I had the good fortune of going on my first “origin” trip last month with Tom and Aleco in Guatemala. I was of course very excited to learn that I would be joining them on a tour of some of the farms we are working with this year. The three of us have put in tons of hours roasting and cupping Guatemalan farm samples the last few months, so I was really looking forward to finally be able to put faces to many of the farmer’s names I’ve become so familiar with.
We visited some pretty large and amazing farms during our trip, but my favorite days were spent driving through areas that were nothing less than hard to reach. It goes without saying that Guatemala is a beautiful and lush country, and I had the pleasure of traveling along some particularly dramatic landscapes. Small farms perched up on the mountainside with very little road to keep your tires afloat, and the majority of space being air-filled gaps between drastically chiseled cliffs built up over time by massive tectonic activity. That’s my kind of “drama”.
Traversing the mountainside switchbacks in a four-wheel drive, at times it was a dizzying ride for me. Needless to say, we were afforded tremendous vistas at 6000 feet above sea level, and the farms on the other side seemed like a patchwork of various shades of green and brown squaring off on the mountain. Once up close, it becomes clear that these demarcations of color are crops plotted along the mountain terraces that many subsistence farmers in the area harvest annually - corn, lettuce, carrots, and of course, coffee.
There’s lots of coffee along the hillside, and most of the operations are kept fairly simple. Small farms with natural shading, a central area for fermentation and washing, and open patios for drying. Processing coffee in this way is efficient. However, depending on what side of the mountain your farm is on, it can put an unhealthy reliance on good weather. If your farm happens to be on the cloudy side, frequent (but often short lived) rain showers make drying conditions less than ideal. And while sun is a very efficient resource to use for drying coffee, infrequent appearances deem it unreliable at best.
Some of the farmers we visited escape the unpredictable nature of weather by building indoor structures where they dry their coffee outside the reach of potentially harmful elements. It’s not only rain that causes instability, but also moisture in the air, and excessive heat from the sun. These structures help provide protection from direct contact with either. Too much moisture or too much sun and heat will be expressed in the way the parchment dries out. Wet parchment that can’t properly dry due to rain or humidity will often have the smell of fermenting coffee cherry. Too much direct sun or heat often shows up as splitting or peeling parchment. Either way, parchment is the protective layer keeping outside elements from influencing the beans inside, and therefore important to keep intact. Ultimately this can mean a large difference in cup quality and the potential profits that the farmer stands to make on their harvest.
We often talk about “raised bed” and “parabolic bed” drying in our reviews (especially in South and Central America where weather can be an issue - see Colombian coffees). This is the type of method I’m referring to. Inside the buildings are rows of shelves with mesh screens as bottoms. Coffee is spread out on the shelves and the screen lets air pass through the thin layer of drying parchment. This allows for a much gentler cycle of drying, which in turn helps to protect the layer of parchment.
One particular mill that we visited was at the end of what had to be one of the hairiest stretches of dirt road (if you can call it a “road”) that we traveled on. I was surprised to hear they were building an indoor drying facility seeing that it meant trucking any necessary supplies up the mountain and along this road. But these buildings are made in such a way as to keep materials to a minimum. They’re merely housing “frames”, with visqueen stapled up as walls and a roof, and with rows of shelving inside. This particular building incorporated large windows that were framed (using visqueen as well), and when open, allow a nice breeze to flow through the room. It’s a simple setup of materials, relatively cost efficient, and easy to transport - even in hard to reach areas such as this.
We saw other raised bed setups along our trip - some for much larger operations than the one I described above - but they all basically used the same construction of plastic/visqueen rolled out over wooden frames. It’s definitely a cost effective method and allows a certain assurance to the farmer that their crops are now safe under cover. Is it “efficient” to gamble an entire harvest against a possibility of wet weather? Not really. Of course, this isn’t an option for all farmers for various reasons. Hopefully this changes, and in the future, we’ll see more folks given the opportunity to insure their coffee from unpredictable weather.4
Be on the lookout for our first shipment of Guatemalan coffee to be available April 5!-Dan<