where coffee's kind of a big deal

San Lucas Toliman, Atitlan

  • Coffee has been a big deal in Guatemala since the mid-1800s. While just the size of Tennessee, Guatemala is the world’s second largest exporter of specialty coffees. Most of this coffee comes to the US, making famous names such as ‘Antigua’, ‘San Marcos’, ‘Atitlan’, and ‘Huehuetenango’. One look at the geography, knowledge and importance of coffee in Guatemala shows why they have been so successful. It’s only when you look deeper that the picture gets more complex.

    Within each growing region there are many types of farms, small to mid-sized single-family farms all the way up to plantation estates. The difference between these coffees can be slight, but the difference it makes to those working the farms is vast.

    Large estate owners are considered responsible for paying decent wages and providing health care to workers. Especially in recent decades, some have said that this is becoming more common. However they are operating in a context that has centuries of separation between land-owning elites and traditional Mayan or indeginous populations.

    While the Mayan gained independence from Spain in 1823, plantations continued to earn a reputation for providing poor conditions for typically indigenous peoples, people who were originally made landless by government reform. This is not helped in any part by migrant workers who come up mountain during harvest, flooding the labor market and suppressing wages.  

    In 1950 Jacobo Arbenz gave Guatemalan peasants a shot at land reform…before his administration was overthrown by the CIA 1954, resulting in a reversal of his reforms. This, in turn, led to a brutal civil war that ravaged small villages from 1962 – 1966, causing an estimated 200,000 deaths. The racism and distrust of government bred by this conflict still impact how coffe works today – namely in the relationship between land owners and their labor, perceptions of cooperatives or other government programs, distrust of US intentions, and the rights of indigenous communities.

  • San Lucas Toliman

    Atitlan means ‘surrounded by water’  -  which it is – but it could also be said to be surrounded by volcanos. The volcanos of Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro define the boundaries of Atitlan, trapping the right amount of rainfall (72” – 92” per year) needed to qualify this place as coffee paradise. What’s more the ~5,000 foot slopes on which coffee is grown maintains the right temperature (68 – 73 degrees F) and humidity (75 – 85%). While we see these stats and think of how they contribute to bean development and density, if you were on the ground all you would see are abundant fields and colorful rainbows. In local legend the region is famous as the place where rainbows get their colors.

    Those who take part in the retelling of this legend also contribute to this coffee’s unique qualities. These slopes favor smallholders over larger estates, which encourages some diversity in practices such as washing and fermentation. This, in turn, can contribute to a more complex cup. 

    The farm of San Lucas Toliman is one such smallholder whose coffee comes from where the rainbows get their colors.  

    San Lucas Toliman

    San Lucas Toliman