By Andrea Otte, Director of Coffee
Chipi chipi, the word in Spanish for the slow, misty rains that fall in the northern part of Guatemala for nine months out of the year, is predictably coating the windshield of our van as we arrive in Cobán. The dense, orchid-strewn forests of the Alta Verapaz department, of which Cobán is the capital, lie in a tropical valley surrounded by mountains. These mountains, many of which are dormant (or not so dormant) volcanos, trap the ocean winds from the surrounding coasts and create a unique microclimate of cool, moist air. On our way to visit Finca Rosario de Fátima, by way of a few wrong turns, we get a tour of the surrounding town and its people, who are busy going about their late afternoon as we make our seventh left. Men in rubber boots and muddy jeans stand in the back of pickup trucks on their way home from work, many of them coming from the farms and mills that we have just arrived to visit. Kids with the same types of garish plastic backpacks I see in my neighborhood in Chicago shuffle home from school on skinny sidewalks. After giving up entirely on our handheld technology, we finally arrive at the gates of Fátima with the last hour of sunlight hustling us out of the van.
Coffee farming in Guatemala has been around for over 140 years. Towards the end of the 19th century, German immigrants migrated to the Alta Verapaz region and established the first coffee plantations, with a small but prosperous population thriving up until the second World War. Prior to WWII, Germans immigrants owned approximately 80% of all arable land in Cobán (1). However, during the war the Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico, under pressure from the United States, kidnapped and shipped over 4000 Guatemalan Germans to internment camps in Texas. Following the end of the war some returned to Cobán, but the population never rebounded to its former numbers.
Joerg Sterkel, the son of Jens Sterkel, is a member of one of these German families who have continued the family business since the 19th century. In addition to owning Finca Rosario de Fátima, a coffee Halfwit has been purchasing for three years, the Sterkel family also founded what is now the oldest coffee exporting company in Guatemala, the Camec Corporation. With dwindling commercial export numbers in recent decades, Camec recently merged operations with our partners at TG Lab, consciously shifting to a new specialty emphasis. This combination of quality expertise and international logistics has helped drive growth - TG has seen 500% this year alone - and Joerg himself now runs operational logistics for both companies out of the TG offices in Guatemala City.
Despite the family pedigree, the business of running a coffee farm in Cobán (or anywhere) has never been easy, and may be more difficult now than ever before in the age of global warming. As we confirmed during our damp walk through the fields, Fátima receives four meters of rain per year, more than twice the national average. Being both cool and wet can be a challenge for fighting certain types of plant diseases, and it also makes drying coffee an issue, since there is little sun and a constant risk of rainfall. To combat this, the farm has taken an unorthodox approach. For one, because of the frequent cloud cover, they have very few shade trees, to allow their plants to soak up as much sun as possible. They space their coffee trees out much wider than normal so there are ventilation gaps between rows, which helps to prevent the spread of disease. The trees themselves are an impressive 35-60 years old, mostly Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuaí. Due to all of this, they also fertilize differently, using smaller, more frequent applications and timing them using soil analysis.
Fátima’s processing style was set up only a few years ago, during the coffee leaf rust crisis that many are still recovering from. TG worked with Don Carlos, the farm manager, to set up this system to their specific microclimate conditions. With fifty years of experience working at Fátima, a respectable length by any measure, Don Carlos is able to identify the healthiest and most productive areas of the farm, cordoning off those that need additional care, and providing a lot-by-lot approach to farm management. By sending samples throughout harvest to TG, the lab provides cupping analysis and technical consulting throughout the year, constantly evaluating the effectiveness of their processing, fertilization, and picking methods. You can see the results when you look around the farm - the trees are a deep, glossy green, with beautiful old growth rings at their trunks and healthy undergrowth.
It may surprise some readers that all of this goes into a coffee that has been used exclusively as a blender for Halfwit for the past two years. When in season, it is the primary component in our Triforce blend, and a supporting component in our Moonbat blend. We chose it because of its smooth texture, its approachable milk chocolate and caramel sweetness, and its consistency both in the roaster and as a brewed coffee. Finding coffees that have been well processed, are balanced but unique, and won’t break the bank is the holy grail of coffee sourcing. And that’s why we have invested in this relationship so strongly, because every year it has been a bulwark of quality and stability. Visiting only confirmed what we already suspected - a well managed, well loved, and beautiful farm that produces coffee that reflects exactly that.
Truth be told, while we cherish the opportunity to visit our friends and partners at origin, to get our boots dirty (or, in my case, my all-black sneakers that have now gone to shoe heaven) the majority of the work selecting coffees happens in the cupping lab. Tasting this year’s best lots with Josué and the team at TG, I can report with full confidence that this is the best harvest I’ve seen in three years. I look forward to combining the tasting, testing, and experimenting in our roastery with the work done by our partners at origin. Needless to say, we have much to look forward to from Guatemala, this season and many years to come.