By Laura Keil
When Megan Vicente and Elliott Ingles of VALE coffee woke up in their eco-hotel in Guatemala, they were greeted with a strong fragrance wafting in from the hotel gardens.
“We kept getting a beautiful smell in the mornings, and we couldn’t figure out what it was. And then we realized that it was this coffee plant that they had planted in their garden there,” Vincente said. “It was super, super fragrant, which I’m sure has something to do with why there’s so much flavour in coffee.”
The pair had organized a quasi working holiday — visit Central American which they’d never been to before, and also scout out potential coffee bean growers to buy from in the future. While visiting the farms, they got to experience the scent, touch and feel of coffee beans or “cherries” straight from the plant.
From Guatemala City, they took an Uber to Antigua, and then took mini buses or simply walked to nearby coffee farms.
A few farms allowed visitors to walk through the row of coffee plants.
“The ones that we saw were about as tall as me, like five to six feet tall. And when they have their little white flowers they are super fragrant, they smell really beautifully,” Vicente said.
The bright red cherry inside the white flower is about the size of a marble, she said. They were allowed to pick some ripe cherries and pull them apart. Inside is juicy red flesh and a large seed; the coffee cherry is actually the fruit of the plant and the coffee “bean” is the seed.
“If you’ve ever seen a green coffee bean, it has lost a lot of its volume from what it is when it’s full of moisture,” she said. “It’s plump and white and you could crack it open with your fingernail. It’s kind of cool to see, because when you roast coffee, there’s this thing that comes off of it and it’s kind of like a little jacket – it’s called chaff or there’s different words for it. And when it’s on the plant and alive it’s almost like a sticky layer.”
Without fluent Spanish, the pair managed to get by, and did forge a relationship with some coffee reps who spoke English.
While they weren’t able to visit any of the coffee farms they bought from before the trip (they were too remote), they did visit some farms they hope to buy from in the future.
This week they plan to release a new Guatemalan roast sourced from Antigua, the same region they visited. It’s called “Fuego” and the bean is processed using a different method called a “red honey process” which involves leaving some of the sticky layer on as the bean dries. It leads to sweeter tasting coffees.
They visited one farm that had a little museum about the history of coffee production, in both Spanish and English. It talked about the evolving technologies and processes used over the years.
“There’s different types of processes: washed coffees or natural coffees or fermented coffees, they’re all slightly different processes on how you actually end up with your final green bean product.”
They were surprised to learn that only recently have Guatemalans had access to the high quality coffee they export to other countries.
“I think it was crazy to learn that people from Guatemala barely had any access to their own coffee for the longest time. I mean, it’s not really that surprising when you understand kind of how these exporting countries work, but I’m glad that they’re getting more access to it now.”
Poverty is still pervasive in Guatemala, and for Ingles, Vincente and their business partners Rena O’Brien and Ryker Indjic, ethical coffee sourcing is top of mind.
“One of the things we were looking for in visiting these farms is, how is it run? And how are the people treated and how does it feel here and do people seem happy? Because there are a lot of issues with the coffee industry, having a bad reputation with all that kind of stuff. So that’s a super important thing for the coffee we source and the direct traders that we work with.”