Over lunch today Jared asked me, “So what was it that made you call me up a few weeks ago to work with you for a week in Guate?” It was simple. One twitter pic of a Quest roaster that led me to think he knew how to use it. And that Drew Fitchette our in house sample roast master was touring Australia, NZ and Japan guitar tech-ing for the Fleet Foxes. Turns out Jared can put out consistent sample roasts despite a wide spread in moisture content from coffees straight off the patio. AND, he can write!
So, sit down with a cup of coffee and get comfortable before you read on. Seriously. Sit down. Get comfortable and enjoy as he tells of his experience:
I arrive late Monday the 16th to Guatemala City, picked up at the airport by Edwin Martinez (going forward he is ‘Eddy,’ because his dad’s name is also Edwin), Ryan Knapp from Madcap, and Raul Rodas. Our first stop is a newly opened Starbucks in central Guatemala City, where we arrive right as they’re closing down for the night. Raul goes his separate way for the night and Ryan and I are catching up on our respective businesses while we observe the interior of the space. We’re greeted by a passionate staff of green-aproned, energetic Guatemalans and they insist that we sit down and experience a tasting of their coffee. My Spanish is decent, but I look at Edwin and say something like, ‘What is happening here?’ because they are trying to close down for the night. He seems a bit confused too, but the three of us sit down and wait. In the ensuing fifteen minutes I will experience the most earnest representation in my life of Starbucks Pike Place Roast. As our educator is speaking, I start to take a sip from the French Press brew he’s made and he stops me before it can touch my lips; ‘no, wait! I have a few steps for tasting you must follow.’ I’m impressed and curious. By the end I tell him he should compete in his country’s barista competition, because if he could transfer that sort of passion to talking about his own country’s coffee it’d be a good thing for us all.
On our second day in Guatemala City we carefully time the traffic and make our way halfway up to Fraijanes, where Finca de Dios co-owner Stuart meets us and drives the rest of the way to his farm, where his wife Ellen awaits our arrival. Madcap has been buying this coffee for a few years so this farm has special significance to Ryan, who is also figuring out his new camera to best document this beautiful farm. We walk through the trees, some pruned down to the base, some yellow Bourbon, some young and flourishing, all carefully managed. Ellen tells me about how they placed very high in their first entry to the country’s CoE, also the first year they installed their own wet mill and processed their coffee. With that sort of positive reinforcement, they’ve been going hard at it ever since to bring the best their land can offer. At lunch we roast a small sample of an older growth Bourbon from an early harvest lot. Ryan and I are comforted by the smell of roasted coffee and we give Stuart some tips on roast length and degree. Shortly after, we grind some up in a hand grinder I’ve brought along and brew up both French press and Aeropress. Both are fantastic. They’ve never seen an Aeropress before so we explain a bit more about the ‘by the cup’ movement happening worldwide and talk about some of the specific advantages of the Aeropress. We finish the day visiting their wet mill and patio and the sun goes down on us all marveling at their work, tired from a day of sun and great conversation.
We’re sitting at the breakfast table the next morning and I gather that Eddy Martinez’s grandfather is asking about my tattoos. I hold my arm up and show him my space invader tattoo, telling the story of how some friends and I journeyed off to Europe and later got these friendship tattoos, mine a bursting yellow and blue mosaic on my inner bicep. I think he’s still intrigued and see a bit of a smile, so I ask if he has any tatuajes. He laughs a bit more and points to a mole on his face then his wife, a kind and healthy older woman, begins singing a song and smiling. Such is the start to my third day in Guatemala on this trip with Onyx’s Eddy and Edwin Martinez.
