The prevalence of Guatemalan coffee over the last few years within the specialty market has waned slightly. Small farms facing financial difficulties and climate change have forced small holders to sell their farms, consolidating those coffees to larger commercial operations. Looking at Huehuetenango, this has been true over the last few seasons, especially as cost of production gets closer (or exceeds) the prices that importers are willing to pay. Despite these challenges, Guatemalan coffee persists. With soaring elevation, developing infrastructure, and rich volcanic soil, coffees from Guatemala are some of the highest quality coming from Central America. With this in mind, we have partnered with our friend (and World Barista Champion) Raul Rodas to aid in sourcing coffees outside of Huehuetenango. With his help, we visited in April of ‘23 to establish new relationships while utilizing a cupping lab in a mill and driving all over the furthest reaches of Guatemala. What we found together were altogether unknown coffees and regions which we had never sourced from before. We put together a full container load of microlots ranging from anaerobic naturals to dynamic and bright washed coffees.
Surrounded by volcanoes, the Antigua valley is home to not only the most idyllic and famous town in Central America, but also to many sprawling estates producing coffee. Within these picturesque farms is the Cuxinales Estate, a third-generation farm producing specialty coffee. Within the estate they cultivate bourbon, catuai, maragogype, and pacamara. This particular coffee has been fermented in a sealed bag for seven days in cherry, and dried for subsequent 20 days on their sprawling patio.
NATURALLY PROCESSED COFFEE
Natural coffees are beautiful… Okay, natural coffees are beautiful when done properly, but can be equally terrible when things go wrong. Natural processing, or dry processing, refers to the act of drying and fermenting coffee inside the cherry. Long before the age of portafilter tattoos and dual-boiler home espresso machines, coffee was picked and dried this way out of convenience. It is, to this day, still the most convenient and economically friendly way to process coffee cherries. (It’s estimated that dry-processing can use up to 90% less water than the washing process.) So why isn’t all coffee processed this way? Well, as coffee made its way across the world, it was commoditized and standardized, just like all other products spread by colonialism, but that’s a whole other story... Adding to the boom of washed processing, the natural process method can be tricky to get right, due to the delicate nature of fermentation and drying. What does all this have to do with the final cup? Well, when you leave the skin and fruit of the coffee cherry on the seed throughout fermentation and drying, that fruit begins to break down, imparting esters that influence delicate florals and big fruit notes into the seed that survive the roasting process. If it’s rushed or handled incorrectly, this fruit rot can lend off-flavors to the coffee, making the final cup “dirty” or “fermenty.”
How is this done? It starts at harvest, with the selective harvesting of ripe coffee cherries. Only the fully mature cherries are picked, as they have the highest sugar content and flavor potential. The harvested cherries are then sorted to remove any damaged or under ripe cherries. This ensures that only the best quality cherries are used in the primary fermentation. After sorting, the cherries are spread out in thin layers on large drying beds or patios to dry naturally under the sun. (or sometimes under shade) They are periodically raked and turned to ensure even drying. This step can take several weeks depending on weather conditions. As the cherries dry, they undergo a natural fermentation process. Enzymes present in the fruit interact with the sugars and other compounds, causing chemical reactions that impact the flavor profile of the coffee. This fermentation adds complexity and fruity flavors to the final cup. During the drying/ fermentation process, the cherries must be protected from rain, humidity, pests, and mold.
Farmers often cover the cherries with tarps during the night or when there's a risk of adverse weather. The coffee cherries are dried until they reach an optimal moisture content of around 11-12%. At this point, the cherries have shrunk, and the outer skin and fruit can be easily removed to reveal the green coffee seed inside, which is ready for roasting after a short boat ride. Basically, that single cherry begins to slowly decay, and controlling that delicate action through advanced technique and metrics allow us, lucky folks, to drink wonderfully floral and fruity coffees.