Guatemala Coffee Buying Overview and Roasting Fundamentals Review

An overview of our Guatemala coffee buying, one of our biggest coffee origins, with links to some of our most popular Guatemalan coffee roasting information too.

We often tout our Guatemalan coffees as being versatile in terms of roast levels and brew methods, because they are. They’re high grown, dense coffees that generally show balance at a wide roast range. But it’s easy to get caught up in language that makes it sound as if all Guatemalan coffee is this way, which is just not true. No coffee producing country is a monolith of quality and it has taken us quite some time to connect with growers who consistently produce high scoring lots.

Guatemala is such an important coffee origin for us. Our buying has grown from cherry picking (no pun intended) small amounts of “spot” coffees over a decade ago, to working direct with locals on the ground to build multi-container buying projects between several growing regions throughout the country. It hasn’t come quickly or without an intense commitment to the projects we’ve started. Between several sourcing trips and many hundreds of offer samples each year, the harvest season in Guatemala has quickly shot up to being one of our busiest purchasing times of the year.

Buying direct in Guatemala really started for us in Antigua, a city that is home to some of the oldest coffee estates in Latin America. These are some of the most organized milling operations we see in the country with an unparalleled level of sophistication technologically speaking as well as in terms of agronomical practices.

Antigua is in close proximity to Guatemala City, where the main airport is, making it very easy to reach. This logistical convenience means a glut of coffee buyers during the harvest season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but makes for a crowded market place, buyers often competing for coffee from the same farms.

Some of our longest standing buying relationships are in this region, with estates such as Hacienda Pulcal, Buena Vista Farm, and Finca Cabrejo going on over a decade. Being a long term buyer through the same group of farmers and family-run exporter/coffee dry-miller at the edge of town (the Zelaya family’s Bella Vista mill) comes with its own set of privileges, helping to ensure we get the coffees we want from one year to the next despite the crowded marketplace!

Rows of Bourbon at Finca Cabrejo, Antigua

Next door in Chimaltenango, we’ve kept up buying relationships with a few coffee estates in Patzún. The three farms we buy from in Patzún – Las Camelias, Finca La Florida, and Finca Santa Anita – sit on a steep ridge directly above picturesque Lake Atitlán and are owned and managed by the same family (three cousins, actually).

These farms may seem less sophisticated in comparison to the Antigua Estates. Some of the old trees are a bit unkempt, de-pulping machinery is also older, and you won’t find covered drying patios or raised beds.

But there’s more than meets the eye, and just as much work goes into selective harvest practices and separating process batches in order to manage quality, and it shows. The owners also had the foresight to plant Graviela trees early on to help retain moisture in the soil, and also provides a wonderful shade canopy that helps to slow coffee maturation, fostering a dense coffee seed.

Fredy Morales shows us honey process coffee in his greenhouse near Huehuetenango town.

Huehuetenango is where we’ve really been able to spread out and find coffee in areas that are a little more off the beaten path. This is where we started our “Proyecto Xinabajul” buying project with the help of a local farmer, and now, coffee exporter, Fredy Morales. Perhaps “were off the beaten” path is more appropriate, as competition has grown exponentially for Huehue coffees of all quality tiers.

This is generally a good thing for farmers, as more competition tends to mean higher prices paid at the farm gate. For us, it has meant casting a wider net to find new coffees while working to cultivate the business relationships we’ve built over the last decade. 

We spend more time at the cupping table making selections for this project than any other origin we manage. Seriously. At the time Tom wrote this blog post introducing the project, we had already cupped 600 samples and it wasn’t even the end of harvest.

That was 2013 and the project has only grown since. Samples are first screened for quality, then separated into categories outlined by score, region and individual farmer if there is enough coffee to showcase on its own. From these selections we build blends highlighting some of the smaller buying regions in Huehue, like Peña Blanca, El Paraíso, and La Libertad, or single farm lots like Finca Rosma and Regalito, for example. Sometimes when we find a farmer producing good coffee, we’re lucky enough to recruit extended family who also grow good coffee, resulting in “family blends” like Familia Villatoro and Familia Castillo

Luis Pedro Zelaya stands outside the Bella Vista coffee mill on an early trip for us way back in 2008!
Luis Pedro Zelaya stands outside the Bella Vista coffee mill on an early trip for us way back in 2008!

While I started out saying no origin is a monolith of quality, there are some universals that can be applied to the Guatemalan coffees we buy. They tend to be from high altitude zones, 1500+ meters above sea level on up (just over 2000 would be the highest in Huehue). We see a lot of older Bourbon and Typica grown in Guatemala, cultivars that thrive in the upper altitude areas. The higher the altitude, the denser the coffee bean is which means they are able to absorb high heat in the roaster and have a high potential for sweetness.  

Most of our Guatemalan coffees show well when roasted light or dark, offering balanced sweetness and acidity, and capable of producing delicious chocolate roast character when roasted to the darker end of the roast spectrum. Because of that, they can be some of the best single origin espresso options we carry. Some are fruited and bright when roasted light, acidity being another prized characteristic of Bourbon (especially some of the coffees from Huehuetenango!), and competition-level in any arena.

Links to more reading on Guatemala coffee sourcing and roasting guides:

Over the years we’ve had some time to gather our thoughts on sourcing in Guatemala and ways to approach roasting them. Check out the links below to a few of our most popular Guatemalan blog posts through the years.

Fundamentals: Roasting Guatemalas and Washed Central American Coffees – roast wizard Chris Schooley walks us through some basic roasting practices to consider when roasting high grown Guatemalas  

Behmor Roast Profile: Guatemala Gesha – a light roast “profile” on the Behmor to highlight top notes in the Acatenango Gesha. This is also a good starting point for light roasting with any Guatemalan coffee

Roasting Light in the Behmor – a general guide and video to getting a nice light roast in your Behmor 1600 or 2000 series roasters

Guatemala Proyecto Xinabajul – an introduction to our small-producer, coffee buying project in Huehuetenango from 2013

Guatemala Coffee Buying Video

Check out Tom’s video from a 2019 trip where he visits farms in Antigua and Huehuetenango and shares his thoughts on buying in Guatemala, coffee processing and more.

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