In Guatemala – Part two: The coffee farmer on the volcano.

(continued from Part one: The holiest of weeks in Antigua.)

It is dawn. Spiralling upward, a rickety metal staircase presents the first task of the day: climbing up from the kitchen to the rooftop terrace with a full cup of coffee, each step creaking and tentative, and hopefully not losing my precious liquid along the way. As I emerge victoriously to the open air from the shadowy indoor light, the sun simultaneously crests an uneven horizon, casting its first light across the picturesque colonial city of Antigua that fills the little valley between three sentinel volcanoes.

From my rooftop perch, I watch the world go by with a bird’s eye view. The city is waking up; women are emerging onto roofs to string up the day’s laundry, children are gathering in the streets and meandering towards schoolyards, and the roar of the chicken buses that are the backbone of western Guatemala’s transportation system rev up in the distance. My gaze floats across the bustle towards the quiet, hazy slopes of the volcanoes which form the rim around Antigua’s valley. Quiet now, their looming presence is never quite forgotten – earthquakes and threats of lava have rocked this valley for as long as humans have been here, and raw elemental forces continue to shape lives. But while the earth may threaten, it also provides: the very cup of coffee that warms my hands in the cool morning air was brewed by Evelyn, our generous host, and the beans nourished by the volcanic soil that is waiting to receive the sun’s warm beacon.

My gaze settles on the distant Volcán de Agua. Today, I will be tracing down the roots of this cup of coffee, literally to its roots on the dusty lower slopes of the volcano in front of me.

One hour later I find myself in the quiet little town of San Miguel Escobar, located on the outskirts of Antigua, watching the early morning sun trace long shadows across its central square. To one side, lone elderly women shuffle one-by-one into the worn open archway of an old church as part of their daily ritual. To the other, men sit in front of a corner-store, almost indistinguishable from any found in Guatemala, watching the world go by and waiting for some place to be. Sauntering down a steep road from further up the hill, a handsome mestizo enters the scene and crosses the square to greet me with a smile: “Hola! Me llamo Mercedes Perez González. ¡Vamos!”

With the unhurried and steady cadence of a man who will unapologetically arrive where they are going whenever they happen to get there, Mercedes leads the way up the narrow road from which he came. Just a few short minutes from the central square, densely lined rows of houses give way to brush, and the paved road becomes a meandering dune of soft dust. Mercedes is a coffee farmer, and this is a path he is familiar with. Every day he walks four kilometres up the side of the volcano to his little plot of farmland, and every evening he walks back down to his home at the foot of the volcano.

We step to the side of the makeshift road to let a rusty truck thunder past us on the shifting road, its back loaded so high with the day’s yields that the pile towers over the vehicle itself. The driver lifts a hand to wave at us as he bounces down the steep slope, and as he blurs past more than a few smiles from men hanging off the sides speak silent hellos as well. All sorts of farmers work the soil on these slopes, most of whom are small-holders that generally own an average of approximately 3 acres of land. With their families, they each cultivate, harvest, and process the coffee with care. Today, I will be helping gather some of the last coffee cherries of this season’s harvest.

Step by step, Mercedes’ eagerness to openly chat and easy smile welcomes me into his life. We get to know each other as the heat of the sun begins to warm our backs. Body language filling in the gaps of communication due to my broken Spanish, we build up a rapport that goes beyond language. From beneath his wide brimmed hat, he tells of the young origins of his farming life. Just seven years ago, with the help of a low-interest small loan program, he began coffee farming here. “It takes about four years for a new coffee plant to yield sellable beans,” he explained. “That’s a long time without making money. Without the loan, I could not have afforded to start.” Originally, this allowed him to begin coffee farming on a small piece of land, just 1 cuerda in size (just under 1 acre). Today, he has experienced success and paid back that loan, and furthermore ambitiously expanded his land holdings to 6 full cuerdas (approximately 5.8 full acres). The crops he tends has also diversified to include grow peanuts, a project his daughter, Lydia, spearheads and brands in little jars labelled “Lydia’s Peanut Butter.” I got to sample it later, and it is delicious.

