It’s a well-known fact that Central and South America are responsible for producing some of the world’s most magnificent coffee. It’s difficult to talk about gourmet brew without mentioning Brazilian roasts, Costa Rican beans, or Guatemalan coffee.
The latter is one of the most well-known and respected coffee cultivars in the world. Sandwiched between Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, the perfect growing conditions of Guatemala have helped transform a simple, introduced crop into one of the country’s largest industries.
Known for its distinct, regional varieties which each have their own unique cup profile, Guatemalan coffee is in a league of its own. The flavors and aromas span a huge spectrum. Expect strong and full-bodied varieties, some with a chocolate or toffee finish, and others that possess a subtle acidity and fruity finish.
Flavors aside, what makes this country’s coffee so revered, and what sets it apart from other varieties?
Below we’re going to explore the history of Guatemalan Coffee and how it came to earn its reputation as a leader in quality coffee.
Guatemalan Coffee: What Is It? And Why So Special?
The reason for the Guatemalan coffee renown has to do with the growing conditions it enjoys almost year round. An inherently mountainous region, Guatemala and its crops benefit from being grown on steep slopes and at high altitudes. Guatemala also has as many as 300 micro climates, all of which offer unique growing conditions which affect the development of crops produced.
The country also enjoys almost constant rainfall, meaning the fruits are never wanting for water. Add to that mineral rich soils, the result of regular volcanic activity, and you have optimal conditions for growing some of the world’s best coffee.
The History of Guatemalan Coffee
While coffee was introduced to Guatemala in the mid-1700s, it wasn’t until 1860 that production seriously took it off. Until then the plant was used only for ornamental purposes. As the carmine dye industry declined – the biggest industry in Guatemala at that point – the government looked for new industries to boost the economy.
Thanks in large part to Guatemala’s temperate climate and favorable growing conditions, coffee quickly filled that role. The first small plantations began to crop up in the Amatitlan and Antigua areas, and soon began to flourish.
Elsewhere in the country, however, growth was slow. A lack of knowledge and modern technology needed for rapid expansion was lacking. The country also had a dearth of skilled laborers, without which coffee production couldn’t be ramped up.
Over the years, however, the country acquired both the knowledge and equipment necessary to cultivate coffee. Large sections of Guatemala proved to be excellent candidates for this cultivation, and different varieties began to spring up all around the country.
Many of these plantations are located in Guatemala departments – or states – of Guatemala, Amatitlan, Sacatepequez, Solola, Retalhuleu, Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, and Alta Verapaz. Coffee is produced near Guatemala City, Chimaltenango and Verapaz. In total 20 of the 22 Guatemalan departments are used to grow coffee.
As the growth of the coffee industry continued, farmers needed some sort of central body to help organize and regulate coffee production. This materialized in the form of a union called the Asociación Nacional del Café, or Anacafé. Today Anacafé is the sole authority when it comes to Guatemalan coffee, and regulates its production and exportation.
The impact of coffee on contemporary Guatemala is obvious and undeniable. While it had a rocky start, coffee has now become the country’s largest exports, making Guatemala one of the world’s key coffee players.
Guatemalan Coffee: 8 Fun Facts
1- It Is the 10th Largest Producer of Coffee in the World
According to World Atlas, Guatemala is the 10th largest producer of coffee in the world. It sits behind Mexico, Uganda and India, and Brazil (the world’s largest). But even so, it still produces a huge amount of coffee.
2- Guatemala Produced Over 3.3 Million Bags of Coffee in 2019
When we said huge, we meant huge. The standard weight for a bag of coffee is 60 kilograms, which means that Guatemala produced over 198,000,000kgs of coffee in 2019. Although that figure is hard to wrap one’s head around, Guatemala actually missed its production quotient due to erratic rainfall.
3- Coffee Accounts for 40% of All Agricultural Exports
As mentioned above, the decline of the dye industry in the 1800s meant that the Guatemalan government needed a new export to help stimulate the economy. They pushed for coffee to become the new cash crop, doing a spectacular job.
Coffee now accounts for almost half of the country’s agricultural exports. The top importers of Guatemalan coffee are the United States, Canada and Japan.
