San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is coffee culture changing in Guatemala?

ANTIGUA, Guatemala – North Americans and Europeans have enjoyed coffee from Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Vietnam, among others, in their local coffee shops for decades. Coffee is a culture – in the United States, sitcoms like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” were based in coffee shops. So it’s peculiar to walk into businesses in a coffee-producing country like Guatemala and get sugary instant coffee. But it’s been this way forever.

“Even coffee plantation owners drank instant coffee, … the business was producing, not consuming,” says Francisco Palarea, editor of Café Cultura, a coffee magazine focusing on the industry in Guatemala and El Salvador.  

Historically, producer countries are not consumers of specialty coffee. The best beans are shipped to the U.S., Europe and Japan, where cheap raw coffee fruit is turned into expensive roasted beans. But in recent years, Palarea says that local cafés here, like Café Barista and El Cafetalito, are giving many Guatemalans a chance to drink their own world-famous coffee.  

“[Guatemalan coffee chains] are the movers in creating a coffee-consuming culture in a coffee-producing country,” he says.

The arrival of Starbucks, which opened two locations in Guatemala last year, shows there is demand for specialty coffee. Starbucks has recognized the slow success that local coffee chains have had and are following it. On many afternoons at new Starbucks locations, customers wait in line for 15 minutes and can’t find a seat. 

Some evidence supports the claim that consumption is up: Domestic coffee consumption in Guatemala has doubled in the last five years, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture annual coffee report.

Palarea believes the trend can bolster the economy of Guatemala, a country where more than half of citizens live below the poverty line. “Coffee-consumption culture in a coffee-producing country can help improve the country in many ways,” he says. 

Up to 1,000 people are involved in each cup of coffee, Palarea says, from farmers and exporters to roasters and baristas. When coffee is produced locally, this could mean 1,000 jobs in Guatemala. The benefits of more coffee consumption could trickle down and help the country.

Still, most Guatemalans aren’t yet feeling the benefits of increased consumption. With 52 percent of the population still living on less than $2 per day, purchasing a cappuccino for $3.50 at Starbucks is impossible.  

Many Guatemalans involved in production don’t feel any of the benefits either. Small farmers are still at a huge disadvantage, says Franklin Voorhes, director of As Green As It Gets, a nonprofit group that supports small coffee farmers in Guatemala. 

“There has been no change at all in the coffee industry,” he says.

Traditionally, Guatemalan farmers sell their raw coffee fruit to others who process it into expensive, roasted beans that end up in a customer’s cappuccino. “Even if [the farmer] only values his time at minimum wage, coffee fruit is sold at a loss,” says Voorhes. 

And specialty-coffee premiums rarely reach the farmer. “The guy next to the customer is able to keep raising the price [of a cup of coffee], but it never trickles down to the farmer,” he says.  

This is not unique to Guatemala. “Go to Honduras, Nicaragua, Kenya, the story doesn’t change,” Voorhes adds. 

Voorhes wants small farmers to take control of each step of the coffee process.  Timoteo Minas, a 46-year-old father of six who has been a farmer since he was 10 and growing coffee for the last 20, tried it eight  years ago. He got a starter loan and learned every step of the process to harvest his 15 hectares of coffee trees, from planting the seedling to roasting the beans.  

“The first year was very difficult,” he says. “I worried that I wouldn’t do it right and that when it got to the customer, it would be bad.”  

But by his second year, Minas was confident. He says his final beans are much higher quality now than when he started.

Minas is now involved in exporting and sales. Despite receiving only four years of formal schooling, he acts as the accountant for his cooperative. Most of the time, coffee farmers deal with local buyers and never know where their product ends up. But on some occasions, a buyer comes to Guatemala to put the check directly into Minas’ hands, the same hands that planted, picked, washed, dried and roasted the beans. 

Each step of the process makes the beans more valuable when done correctly. Minas says he earns much more now than he ever did before. “The time I invest in the process is paid back when it’s sold, and then some,” he says.  

Minas has invested his higher earnings into more land and school for his children. So far, the older ones have all finished secondary school. 

While Minas has been successful, the 300 small farmers like him who work with As Green As It Gets are very rare – they produce less than a third of 1 percent of Guatemalan coffee.  

And Minas has an advantage because he produces in the Antigua region, recognized internationally for its coffee. Especially in areas with less notoriety and tourism, changing the way small farmers produce coffee is not easy – harvesting coffee is a delicate process and a long-term endeavor. Trees don’t bear fruit for the first five years and some varieties can produce for more than 100 years – once you start, it becomes very expensive to stop.  This makes many farmers hesitant to change the way their ancestors produced coffee.  

Still, more Guatemalans like Minas are learning to appreciate their own coffee. Before, he didn’t drink his own coffee and didn’t know where it ended up. Now, he says, “I like a light roast, sometimes a dark. I usually drink it as an Americano.”

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