Growth and learning have come hand-in-hand for Mercedes, which was encouraged by the local coffee co-op, De La Gente – literally meaning, “For the people”: through educational opportunities they offer, farmers have been able to educate themselves on better farming and business practices to improve financial, social, and environmental sustainability.

As in so many things, the business plan for long term success in coffee farming is very different from the short term one. Not knowing better, when you’re hungry and need money to provide for your family, it’s easy to understand why any of us would reach for the low hanging fruit (pun intended) to make ends meet in the here and now. In coffee farming, this translates to entering into agreement with buyers who pay based solely on the measured weight of coffee collected. As a result, hands that have tended the plants so meticulously up to this point now indiscriminately pull off everything – the ripe fruit, rightly, but also the underripe and overripe as well. Each coffee cherry pulled off means a larger payout at the end of the day as emphasis is placed on quantity, not quality. Unfortunately, this means that fruit that needed just a bit more time, space, and care to grow into the perfect expression of themselves are plucked prematurely.

Coffee is worth more than this coffee-by-weight system merely offers. Over the past century, coffee has been poised as a commoditized drink – cheap, hot, and full of caffeine to get you started each morning. In more recent years, a growing group of appreciators around the world have begun to value it for its flavour like that of a fine whisky – terroir, process, brewing method – all the little details along the way can have a strong influence in that final cup, and as such a market has arisen that places a higher value on quality. Much of this comes back to the choices made by the farmer, and Mercedes, as a coffee farmer that is part of that process, is taking his role seriously. A handful of perfectly ripe coffee cherries has much more value than a handful of coffee cherries of varying quality. Farming this way is not a rigid process: it requires adapting to the varying influences by season, weather, and pests, and requires an attentive hand to carefully orchestrate. This is where small farmers like him excel and are able to produce a product of quality that larger-scale coffee farms cannot. This is an important lesson Mercedes has learned, and to this he owes a large part of his success.

Covered in dust, but with the satisfying weight of full sacks of fresh coffee fruit on our backs, we hike back down to the town of San Miguel Escobar. In the heat of the day, men line the shaded curb of one side of the street, taking a casual siesta. They greet us with nearly indiscernible lift of one edge of the mouth – typical here, but equivalent to a wide, toothy smile in other cultures. It is hot on the narrow cobblestone street, and Mercedes swings open a tall metal door around the corner to welcome me into the shaded respite of his yard. Here, at home with his family, is where the fruit of his labour is worked with.

To one side of the yard, half of a bicycle is curiously welded to a small depulper – a device used to remove the outside of the fresh coffee fruit we’ve picked to separate the bean within. It turns out that the bicycle is a pedal-powered upgrade to the old hand crank one – the work of which is the specialty of a friend in the community – which means that the same work can now be done five times faster, and more comfortably.

Next, the coffee beans are laid on metal sheets in the high sun to dry. In the shade next to the drying racks, dried coffee from earlier in the week waits in straw baskets to be sifted through. Upending a container over the table, light green beans spread out in stark contrast to the dark, worn wood beneath. One by one, malformed beans that are less than perfect are picked out and discarded.

Now, the coffee is ready to be stored in massive burlap sacks to be shipped to roasters around the world. The only way farmers with such small operations have a chance to be a part of this greater opportunity is teamwork, and that is another important reason that co-ops have arisen. With collective help, farmers can band together and connect good coffee with people around the world who value the care they put in to their work to create the best final product they can.

