Want to know more about Guatemalan coffee? You're in the right place.
In this article, we will take a look at the history of Guatemalan coffee, its characteristics, and Guatemala's coffee growing regions.
Let's dive in.
History and Production of Guatemalan Coffee
Guatemalan coffee is familiar to most US consumers due to the geographic proximity of the countries.
Coffee was introduced to Guatemala from the Caribbean in the mid-18th century by the Jesuits, but it was used primarily as an ornamental plant and horticultural crop for 100 years. Industrial coffee production began in the 1850s.
Guatemala's volcanic soil and various microclimates proved ideal for growing coffee beans, and within one generation, coffee became the country's most important crop. In 1860, Guatemala exported 63,000 kg of coffee. In just 25 years, the country exported over 18,000 tons of coffee.
A large number of Guatemalan coffee farmers were German immigrants, who were responsible for many of the innovations associated with coffee grinding. Most Guatemalan coffee was exported to Germany until World War I, when exports shifted to the US.
In 2020, about 3.6 million 60-kg bags of green coffee were produced in Guatemala. This makes Guatemala the 3rd largest producer in Central America after Costa Rica and El Salvador, and 10th in the world.
Guatemala is a small country located between Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize. It produces many coffee varieties. There are eight coffee growing regions, but if you take a closer look, you will discover over 300 microclimates.
Precipitation ranges from about 30 to about 200 inches per year, but the rainy season is clearly marked throughout the country.
Guatemala's terroir has a wide range of microclimates and growing conditions that result in a variety of characteristics in a cup of coffee; overall, however, we can almost always expect a dense body, chocolatey notes, and pronounced citrus and malic acidity.
How Is Guatemalan Coffee Produced?
As in most Central American countries, the average size of Guatemalan coffee farms is small. Among specialty coffee farmers, harvesting by hand is the norm.
98% of Guatemalan coffee beans are grown in the shade. Shade-grown coffee beans have many benefits, from increased biodiversity that results in more fertile, healthier soil to slower maturation of the coffee berry, which results in a more complex flavor profile.
What Is Guatemalan Coffee?
Traditional Guatemalan coffee varieties are Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Pasha, and Typica.
20% of Guatemalan coffee beans, such as Sarchimor and Catimor, are resistant to coffee leaf rust, a disease that destroyed crops in Central America in 2012, causing more than $1 billion in damage in just two years.
Currently, there is a trend to grow washed Robusta in low mountain regions, but it only accounts for less than 2% of the country's coffee production.
Although Robusta has traditionally been looked down upon for its more bitter taste, international interest in gourmet Robusta is growing. Robusta also grows well at lower elevations.
Arabica, on the other hand, not only needs the lower temperatures typical of higher elevations, but is also more susceptible to pests and diseases that spread lower in the mountains. For growers struggling to produce high-quality Arabica coffee at low-elevation farms, high-quality washed Robusta could open up a new market.
Guatemalan Coffee Growing Regions with Flavor Profiles
Let's take a quick look at the various coffee producing regions of Guatemala. You may have certain expectations for Guatemalan coffee—well balanced, full bodied, clean, slightly acidic—but characteristics vary by region.
The Acatenango Valley is located in southern Guatemala. Here, coffee is grown in thick shade at an elevation of 1,300 to 2,000 meters above sea level. The region has sandy volcanic soil rich in minerals and receives about 70 to 80 inches of precipitation annually. The harvest lasts from December to March.
Antigua is a city surrounded by three volcanoes—Fuego, Agua, and Acatenango—that create nutrient-rich moisture-retaining soil. This helps to compensate for the low rainfall in the region—just 30 to 47 inches per year. Farms are usually located between 1,500 and 1,700 meters above sea level, and the harvest takes place from February to March.
New Oriente coffee beans are usually balanced and full-bodied with a wide flavor profile from the caramelized sugar group.
This region is located on the border with Honduras and El Salvador, and the local climate is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean.
Here, coffee has been cultivated since the 1950s. Today, virtually every farm in the mountains has become a coffee business, and one of Guatemala's once poorest and most isolated areas is thriving and growing.
Volcanic San Marcos
San Marcos is the warmest Guatemalan coffee growing region. It's famous for its coffee beans, which have delicate floral notes and a strong acidity.
Seasonal rains fall in San Marcos earlier than in other areas, resulting in an earlier harvest. The farms are located at an altitude of 1,300 to 1,800 meters above sea level.
San Marcos also has the highest rainfall, reaching almost 200 inches annually.
Guatemala's most active volcano, Pacaya, forms mineral-rich soil, and the region receives between 47 and 70 inches of precipitation annually. From time to time, Pacaya supplies the region with light ash deposits, imparting important minerals to the soil.
There is a lot of sun in the dry season. Although clouds, fog, and heavy dew are common in the early morning, they quickly burn off, allowing the entire Frajanes plateau to dry in the sun.
Coffee grows between 1,400 and 1,800 meters above sea level, and the harvest lasts from December to February. The coffee here is distinguished by its delicate acidity and floral-berry flavor profile.
Highland Huehue, also known as the Huehuetenango coffee region, produces coffee beans with high acidity, rich flavor, and wine notes.
The area is located on the border with Mexico and is a new coffee growing region dominated by small-scale producers.
Coffee grows between 1,500 and 2,000 meters above sea level. Between 47 and 63 inches of precipitation falls annually.
Of the three non-volcanic regions, Huehuetenango is the highest and driest. Thanks to dry, hot winds blowing into the mountains from the Mexican plain of Tehuantepec, the region is protected from frost, allowing coffee to be grown at elevations up to 2,000 meters.