Discovering a Guatemalan coffee that’s (almost literally) erupting with flavour
A lot goes into making a great cup of coffee, and perhaps nothing more important than the origins of the bean itself. From idyllic climate conditions to the high-nutrient content of the soil, the coffee we enjoy is very much the sum of its parts. And, on rare occasions, we get a bonus.
In this case: Fedecocagua coffee. Already benefiting from the fertile soil of Guatemala’s San Marcos region – the country’s coffee-belt – its rich bean has traces of volcanic ash to inform a singularly unique flavor – one that summons chocolate, vanilla and one rather surprising nuance: smokiness.
“What I find exciting about this Guatemalan coffee is that the beans are grown on the slopes of volcanic soil,” says roaster Eric Shabsove from Mountain View Coffee in Toronto. “It’s one of the things I love about San Marcos. When you drink it you can just picture the volcano with centuries of accumulated volcanic soil, and you can actually taste the hint of smokiness that comes from years and years of eruptions. It’s truly fantastic.”
Shabsove insists the hint is so slight that it shouldn’t deter smoke-shy java drinkers.
The region also boasts another distinctive characteristic: a considerably long harvesting period – from November through March.
“What you get in Guatemala is a harvest season that extends into early spring. It's typical amongst all Central American coffee countries, notably in Costa Rica, where you can start harvesting let's say in November, December and into January.
Shabsove says something exceptional happens after the two-month processing period (in which time the beans are harvested, washed and dried). “When you see the beans ready to be shipped, you're also already seeing the flowers blooming for next season. That's what so great about it: ultimately the beans are really bigger and better and you get that really fantastic taste.”
Another natural asset for the San Marcos region is an abundance of rainfall, more so than other regions of the country, says Shabsove. “(The additional rainfall) does give that extra boost to the production and early flowering, so the beans are that much tastier, they've had a little bit longer to mature.”
Speaking of quality control, this is a handpicking operation, primarily because of where and how the beans are grown: on steep volcanic slopes.
The growersSo who’s doing the growing, picking and producing of this delightful coffee?
Fedecocagua – already a mouthful for some to pronounce – is the abbreviation for the Federación de Cooperativas Agrícolas de Productores de Café de Guatemala. It’s a federation of roughly 148 co-operatives and 20,000 members from across Guatemala’s coffee belt, many of which are of Mayan origin.
“I believe about 70 percent of its members are comprised of indigenous peoples of Guatemala,” says Eric Shabsove. The members are growers who typically own small plots or family farms, typically averaging 1.3 hectares. While the cultivation of coffee is their primary function – according to Shabsove, coffee represents 80 to 90 percent of a farm's income – they also produce basic grains and other agricultural products for their own consumption.
For these growers joining a co-op minimizes obstacles such as high processing costs and problems in product quality, and helps with technical advice and accessing financing.
“The co-ops help with getting these farmers a line of credit. They’re able to borrow money to help with expenses when they bring their beans in to process,” says Shabsove. “Membership also helps with warehousing, transportation of the product and allows them to access the fair trade premiums, which is also a boon because it provides additional income.”
The order of coffeeShabsove is particularly excited about introducing Guatemalan Fedecocagua coffee as this Month’s Headline Coffee. As the chief roaster and curator of the series, he is taking us on a guided tour of the world’s best coffees – but he’s doing so on a very deliberate path.
“It's always really great coffee, but to embark on a true journey of taste, we need to accentuate every region, because they all have their own distinct characteristics. And I'm trying to make it a unique experience every time. We’re back in Central America now, for instance, but we’ve definitely not tasted anything like this before.”