August 15, 2011

Coffee Adventures

“Is this Plaza San Miguel?”

“sí señora.”

“Oh my god, Mark … are you sure this is it? There’s nothing here … get out and ask someone.”

Mark and I had bartered our way from the main square in Guatemala Antigua, to this quaint little town at 5,600 feet above sea level. There were no signs to say it was San Miguel Escobar, there was a drunk passed out in the middle of the square … and this is where we were supposed to meet our tour guide for the day!

We hopped out of our taxi and sat on the steps of the church to wait. I have to admit, I felt a little insecure. Our Spanish was a little rusty, and we were two foreigners in a world of poverty and violence. After a few minutes though, we realised that this town, perched on the slopes of Volcán de Agua, was peaceful and sincere. For one, there was a lack of guns that we had become used to in Antigua, and people would greet us every time they walked by with a “Buenos Días”. They would also make the sign of the cross as they passed by the front of the church – including children, who would stop on their bikes to do so. A man picked up the drunk and helped him to the front steps of the church. Ok, so I felt a little easier now.

Booooooom… Crikey, what was that? We stood in awe, as we watched the neighbouring Volcán de Fuego blow its top, sending clouds of ash high into the air and shock waves that reverberated in our chest. Amazing … get the camera.

A fuzzy gentleman rode up to us on a motorcycle, and smiling under his beard and in a broad American accent questioned, “Hey, are you guys here to do a coffee tour?”

Thank god … yes, we were in the right place.

“Hey, cool. I’ll just go and grab the farmer”… and off he rode again.

We had organised for a tour of the coffee farmers’ co-op on the dormant volcano. It was made up of 28 coffee farmers, including three women farmers. These are poor families working together simply trying to survive, and hopefully one day make an extra buck or two. Our tour guide, Franklin, was the head of a not for profit organisation that helps the town folk understand business, marketing and working together for a sustainable environment.

Before introducing the farmer, he explained the plight of the townsfolk over the last few months. With a lump in his throat and tears welling, he told us stories of erupting volcanoes, horrific landslides and the temperamental weather impacting the farms.

“Meet Timoteo. He has been farming here since he was a boy, and while we walk up to his coffee plot, you can ask him anything. Nothing is off limits.” So we began the hike out of town, up towards the crater, and suddenly we were in an abundance of a variety coffee trees. I was so excited … the moment I have been waiting for in my career as a barista and trainer, the places I tell people about, I was actually in.

I was starting to pant and wondered how people got up here day in, day out. Being on a near vertical slope, cars didn’t have access; and these people couldn’t afford a vehicle anyway, so they used the power of foot, horse or mule. The horse is a cheaper option, but they can’t carry as much as a mule, and are therefore less desirable. A mule would set a farmer back $2,000 dollars, so it is a very expensive luxury – a luxury which usually lives under the same roof as the family.

Timoteo, through our translator, talked about how farming plots are issued. Measure out your arm from neck to fingertips, multiply that by 40, and there you have your farm. They decided that is the formula to calculate how much one can farm. Obviously a flawed system. If you have more money, you can buy another plot. The richer you are, the closer to town you buy; the poorer, the further up the volcano you climb.

We stopped for a breather and raided a farm for some coffee cherries. They were sweeter than I expected. We kept the coffee bean in our mouths, trying to get past the muselage and parchment, down to the actual bean. We looked over the plots, and it definitely looked different to the books I had once taught out of. There was avocado, sour lemon, orange and other Mayan fruit trees sheltering the coffee trees. I piped up: “So that’s shade grown?”

“Pretty much,” was the reply, but more importantly, it was another source of income and food for the farmer while he waited for his crops to grow, flower, fruit and harvest. One tree that looked familiar for shade was an Australian Grevillea or “Gravel-leeya” as they would pronounce them. They were great for shade, fast growing, and great for firewood when they had fulfilled their use.

In between coffee plants was corn, with beans climbing up the stems, raspberries … and pretty much anything that would grow, they planted. So ingenious – and a great example of sustainable living. We came across a single Yucca plant, which was pointed out to me as the boundary marker of each farmer’s land.

We heard about the issues of becoming certified Organic, and how the farmers couldn’t afford the certification process and that the organisation didn’t approve of the use of horse manure for compost. (I’m not sure if they were joking or not, but apparently it’s not a certified organic horse.) Timoteo said he likes to think of his coffee as organic with a little ‘o’. He was frustrated that consumers don’t understand that their coffee is organic despite the lack of certification. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t afford pesticides.

Another frustration was ‘Fair Trade’. Prior to our visit, the co-op was approached by an American company to buy their coffee at a Fair Trade price. Timoteo explained he can sell his coffee at the market for export at a better price, and again, the certification process would take food off their tables. He was clearly upset when we said that some of our customers in Melbourne will only purchase coffee if it’s certified Fair Trade. It’s true: if we don’t have coffee in our store that’s certified Fair Trade, some people simply will not purchase it. The co-op is made up of the 28 farmers, and their family and friends who help with the harvest and processing. If customers here don’t buy their coffee, we are starving them of their very livelihood. So what do you do? You need Fair Trade to make the big companies out there ripping people off accountable, but what happens to the little farmers who sell their coffee to the boutique roasters that are popping up all over the country?

We wondered around the crops all morning, learning about grafting, planting, picking, drying and pulping. Soon our stomachs were rumbling, so we headed back down to the town, where Timoteo’s wife had prepared us a traditional Mayan lunch at their house. We met some of Timoteo’s six children and his horse, Coyote. He showed us his pulpero, a bicycle-powered machine that removes the coffee fruit from the bean and the courtyard where he dries his pergamino.

We sat around the kitchen table, and now it was our turn to face the questions. They were interested in the coffee culture in Australia, how did we like the roasts, how did we drink it and why do we drink burnt coffee? WHAT? They think that espresso is a dark burnt roast, rather than an extraction process. They’ve been taught by their American neighbours that if it is to go in an Espresso machine, then it has to be burnt. (This was the general consensus of every plantation and roaster we went to during our time in Guatemala.) Don’t worry, Mark and I made it our mission to fix that old wives’ tale up, there and then.

We said we were interested in where the farmers co-op came to pulp and roast, so instead of simply showing us, we soon became a production line of roasting, packing and piercing little holes in every package (they can’t afford the bags with non-return valves). We roasted about 30 pounds of green beans, in a roaster, in a local backyard. There was a buzz of activity everywhere: people washing clothes, kids playing in oil drums, men welding without PPE, and us roasting, with a tin can acting as an exhaust.

After a long day and exhausting the farmer and translator with a million questions, it was time for a long overdue cuppa – Mayan style. We had to grind the coffee with a traditional Mayan style three legged rock and a pestle called a metate y mano. Mark, being a bit of a collector, decided to purchase one of these 7 kg babies at a local market a couple of days later. Mmm … two words for you, Mark: excess baggage?

More information

So if you are interested in going to Antigua for coffee, you have to book a day trip out to San Miguel Escobar for ‘Green As It Gets Coffee Tour’. Five thumbs up and a real gritty life experience.

Deborah & Mark Howard-Jones

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