Central America and South America are predominant regions in which specialty coffee is grown. It’s also home to 5 of the top 10 coffee producers in the world. You’ve got Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala. While Brazil and Colombia are certainly the dominant forces in South America, the split in Central America is more even because the region is comprised of a collection of smaller countries in terms of landmass.
The result is a varied patchwork of coffee growers, and a cocktail of tropical microclimates, that all combine to make coffees from this region vibrant and unique. In this article, we’re focused on Guatemala and the great beans that grow there.
The country is small in terms of landmass but not the smallest in the Central American region, and is also the most densely populated with over 16 million citizens. It covers an area of around 42,000 sq mi, similar to Honduras (43,000 sq mi) and just slightly smaller than Nicaragua (49,000 sq mi). With that said, it is dwarfed by Mexico, it’s neighbour to the north (761,606 sq mi).
The country’s western front is a Pacific coastline and on the other side, less than 500 km away, there is also a small coastline in the south east (Caribbean Sea). It’s location and size play a vital role in determining the country’s natural climate, which we’ll go into in more detail later.
Guatemalan Coffee Production
Guatemala produces a remarkable amount of coffee considering it being such a small and densely populated nation. It sneaks into the top 10 list of producers in the world, exporting around 204,000 tonnes of beans each year. The bulk of that production takes place on a patchwork of small farms spread across the western side, but in truth, coffee growers can be found all across Guatemala.
This creates a curious mix of coffee regions that can each be very distinct from the other. Due to there being stark differences in altitude, terroir and microclimate between each, you will find that coffee grown in Huehuetenango will taste almost entirely different from Atitlan, despite there not being much distance between them.
Coffee is grown high up away from the tropical heat, with production generally starting at around 1,300 masl and going as high as 2,000+ masl in Huehuetenango. The farms average between 1 and 50 hectares in size, so the bulk of the processing after drying takes place in shared mills or the coffee is sold at that stage to someone who can finish it. Some much larger farms do have their own processing stations. You will most often find coffees from Guatemala have been washed, but there are still plenty of variations available.
Like a lot of countries in Central and South America, coffee cultivation was introduced in the 18th century, before rising in popularity in the mid-late 19th century and quickly becoming its major export. To this day, coffee remains a major economic driver for Guatemala, accounting for around 8.2% of its overall exports and providing employment for over 500,000 people.
The industry has taken hits on many occasions, like most that are dependant on nature. There have been natural disasters like the leaf-rust epidemic that wiped out a quarter of its coffee production in the last 5 years. This is a disease that many Arabica plant species are susceptible to and as you can see, can be fatally damaging.
98% of the coffee in Guatemala is shade grown, which refers to a traditional style of farming where crops are grown under a canopy of trees. This is said not just to protect the plants from prolonged periods of strong sunlight, but also encourages natural ecological benefits too. The most common varietals found here are Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Typica, Maragogype, Pache and Pacamara.
Anacafe, the country’s coffee-board created its own method for grading beans and distinguishing the individual nuances of its regions. You’ve got, SHB (Strictly Hard Bean), FHB (Fancy Hard Bean), and HB (Hard Bean). As we’ve already mentioned, each region may be renowned for a particular flavour characteristic, even if they’re only 500km apart.
Climate In Guatemala
We’ve mentioned that Guatemala’s location has a profound effect on its climate, with trade winds spiralling from all directions and moisture being collected from both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. In fact, there are over 300 recognised microclimates in the region that are created by a myriad of geographical elements. There are also two major mountain ranges that cut through the country to create 3 very separately distinct zones. These zones each have their own unique geographical and climatic profiles, some with steep green valleys and other with patches of sand dunes. Plus, there is also the famous Volcán Tajumulco to the west, which at 4,222 masl is the highest point in Central America.
Guatemala is Equatorial, so In all of the lowlands the climate is tropical and hot all year round, with dry and rainy seasons throughout the year. The higher up you go, the cooler the climate gets and the more appropriate it becomes for the cultivation of high-quality coffee plants. Interestingly, north of the mountains and near the Gulf of Honduras, there is also an area where it rains all year round thanks to winds picking moisture up from the coast and hitting the steep mountainous slopes.
Huehuetanango is the most prolific and probably well-known coffee growing region in Guatemala. It lies just 125 km inland from the Pacific coast, but the titanic Volcán Tajumulco sits in between the two, so don’t get any ideas about a day trip! The temperature here averages 17℃, with patchy rain in the summer, it is drier in the winter. In Antigua and Atitlan it is slightly warmer.
Guatemalan Coffee In The Cup
It is hard to come up with a broad description of specialty coffee from Guatemala, as we’ve established there are so many variations. One thing is for sure though, the rich cocktail of nutrient rich, volcanic soils and varied microclimates make for a terrific tasting experience.
Generally speaking, Guatemalan coffees can be very versatile for both filter and espresso roast profiles. This is in part thanks to their naturally sweet flavour characteristics like milk chocolate. With that said, some are much more fruity and acidic than others, with notes of pineapple, banana, mango, or lime. The fruitier ones taste great roasted lighter and brewed using a Chemex or V60, they also make a deliciously refreshing cold brew too.
Famous Regions: Huehuetenango, Antigua, Atitlan
Common Varietals: Caturra, Catuai, Typica, Maragogype, Pache and Pacamara.
Common Processing Methods: Usually washed but you can also find a lot of naturals and pulped too
Growing Altitude: 1300+ masl
Flavour Notes: Sweet and fruity, notes of melon, mango, lime