Hola, hola! So, I guess to begin, I should introduce myself. I’ll keep it brief! My name’s Andres M. Garza, I was born and raised in Mexico, and I’m a senior anthropology student at The University of Texas. Currently, I’m in Guatemala doing a study abroad program over Maya art – but within the time I’m here with school, I’m also given a bit of leeway to explore and learn over subjects that interest me. As many people do, I love coffee. I think I know a little bit about coffee, or at least that’s what I thought. The one thing I did know is that Guatemala is responsible for some of the world’s most delicious coffee and that I had to try some. By some, I mean a lot.
I signed up for a coffee tasting workshop with a few of the friends I’ve made here. We took a quick shuttle few minutes out of the city of Antigua and arrived at this tiny little office in San Miguel Escobar. We were met by a super friendly and enthusiastic volunteer, Jonatan. He shows us the room he laid out with three different sets of coffee beans he self-roasted the day before. Roasting beans is extremely difficult to do on a small scale and requires expensive equipment and a lot of time. So, that was neat!
Now, I feel I can’t continue without mentioning this: as we walked into the office, we heard what sounded like raindrops falling on the thin-metal roof. Stuck my hand out into the open area of the building (most buildings are a blend of indoor and outdoor). No water wet my arm. After a few seconds, we realize it’s ash. Volcanic ash. Tiny little rocks fell and continued to fall throughout our tasting. To clarify, the area where we were ended up being okay. The city was primarily covered with ash, but no casualties here.
Volcanic ash, Jonathan informed us, is part of what makes the soil in Guatemala so fertile and great for growing coffee. Though, not when it is in large quantities or as destructive as this eruption was. He begins by giving us a sheet to circle and rank each different kind of coffee. Also, he explains to us the difference between Arabica coffee and Robusta. Arabica are high-quality beans grown explicitly in the highlands. They are artisanally grown, in an altitude over 600m, though he says that the higher they’re grown, the better they’ll taste. Robusta, well, they are what Arabica is not. And they are cheaper.
The beans are ground and each in small cups. We begin by smelling them each, describing their aroma. He gives us a list of descriptive words for we are “beginner” tasters and he is right that our vocabulary is not to par to professionals. Following that, we slowly pour water from a kettle to the ground beans to let them bloom. Blooming the beans, as Jonatan describes, allows their aroma to strengthen and we let it sit for some time. It really did look like it was alive, the water breathing and its body awake.
Apparently, professionals slurp their coffee. Each cup has its own spoon and there is a little washing cup with clean, hot water. This is to not cross-contaminate flavors. Slurping allows the flavors to be more present in one’s tongue, I could see why they do that. We ranked their flavor profiles, notes, mouth-feel, and aftertaste for each and scored them according to the chart he gave us. I did… pretty bad.
After that, Jonatan showed us a variety of brewing methods and allowed us to choose three to try. We were already feeling the caffeine at this point. He pulls out the Chemex, his personal favorite brewing method. It’s a slow-pour with 10-second intervals after certain quantities of water.
The taste was quite light, floral, and felt very spring-like. Each method was very precise, having us measure the amount of water and coffee, checking the temperature of the water, and timing each act of the process. To contrast this, he pulls out a French Press. This method probably more recognizable to most of the American audience. The beans were significantly coarser so they won’t must the coffee. The taste was heavier, darker, what one would think would be good for a gloomy winter morning.
Finally, the last method was an Aeropress. I personally hadn’t tried it before, but it was a method that brewed a singular cup rather than a large amount like the rest. It was compact, strong, yet much smoother than the French Press for the beans were ground the finest possible. I wasn’t able to get any pictures of those since I was the one doing the process. But at this point, my friends kept passing me their leftover coffee and since my caffeine tolerance is high, I thought I could handle it. It was too much, and I was jittery.
We left soon after, Jonatan was so genuine in speaking about the organization De La Gente. It is an NGO that helps the farmers of Guatemala sell directly to the consumer or to cafés rather than the process of selling to big buyers where their profits are fractioned. One thing he mentioned was that the farmers themselves had never tasted the extent of the quality of what they were producing. Unable to self-roast the beans and unable to afford adequate brewing equipment. A goal of his is to get them to realize how beautiful the product they are growing is, while helping them financially and informing an audience about the process. I can’t thank him enough.
This post was contributed by Andres Garza currently studying abroad on the Bridging Cultures in Latin America: Maya and Colonial Heritage in Guatemala and Belize Maymester. He is also the recipient of a generous study abroad scholarship from Ruta Maya Coffee Company. You can follow along with the Bridging Cultures in Latin America Maymester on their program blog.