Guatemala and Chiapas
In a world fatigued and oppressed by constant new scenes of flooding and disaster, the news that Guatemala, the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and adjacent parts of Central America recently suffered catastrophic floods and landslides owing to still another hurricane - this one named Stan - may have slipped by many of us.
But for those coffee growers whose relatives or neighbors were lost in the flooding, or whose fields and houses slid down the mountain, or who found their drying patios and gardens several feet deep in silt on the morning of October 2, this was a singular and life-changing event.
Reports are still coming in, but it is clear that most coffee growing regions in Guatemala and Chiapas were affected to some degree, with some areas suffering damage that will take years to repair. In Guatemala alone over 2,000 lives were lost, as many as 100,000 people are still homeless, and many roads continue to be blocked by washouts and landslides.
Keep Drinking the Coffee
Given Guatemala's and Chiapas' long history as two of the world's great coffee growing regions, regions where coffee is woven tightly into the fabric of the lives of the mainly indigenous small growers, quiet, hard-working people whom many of us have visited and come to admire for their tenacious spirit and often superb coffee, it seemed appropriate to celebrate Guatemala and Chiapas coffees with a review of some of the great coffees that yearly emerge from the cooperatives and farms of these regions.
Clearly the best thing to do when disaster strikes the people of a coffee growing region is to continue to buy their coffees, and the worst is to stop buying them. We need not only to be generous in our outright gifts of support for affected growers, but also in our continued appreciation and recognition of their achievement.
No Need to Flatter
Fortunately, I did not have to cheat by being extra nice to the coffees reviewed here; the eighteen or so Guatemala and Chiapas samples I gathered at the last minute from eight roasting companies were, as a group, superb.
They fell into two categories: Coffees from cooperatives of small-holding farmers, and coffees from larger family-owned farms. The cooperative coffees usually, though not always, are certified Fair-Trade and organically grown. The many tiny farms that make up the cooperatives have seldom if ever used chemicals, so a transition to organic agriculture was relatively easy for them, and Fair-Trade, a program that guarantees farmers a "fair" or economically sustainable price for their coffee, is an option only available to small-holding farmers organized in cooperatives and not to larger, independent farms.
To be fair, however, most of the larger farms represented in this review have a history of environmental and social responsibility. To give just one example, both the El Injerto and Dos Marias farms whose coffees are reviewed here maintain very large forest reserves. In the case of El Injerto more land is devoted to forest than to coffee, and Dos Marias maintains extensive tracts of cloud forest that harbor the quetzal bird, the endangered national symbol of Guatemala.
The Larger Farm Coffees
In general, the larger farm coffees achieved slightly higher ratings than the cooperative coffees, though only narrowly. The most exceptional of the family farm coffees reviewed here, the limited edition La Tacita estate from Counter Culture Coffee (94), is produced by a long-established, elite growing operation in the famous Antigua Valley. The La Tacita fields are on the valley slope, higher in elevation than most Antigua Coffees, and regularly produce an astounding and beautiful cup. A similar long record of success lies behind the fine coffees reviewed her from the Dos Marias farm in the San Carlos region (90) and Finca El Injerto (91 and 89) and Finca Huixoc (92) in Huehuetenango. On the other hand, a couple of the Antigua coffees, not reviewed here and presumably from larger farms, came in at a respectable but not exceptional 85.
The Fruity Ferment Issue
The issue that both distinguishes and haunts many small-holder coffees is a sweet, slightly fermented fruitiness. Only two of the six small-holder coffees we reviewed this month were completely free from fruity ferment: the impressive Songbird Shadegrown Guatemala (90) from the GUAYA'B cooperative roasted by Thanksgiving Coffee and the nicely balanced Mexican Select Fair-Trade/Organic from Green Mountain (88). The most wildly (and, for some adventurous palates, most excitingly) fermented coffee also came from the GUAYA'B cooperative and also was roasted by Thanksgiving: the Mayan Harvest Breakfast Blend (87). Other small-holder coffees reviewed here, including the Green Mountain Heifer Hope Blend (87), a blend based on the celebrated coffee from the La Voz qui Clama en el Desierto cooperative near Lake Atitlan, displayed various intensities and styles of fruity ferment.
The truth of the matter is many coffee drinkers enjoy the complicating intrigue of a little sweet ferment in their cup, and prefer mildly fermented coffees to cleaner, purer (and, to them, more boring) profiles. The question of how to evaluate coffees that display such mild, sweet fruit ferment is one of those unresolved controversies that meanders fitfully through the coffee profession, with some coffee buyers and roastmasters appreciative of the giddy, often wine-like overripe fruity character brought on by this kind of ferment and others shunning it as a flavor defect.
For what it's worth, my own approach to fruit ferment is to value it when it is sweet, richly or delicately wine-like and free of bitterness, but to start to subtract points the moment it begins to display bitterness or astringency, or when it varies excessively from cup to cup.
Simple and Poignant
Why is sweet ferment so typical of many small-holder coffees? The answer is simple and poignant: Successfully removing the fruit from the coffee beans or seeds before the sugar in the fruit surrounding the beans begins to ferment requires good infrastructure: adequate transportation, good equipment for fruit removal, and easy access to a water source for washing the coffee. Small-holding coffee farmers all over the world have trouble moving their freshly picked, ripe coffee fruit to a centralized mill or even to a fresh water source in timely fashion, before ferment sets in. Often the farmers' little plots are miles from mill or water, and the freshly picked fruit needs to be carried, often on the farmer's back, for all those miles. No wonder the farmer is tempted to let the fruit sit for a day or two before hauling it down the hill.
From Difficult to Impossible
One of the cooperatives represented in this month's review, the La Voz qui Clama en el Desierto, was particularly heavily damaged by last month's Hurricane Stan. I recall some years ago watching farmers at this beautiful cooperative bring their coffee fruit down the steep volcanic slopes above the mill for processing. Some had pack animals, but many brought the fruit in on their backs.
That was hard enough, getting the fruit down to the mill before it fermented. But think of the difficulties these farmers face now, when even the little trails they use to transport their coffee to the mill are washed out and the fields themselves may have been carried away by landslide.
Toast all of the hard-working farmers of Guatemala and Chiapas when you enjoy one of these fine coffees, and consider a contribution to one of the following relief efforts.