We head out shortly to catch up with Tracy Allen’s group of roasters—who have just that morning made the journey from El Salvador—and meet them at Anacafe. We’re a bit early, so Ryan Knapp (Madcap) and I are able to spend some extra time with the passionate baristas/educators of Anacafe who run a series of courses for baristas and business owners. They have amazing resources here, which I’m told are very new. Many roasters of various sizes, a Strada, every brew method I can think of: the works. The rest of our entourage arrives after Knapp and I’ve successfully over-caffeinated ourselves and we’re probably looking a bit nauseous (Chemex of a coffee from Huehue, espresso, capps, aeropress…). We meet and greet then head on to Anacafe’s labs downstairs, where we hear all about the impressive plethora of resources available to producers: soil testing, fertilizer formulation, insect response, and more, hearing them specifically stress that chemical-free is always the first choice. We’re all a bit overwhelmed and curious, snapping pictures of equipment and joking about how some of their soil testing filters and beakers would make a rad sort of mini Chemex. In order to make it to Huehue before nightfall, we are a bit rushed and have to depart prematurely, piling into a van with our new acquaintances. I probably say something about how much I love these diesel vehicles, my new Greek friend Yianni of Taf Coffee is clicking shutters like nobody’s business and the mood is very good.
The drive to Huehue is a time to get to know your fellow travelers. By now KnappCap (a nickname he may or may not embrace) and I have spent quite a bit of time together so we cozy up in a bench seat in front of Mike from NYC behind Peter from Arkansas, behind Anna from Illinois and Stephanie from MPLS, behind our Greek Yianni and Edwin Jr, next to Tracy Allen, with Edwin Sr. at the helm. Whew. It’s a beautiful day in Guatemala City as we depart and Edwin Sr. is talking about history, elevation, the Panamerican Highway, and we have a chat in back about the Darien Gap. Tracy tells some stories about driving a little four by four down to Costa Rica a number of years ago. Then Tracy tells more stories because he’s got no shortage. Talk drifts: roasting, travelling, Zacapa, queso, vintage Marzocco, Portland, Los Angeles, Greek coffee, Miami, Instagram, coffee labels and bags. We see a policeman peeing on the side of the road as we climb in elevation, more pictures clicking away. Stopping for a quick snack of corn tortillas with cheese and hot sauce, we carry on and make it to Huehuetenango right around nightfall. Now I understand what Eddy means when he says that not a lot of people make it all the way to Huehue when they visit Guatemala on coffee business; it takes a lot of time.
Our first stop as we pull into town is a dry mill and we stretch our legs, then move on to our residence for this one evening: the Martinez home, a four story, very airy, compact space. I find the lookout room on the roof and breath some of this fresh air, curious about how the night will unfold. Edwin has mentioned that some producers will be swinging by to talk with us all tonight because our schedule is so tight the next few days. They come along around 8 or so, bearing some fresh pergamino, which we agree sounds sexier than the English version, parchment. Eddy is able to visit with and present a beautiful bag of Temple coffee to the two women who produce his ‘Diamante,’ coffee and they are shocked to see their farm name on the actual bag. We’re all in a circle looking at them and the room feels a bit electric, I’m waiting for them to cry. Edwin Jr. also looks like he’s on the verge.
Climbing into the mountains of Huehue is shockingly beautiful and takes a good deal of time. I am able to upload a few photos along the way, one of them a cement patio with coffee and clothes drying and the mountains and sunshine beyond in the distance. We visit a few farms along the way, meeting some friendly dogs and observing the landscape: steep and dry, coffee everywhere, I see where Edwin’s farm name Finca Vista Hermosa found its inspiration. We stop at his farm for a lunch then head out again, this time four of us enjoying a ride in the back of an old Toyota Landcruiser diesel pickup. Bumpy road, sunshine, laughter, cool breeze. I’m feeling bad for my wife at home in Seattle enduring the worst snow storm the city’s seen in what must be a decade or more. The producers we visit are all family operations that take quality and land stewardship very seriously, and they are also proud, genuine people. We hike, eating fresh, ripe cherries of various varieties: Caturra red and yellow, Bourbon as well, Geisha, Catimor, Pacamara.
