Guatemala is rivaled only by Kenya as coffee insiders’ favorite origin. The terrible ravages of decades of brutal civil war have ironically helped preserve that position, since those years of disorder discouraged the technification of Guatemala coffee, meaning the replacement of heirloom, shade-grown varieties of Coffea arabica with hybrid, full-sun varieties heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers. Almost all Guatemalan coffee remains shade-grown; much still comes from traditional varieties of arabica. Almost all Guatemala coffee is still wet-processed using traditional methods and cleaned by hand. In other words, Guatemala largely remains an artisan coffee, traditional in both growing and processing methods.
Now that Guatemala has emerged from its long time of troubles, Anacafe, the Guatemalan coffee association, has embarked on a vigorous and well-managed effort to promote their its country’s coffee as a specialty origin. Anacafé has wisely chosen to emphasize the diversity of Guatemalan coffees in its promotional materials. Certainly one of the delights of Guatemala as coffee origin is the variety of forms its coffee excellence takes.
That diversity is well reflected in the eleven coffees reviewed here. They range from powerfully acidy profiles in the classic Latin-American high-grown mode to wonderfully sweet, complexly floral profiles that rival the great washed floral coffees of Ethiopia. Aside from a sampling of East Africa coffees I reviewed a year or two ago, I can’t recall cupping eleven coffees that offered so much variety and so much quality.
The common generalizations relating Guatemala growing regions to cup profile roughly held form in this sampling. Most of the Antigua coffees displayed predictable floral notes, although the degree of acidity differed markedly, perhaps owing to differences in elevation and exposure. I’m told, for example, that Antiguas grown on the slopes of the valley are more acidy and austere than those grown on the valley floor. The three coffees from the magnificent Lake Atitlan basin displayed the full body and more restrained acidity said to be typical of the region, and the one Fraijanes was bright but balanced, as advertised. The two Huehuetenango coffees, like the Antiguas, split between soft and complex on one hand and austere and acidy on the other.
Differences in how the roast was handled provided the usual subplot. These Guatemalas all were roasted toward the dark end of the single-origin spectrum, reflecting a common conviction among specialty roasters that high-grown Guatemalas, owing to their dense, hard bean and pronounced acidity, taste best at a darker roast style which tends to round and complicate the acidity.
However, there was a distinct difference in how the darkish degree of roast was achieved. At least two of the reviewed coffees seemed dried out in the roast, with nuance and sugars both burned out of the bean, whereas others were brought to their darker degree of roast gently enough to support and transmute the delicate fruit and flower notes rather than destroy them. In my experience fruit often takes a turn toward chocolate in a darker roast, a phenomenon that may explain the rather extraordinary chocolate character of the two samples from Heritage Coffee.
If this tiny sampling is any indication, 1999 is a good year to buy and brew Guatemala coffee. Let’s hope there remain many more good years, and Guatemala growers and processors enter the global economy with restraint and an acute awareness of the traditional nature of the treasure they bring to the world.