Guatemala Expedition, Part I
Climate made for coffee
Make a checklist of the properties needed in an area to grow exceptional coffee. The Antigua region of Guatemala has them all. Latitude +/-20 degrees from the equator? This area sits at 14 deg N. Altitude above 3000 feet? Check. Most of the coffee in this area is grown between 4000 and 6500 feet above sea level. This is critical. Certainly coffee can be grown at much lower elevations (think Hawaii or certain parts of Brazil); but being higher up helps to moderate those fierce equatorial temperatures, allowing coffee cherries to ripen at a slower pace. This slower rate of maturity allows the beans to develop more complex and nuanced flavors. Adequate rainfall is important as well. Guatemala's mountainous highlands receive an average of 30 to 60 inches annually. Finally, soil conditions. Coffee thrives best in sandy or volcanic soils with near-neutral pH.
Fuego, Agua and Acatenango, the three volcanoes surrounding Antigua, have provided a gift of perfect soil for coffee cultivation. This geologic blessing is a little troublesome for building and living in large stone cities, however.
Founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1543, the city of Antigua is a great place to use as a base to explore the surrounding coffee areas in Guatemala. It served as the capitol of the Spanish colony for over 200 years, until a new capitol was built in 1776 in a less natural-disaster-prone part of the country. Antigua Guatemala, or "Old Guatemala," is filled with fascinating colonial buildings in various states of decay due to earthquakes and damage caused by the three surrounding volcanoes. So long as you don't trip or twist an ankle on the rough cobblestone streets and sidewalks, time spent here is most enjoyable.
Me gusta el pollo frito
I'd like to be able to write glowingly on the amazing array of traditional Guatemalan cuisine I devoured while I was in Antigua. But I can't.
Suffice it to say I went on a fried chicken bender and emerged from it quite pleased with myself. Just for the record, Pollo Campero's first store opened in Guatemala in 1971 and spread from thence across the whole of Central America, so yes, I'm calling it traditional Guatemalan food.
I did, however, get to drink a lot of traditional Guatemalan coffee.
It was both a privilege and a pleasure to be able to sample several offerings from this year's crop of beans.
The tasting process, called "cupping," starts with a deep inhalation of the brewed coffee's aroma, to try to assess and appreciate the more volatile parts of that bean's flavor. This is followed by a nice big slurp of coffee (from your tasting spoon) to spread the brew to the back of the tongue. Here, we're measuring the mouthfeel, the acidity, and the overall taste.
Master tasters can usually determine a coffee's region of origin just from the specific flavors embodied in the beans.
I'm excited about this year's crop. It should start arriving in the Night Owl roastery the last part of April or early May.