We regroup back at Vista Hermosa and the Martinez father and son tell us we’ll have to do some walking for the last farm visit of the day, so we drive a ways, dodging roadside shrubbery from the back of the truck then park on a dirt soccer field while a game is underway. I see coffee everywhere, but have no idea where we’re going to walk next. The sun is setting during the walk down and I come across a large wasp-looking thing dragging a recently-deceased tarantula somewhere. I take a bit of video and keep on heading downhill. Fifteen minutes later or so we come upon this shockingly well-organized, simple wet mill perched on the side of a steep hill. There are some freshly pulped cherries sitting in a fermentation tank, I hear some sort of accordion music coming from down the hill, and then I tune in my audio senses a bit more and discover these gentlemen of Rosma are not speaking Spanish. It’s mam they are talking in, a dialect of the region that Eddy says is about as similar to Spanish as English is to Italian. I’m amazed, tired, curious. Sublime. We hike back to the trucks with a few fresh samples, still chewy and dense, more evergreen in color, and make the ride back to Vista Hermosa in a comforting, cool darkness.
I haven’t showered in what I think is two days at this point and am feeling the length of the day in my bones, but I’m here to help Edwin prep and roast samples so it’s down to business when we return from Rosma around 7 PM. Yes, this is still the same day in which we initially left Huehue city to head to the mountains. Everyone is curious about the little electric drum roaster we’ve brought along and I’m chipping away, trying to dial in my profiles while we munch on some steak the ladies have prepared. Knapp is screening samples that were just dry milled and will later fire up the sample mill again to work on the ones we’ve gathered from today’s journeys. All total, it’s twenty-two, so we’ve got a good five or so hours of work ahead of us. We persevere and enjoy one another’s company, easing into a rhythm that feels both normal and foreign. Every now and again we are reminding ourselves where, geographically-speaking, we are working. Around 1AM Edwin has a minor hallucination: a patio full of coffee at Hermosa. We all laugh about it and keep on going until about 2 AM, when Edwin and Ryan take a quick break to hit the sauna and I call it a night.
5:30 AM Friday comes upon us quickly and I’m groggy from my light nap, but we’ve got to catch a van at 6 that will take the two of us and these samples down to the city of Huehue so that we can set up the afternoon’s cuppings and keep this tight schedule moving along. Neither of us are quite sufficiently prepared for the nature of the ensuing van ride, but we try to get a bit of sleep and not think about how sore our butts are getting as we’re crammed in amongst nineteen or so others in this small vehicle. Some school girls come in and out, I hear some older men in front of me speaking in mam, at one quick stop Knapp jumps out and hands another of his producers a bag of their coffee in Madcap form. Hours go by and eventually we’re back where we started the day prior: Martinez home in Huehue. It must be one of the most intense twenty-four hour periods of my life. Because we’ve been so busy I’m no longer positive what day it is, but the sunshine on the rooftop patio is calming and invigorating. We decide to take advantage of the layout of the home and set the cupping up on the third floor veranda, surrounded with potted plants and with a beautiful view of the city. Everyone else arrives by late morning, we get the cupping underway, and we’re all thrilled to be tasting coffee from the farms that we’ve just visited. All of the twenty two lots are bright, lively, juicy, and we all have a few favorites in common, as well as certain coffees that appeal to specific individuals. I’m relieved that my roasting is well-received.
Friday evening we begin trekking back to Guatemala City in our van full of acquaintances-turned-friends, and we stop for a great dinner along the way, Eddy and Edwin hospitable as always. Back in the city some of us relax down in the hotel bar, reflecting back on this short, but intense trip. We agree to all exchange some coffee upon our return and Ryan Knapp coaxes a few of us to the hotel casino, where we lose a few Quetzals, but have some big laughs. In the end, we’re all more motivated to be buying fantastic coffees and to connect with producers who are as inspired by what we do with their coffees as we are with their work.