Business aside, there’s another story here; some of the green beans are rightly kept for the family. Over the past hour Mercedes’ daughter Lydia has been stoking the fire of their outdoor wood stove; heating a massive cast iron skillet in the outdoor kitchen. A grassy smell wafts into the air as she drops a generous measure of green beans onto the waiting heat. Attentively, she stirs the browning beans past first crack, ensuring an even roast. At just the right moment, she whisks them off into another straw basket where they are deftly tossed to cool and remove the flakey chaff. The transformed beans, now a delectable brown colour, are laid on a roughhewn slab of igneous rock called a metate, and are swiftly crushed by hand with an equally rough stone rolling pin – there are no electric burr grinders here. The resulting mound of fine, aromatic ground coffee is swept into a pot of boiling water with practiced hands, stirred for a few moments, and finally poured off through a strainer into a waiting ornamental pot. The process may be rough but the presentation is anything but.

It is a lot of work, but coffee farming affords Mercedes and his family a good life here in San Miguel Escobar. The family owns their home, their farm, and their life – which in a developing country (or really, anywhere for that matter) are things not to be taken for granted.

The day’s work now behind us, we all sit down on Mercedes’ shaded veranda. A colourful tablecloth is brought out to cover the rough wood we were working on just moments earlier, and bright blue cups are filled with steaming, dark coffee. Mercedes lifts the drink to his lips and takes a long, appreciative slurp. With a cup of coffee in one hand, Mercedes smiles up at me from under that wide-brimmed hat of his and says he is happier than he has ever been. “This life is good, and now my daughters can get an education and find whatever life is good for them.” We all follow his lead: tasting the earth, the care, and the process involved in this simple cup of coffee.

The next day, these memories play back in my head as I once again find myself on the rooftop terrace watching the city of Antigua wake up, with Volcán de Agua drawing my gaze more than yesterday. I close my eyes and take a long sip of coffee. In my cup I can almost feel the warmth of the volcano’s pulsing heart, smell the earthiness of its nutrient rich soil, and appreciate the energy that the farmer put into carefully cultivating the coffee beans which I’m now enjoying. A cup of coffee is so much more than it first seems. Opening my eyes, I am grateful.

Sunrise over Antigua, Guatemala

Volcán de Agua contours the southern horizon of Antigua, Guatemala.

Chicken bus on cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala

All aboard the chicken bus out of town! These decked out buses are color-coded to indicate their routes as many people can’t read in the rural regions of Guatemala where they run.

Coffee farmer standing under an avocado tree

Meet Mercedes.

Hiking up a loose volcanic slope

Hiking up loose volcanic soil as the hot sun rises higher in the sky.

Picking coffee cherries of plants at coffee farm

Picking coffee cherries under the shade of an avocado tree.

The bean inside a coffee cherry

On the left is a ripe coffee cherry, and on the right is the prized bean that hides inside.

Guatemala coffee farm - processing in the yard at home

The yard, back at Mercedes’ home at the foot of the volcano.

Bicycle depulper for coffee processing

A fascinating bicycle upgrade has been added to a depulper originally driven by a hand crank.

Coffee beans before and after drying.

Coffee beans – before and after drying (from right to left, respectively).

Sorting dried coffee beans by size and quality

Sorting dried coffee beans by size and quality.

Sifting green coffee beans by hand

Sifting through and removing the less than perfect green coffee beans is labour intensive, but very meditative work when you get into it. This is quality assurance at its finest!

Roasting coffee the traditional way

Lydia roasts coffee the traditional way: stirring beans in a hot cast iron skillet fed by a wood fire beneath.

Shaking the chaff from freshly roasted coffee in a wicker basket

Shaking the chaff from freshly roasted coffee.

Hand grinding coffee beans with a metate

In Guatemala, coffee beans are traditionally hand ground with a roughhewn slab of igneous rock called a metate. With the movement to modernization, this kitchen appliance can’t be acquired these days and is a treasured family heirloom.

Sweeping freshly ground coffee into boiling water

Freshly ground coffee is swept into a waiting pot of boiling water.

Coffee is served in pretty blue porcelain cups

And finally, coffee is served.

First appreciative slurps.

First appreciative slurps.

Portrait of a Guatemalan coffee farmer

A portrait of the man behind the coffee.

(continued as Part three: Lake Atitlán.)