4- The Country Has Some of the World’s Best Growing Conditions
Coffee is grown in 20 of Guatemala’s 22 departments. Currently there are over 270,000 hectares of land dedicated to coffee production. Guatemala benefits from high altitudes, mineral rich soil as well as near constant rainfall.
5- Guatemala Has A Number of Distinct Growing Regions and Micro Climates
We mentioned it above briefly – Guatemala benefits from not only high altitude and near-constant rainfall, but from a multitude of microclimates too. These differing climates mean that each coffee plantation develops differently, resulting in a huge variance depending on the region in which they’re grown.
6- Many Plantations Exist on the Slopes of Active Volcanoes
Antigua is one such town surrounded by volcanoes. Volcanic eruptions release a lot of sulphur and other useful minerals which enrich the soil in which the coffee plants grow. It’s for this reason that many coffee plantations exist on the steep slopes of volcanoes, both active and inactive.
There are 37 volcanoes throughout Guatemala, three of which are still active today. This means that not only do crops benefit from regular injections of nutrient rich volcanic ash, but also from high altitudes. In particular, the altitude is responsible for the acidic and fruity notes that Guatemalan coffee is renowned for.
7- The Country Produces Almost Exclusively Arabica Coffee
Coffea Arabica – also known as Arabian coffee – was the first species of coffee to be cultivated, as well as the most widely cultivated on Earth. It accounts for about 60% of the total coffee produced globally.
Guatemala produces and exports almost exclusive Arabica coffee; over 90% of the country’s crops are Coffea Arabica.
8- All of Guatemala’s Coffee is Washed
Due to the country’s almost constant rainfall, drying coffee can be very difficult. It’s for that reason that all of the coffee produced in Guatemala is washed, or clean coffee. This results in the winey and almost pulpy taste that some Guatemalan coffee is known for.
It’s also for this reason that every carton or crate of coffee being exported from Guatemala will be labelled “Clean.” This label is to reflect the washed production process that all Guatemalan coffee goes through.
Guatemalan Coffee: The Complete Brewing and Buying Guide
Have the facts and history around Guatemalan coffee left you thirsty for more? Well then keep reading. Below we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about sourcing the best Guatemalan beans.
We’re also going to take a look at brewing methods. Namely which method is best at accentuating different flavors and qualities of certain Guatemalan beans.
Bean and Region Guide
Guatemalan coffee production is divided into a number of distinct regions based on cup profile, climate, soil and altitude. Because of this, each region produces its own idiosyncratic bean with a unique taste and flavor profile. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular:
Antigua is by far Guatemala’s most famous growing region. The town of Antigua is perched in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes – Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango – one of which, Fuego, is still active. It’s from this valley that the town gets its name.
Periodically, when Feugo erupts, it deposits a fresh layer of volcanic ash over Antigua’s soil. This ash is extremely good for crops, and means that the soil it covers is some of the most nutrient dense and fertile around. Volcanic pumice found in the soil also retains moisture and keeps the crops hydrated even when the region experiences low rainfall.
The rich volcanic soil, low levels of humidity, cloudless days, and cool nights make for some of Guatemala’s best coffee. So famous is the cup profile of Antigua coffees and the price they fetch, that the labelling of other coffees is tightly controlled.
In the past it was common to see beans shipped in from other parts of the country, processed in Antigua, then sold as Antigua coffee for inflated prices. Today Anacafé tightly regulates which beans are labelled as Antigua coffee, to prevent inferior quality beans being exported and damaging the brand.
Antigua coffee has a light to medium body, a medium acidity, and spicy, velvety flavor that is often extremely rich. These coffees are well-known for keeping their flavors across all roasts, even well into espresso.
Just to the west of Antigua lies the Acatenango Valley. Coffee here is grown on steep mountainous slopes up to 2000 meters in the shade, and enjoys the same enriching volcanic dusting from Fuego volcano.
The Acatenango Valley is one of the newest regions to be designated a distinct growing region by the Coffee-Growers Association of United Acatenango. It achieved a Designation of Origin for coffee from this region in 2012.
