The Bristol Team has been in Guatemala - a country that has a rich albeit not entirely positive coffee history - these past two weeks, principally in the towns along the shores of Lake Atitlán (Panajachel and San Pedro de la Laguna) and Antigua, which are areas where coffee production is both abundant and incredibly important. Read on to find out more about what we at Bristol coffee learned about the history of coffee in Guatemala and its vibrant coffee culture of today.
The first time coffee was recorded as being drunk in Guatemala was in 1743 for the celebration of the conversion of a church into a cathedral. The drink stood out as it was served alongside the traditional chocolate and atole beverages. As is true throughout Latin America, coffee was brought to Guatemala by the Spanish conquistadors, and the first coffee bushes in Guatemala were grown from beans brought from Cuba.
Guatemalan coffee production started in the 1850s to make up for lost revenue from the dying cochineal (small insects cultivated to produce carmine dyes) production and within the next 50 years became Guatemala’s primary export crop; however, this didn’t come without a cost. In 1871, new laws were passed that acquired land from indigenous peoples (as well as the Catholic Church) to make way for coffee plantations. In addition to having had their land stolen, many indigenous peoples were forced into debt slavery, thus providing all the labor for coffee production.The forced labor laws led to the creation of permanent communities of coffee workers that lived on the plantations (fincas), and also brought people down from the Guatemalan highlands to supplement labor during the harvest season. Workers were not paid for their labor, but were instead given land on which to live and grow their own food. This practice changed in the 1940s after the election of Juan José Arevalo, who oversaw the introduction of the Labor Code which, among other things, established a minimum wage and labor rights, including the right to start labor unions. However, coffee laborers would again face troubles after the coup d’etat of 1954 (which would be the start to a bitter, decades-long civil war), in which many labor union leaders disappeared or were kidnapped. Many coffee plantations maintained these finca communities during the war (1960-1996), but would experience more difficulty and were broken up due to the “coffee crisis”.
The international coffee market experienced a dramatic price fall the 1990s-2000s, resulting in many finca owners reducing or completely abandoning coffee production for less labor-intensive crops (such as avocados or macadamia nuts). This led to the disbanding of finca communities as permanent laborers were reduced or eliminated and day labor workers became the norm. The loss of a permanent finca labor force also resulted in these communities of laborers losing their housing, healthcare, education, and other benefits previously offered to them by the finca owners, many of whom went bankrupt and/or lost their plantations due to the coffee price fall.
Guatemalan coffee production is flourishing nowadays, with Guatemala currently being the second largest coffee producer in Central America. During our visit to San Pedro de la Laguna we saw that many local houses had a backyard garden with coffee plants. Much of the coffee also appeared to be shade-grown, with farmers using zucchini vines to create shade for their coffee plants. Antigua, on the other hand, has fewer yet larger coffee plantations (which grow more trees than the few trees we saw in the houses surrounding Lake Atitlán), albeit Antigua’s plantations are generally still small operations run by local farmers. Coffee producers today rely heavily on associations such as Anacafé or APCA to provide a fair price for their crop no matter how small the production, which helps to ensure the livelihood of the country’s coffee producers and laborers.
Previously, all the best Guatemalan beans were shipped to the United States, Europe, or Japan for the premium coffee market, and Guatemalans drank instant coffee - coffee was produced for selling, not drinking. However, with the rise of small coffee shops throughout the country, Guatemalans are now getting the opportunity to drink their quality beans. Small coffee shops are working with small farmers to offer them fair prices for their product and also let the country experience their wonderful product. The aim is to produce a coffee consuming culture in a coffee producing nation, and it’s a goal that is being met - coffee consumption in the nation has doubled in the past five years, and shows no signs of stopping. The continuation of this nascent trend also promises to help lift people in the nation out of poverty as coffee consumption increases further: “Up to 1000 people are involved in each cup of coffee. 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,” says Francisco Palarea, editor of Café Cultura, a magazine focused on coffee production in Guatemala and El Salvador. Although the effects of this trend have yet to reach small farmers who sell their coffee fruit, there is hope that, as the local industry grows, farmers too will reap the benefits.
While wandering through Panajachel, San Pedro de la Laguna, and Antigua, the evidence of an increase in coffee consumption was ubiquitous - coffee shops line most of the main streets, ranging from simple nondescript stores to specialty coffee shops. In Antigua, for example, they say there are three types of coffee shops: those that serve plain coffee, no questions asked; those that pride themselves on making a good espresso; and those that are specialist coffee shops which tend to ask their customers what specific region in Guatemala you want your beans from. Such care and dedication for the beans, their unique flavor, and localized origin, serves to highlight the growing coffee connoisseurship in the nation.
In a country like Guatemala it’s easy to go on and on about coffee, but we’ll leave it at that.
If you’d like to know more about the coffee culture of the countries we visit, coffee news, or about Bristol Coffee, keep reading our blog or follow us on social media. And remember, it’s never a good morning without good coffee, so go buy some Bristol Coffee!