some, like Cobán, are limestone and clay. The arguably most celebrated growing regions, Antigua, Acatenango and Huehuetenango, tend to have distinct seasons that promote uniform flowering and sun-drying during harvest, though climate change may be altering that quality-supporting rhythm.
Quite a bit of the traditional Bourbon variety is still grown, though it is usually sold mixed with respected but generally less distinctive-tasting varieties like Caturra, Catuaí and Typica. Guatemala is an important source for the rare, huge-beaned Maragogipe variety.
Some progressive, medium-sized producers are experimenting with distinctive-tasting varieties like the celebrated Geisha/Gesha and the big-beaned, distinctive-cupping hybrids Pacamara and Maracaturra. Whether owing to political instability or the conservatism of farmers, Guatemala has not seen the widespread introduction of disease-resistant, cup-suspect Robusta-incorporating hybrid varieties, though this could change in response to the leaf-rust epidemic in 2012–13.
Guatemala Processing Methods
Virtually all Guatemala export coffees are wet processed, most using traditional ferment-and-wash procedures. The ferment step usually is dry ferment, in which no extra water is added to the ferment tank, as opposed to wet ferment, in which added water covers the fermenting beans. Generally, dry ferment tends to produce a richer, more complex, though typically less transparent, cup.
Newer Non-Traditional Methods.
Producers in general appear to be standing pat with traditional ferment-and-wash wet processing, although some farms are experimenting with alternative processing methods like dried-in-the-fruit natural or honey processes. Nevertheless, as I write there appears to be relatively little of the widespread experimentation with altering cup profile through alternative processing methods that is taking place in Panama, Costa Rica and, to somewhat lesser degree, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Guatemala Growing Regions
Anacafé, the Guatemalan National Coffee Association, has defined eight Guatemalan growing regions. These regions make sense in regard to general geographic and climate factors and rough coherence of terroir but appear to apply only vaguely to cup profile. As is usually the case in coffee, the subtle impact on coffee character created by terroir appears to be largely overridden by the more immediate impact of botanical variety and processing variations.
Of the eight regions, the most frequently seen names on specialty coffee menus are Antigua, which occupies the relatively flat-floored, rich-soiled valley surrounding the colonial city of Guatemala Antigua; Huehuetenango, a dry, high-altitude, remote region bordering Mexico; the Acatenango region near Antigua, and the scenically spectacular Atitlan region surrounding the lake of the same name.
The Traditional Guatemala Cup
Typical Global Descriptors.
Balanced, gently to roundly acidy and bright, often delicate, with mouthfeel ranging from full and syrupy to light and silky. Suave yet idiosyncratic; in other words, classically structured and balanced, yet often surprising and original in detail.
Common Aroma/Flavor Notes.
Flowers, nut-toned chocolate, plum, honey (when lighter-roasted), sweet citrus, cedar. Small-producer, cooperative coffees may show faint hints of processing taints (sweet ferment, herby pungency) that compromise purity yet may contribute some serendipitous interest to the cup. Large-beaned varieties (Maragogipe, Maracaturra, Pacamara) tend to show deeper, more savory tendencies.
Guatemala Coffee Ratings and Reviews
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