Huehuetenango is one of the most remote regions in the country, and one of Guatemala’s three non-volcanic regions. Of these, it is the highest and driest. Due to the dry, hot winds that blow up from the valley below, Huehuetenango is protected from frost, allowing the crops to thrive at high altitudes.
High elevations and a warm climate have resulted in one of Guatemala’s most spectacular varieties. Beans have a light, somewhat buttery body, a floral aroma and a clean, pleasant finish that lingers on the palate.
The Coban coffee region gets its name from the Maya Keckchi word meaning “place of clouds.” This couldn’t be more true – Coban is a rainforest in which the only two types of weather are rain and more rain.
Grown in north-central Guatemala, Coban coffee exhibits a number of qualities found in all good Central American coffees. These include a medium to full body, a light fruity acidity as well as a rich flavor with hints of spice. For the coffee fan who likes wine as well as roasts, the lingering winey notes are definitely enticing.
Best Brewing Methods for Guatemalan Coffee
When making coffee using Guatemalan beans there are generally two goals that baristas try to achieve. The first is to manipulate the flavor and acidity, and the second is working to accentuate the body and sweetness of the beans. Achieving either of these outcomes is highly dependant on what type of brewing method you use.
Before we get into it, it’s worth noting that even if your technique is incredible, your brew is going to suffer if your beans are poor. While Guatemalan beans are generally very high quality across the board, always ensure that you purchase whole bean, as opposed to pre-ground. The reason for this comes down to freshness.
Pre-ground beans are going to be exposed to oxygen the minute you open them, and will quickly deteriorate unless used quickly. Grinding your own beans, however, lets you grind them as you need them and keep them for longer.
If you’re looking for a grinder, check out this article we wrote detailing the best grinders currently on the market.
Back to business. Let’s take a look at the best brewing methods for Guatemalan coffee:
Brewing coffee via pour over is one of the most popular ways of making brew in the world. It’s also a great way to bring out the natural acidity of your Guatemalan beans. A light roast in this regard is generally going to provide you with the best results.
The reason why the pour over is so perfectly suited for more acidic beans has to due with the use of filters. Unlike the French press which relies on steeping, pour over is made by pouring hot water through a filter in order to extract the bean’s flavors.
This filter also captures a lot of the coffee bean’s natural oils before they can be extracted, resulting in a much smoother, more acidic final brew.
If you’d like to know more about pour over makers, check out our buyer’s guide.
The French press, as mentioned above, uses a full immersion method in order to steep the coffee grinds and extract the flavors in the process. It’s ideal for those who prefer a much stronger, more robust flavor, and works well with darker roasts. In this way it’s perfect to extract the full body and sweetness associated with some Guatemalan cultivars.
Because the water stays in contact with the coffee grinds for much longer, the final brew tends to be heavier and fuller. This process also enhances the natural sweetness of the bean.
Cold brew is an ideal brewing method to bring out the sweetness, full body and mild acidity of Guatemalan coffee. The method works by steeping grinds in a large volume of water for up to 24 hours.
After steeping for such an extended period, the resultant brew is a concentrate which then needs to be mixed with milk or water before serving. The final product is an extremely smooth drink that lacks the bitterness normally associated with coffee. In fact, the drink is quite sweet, having extracted and developed the creamier notes found in most coffee varieties.
Our Favorite Guatemalan Roasts
At Caffeine Fiend we’re pretty passionate about Guatemalan coffee, and we wanted you to be passionate to. With that in mind, we want to share some of our favorite roasts with you. After all, our job is to help you make better decisions when it comes to purchasing the best coffee.
Two Volcanoes Coffee – $18.97
Java Planet – $28.99
Volcanica – $22.99
Cubico Coffee – $14.95 from Antigua
Fresh Roasted Coffee LLC – $39.95 from Huehuetenango
Copper Moon Coffee – $16.99 from Antigua
Martin Stokes hails from Johannesburg, South Africa. He enjoys writing about all manner of things and can quote lines from films like nobody’s business. He moved to Berlin in 2015 and is working tirelessly at broadening his repertoire of bad jokes.