Guatemala is a dream for coffee growers, with high elevation, fertile volcanic soil, and a variety of microclimates. Like other Central American coffees, Guatemalan coffee is prized for its cup quality and complex flavor notes.
When exploring the history of Guatemala coffee, we get a glimpse into the versatile biomes of this small country and how they have produced high-quality coffee consistently for centuries. Let’s dive in!
History of Guatemalan Coffee
Guatemala’s coffee cultivation can be traced back to the 1850s and coffee farming and export have been a major part of the Guatemalan economy ever since.
But if you go further back, you will find that coffee came to Guatemala long before the 19th century when it became economically significant. Jesuit missionaries first bought coffee beans from Europe to Guatemala in the mid-1700s. The monks didn’t drink the coffee itself but kept the plants for their aesthetic value and medicinal properties.
In the 1850s-60s, German immigrants played a vital role in spreading coffee cultivation. Small coffee farms or fincas cropped up in the southwest of the country. However, the adoption of coffee farming was slow as many farmers relied on loans to finance their farms and labor shortages were rampant. When Guatemala’s major natural dyeing industry collapsed, the government turned to coffee as an economic lifeboat for their people.
Guatemala was the largest Central American coffee producer for most of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century until it was deposed by Honduras in 2011. Over 225,000 acres of land are dedicated to coffee farming in Guatemala and it remains a major industry and source of livelihood for many Guatemalans- over 130,000 people are involved in growing, processing, and exporting Guatemalan coffee.
Large-scale estates account for 45% of the total Guatemalan coffee production while the rest are small, family farms that grow Arabica varietals like bourbon, caturra, and pacamara. The most prominent regions for growing the best Guatemalan coffee beans are Antigua, Acatenango Valley, Atitlan, Cobán, Fraijanes Plateau, Huehuetenango, Nueva Oriente, and San Marcos. The ideal temperature for Guatemalan coffee is between 16 to 32 °C (60 to 90 °F) and an altitude varying between 500–5000m (1,600–16,400 ft) above sea level.
The smallholder family farms mentioned earlier are represented by Guatemala’s national coffee association, Anacafé (Asociación Nacional del Café). Anacafé was established in 1960 to centralize coffee production and promote innovation in quality, processing, and export of Guatemalan coffee beans. They also help rural farmers with marketing, financing, and research.
Unlocking the Flavors of Guatemalan Coffee Beans
Guatemalan coffee is incredibly versatile thanks to the rich microclimates of the region. Guatemala boasts over 300 microclimates and each region within the country produces a unique Guatemala coffee taste. Additionally, the soil is fertile (and volcanic in certain regions) while the rainfall is consistent and the country has a high elevation in many regions. All the factors come together to create the perfect growing conditions for specialty Arabica coffee.
Guatemalan coffee beans are commonly identified by their medium to full body, pleasant sweetness, strong hints of chocolate, and moderate acidity. Guatemalan coffee beans grown at higher altitudes have brighter and more robust flavors as a result of more sunlight, soil quality, elevation, etc. For example, the coffee from the highlands of Huehuetenango has more notes of citrus and berry in the final cup.
A few notable regions for some of the best Guatemala coffee are:
Antigua is home to some of the oldest coffee estates in Guatemala and is the most well-known coffee-growing region in the country. Antigua is uniquely suited for coffee cultivation- it's surrounded by not one, but three volcanoes; has rich, fertile soil, low humidity, plentiful sunlight, and cool temperatures. Guatemalan coffee from Antigua has a full body, low to medium acidity, and noticeable sweetness with notes of chocolate and hints of citrus.
Cobán is one of the most fertile regions in Guatemala, receiving 3,300-4000mm of rain for 8-10 months of the year. The constant rain prolongs the flowering of the coffee plants and so sorting the ripest coffee cherries is an even more labor-intensive task, repeated over and over. Ultimately the Guatemalan coffee beans from this region are ultra-refined when it comes to roasting.
The highest elevations in Guatemala are found in the Huehuetenango highlands, located in the western region of the country. The soil is well-irrigated thanks to numerous small streams and rivers and the climate is cool and dry, which keeps frost at bay. The high elevation, soil, and climate produce coffee that is bright and fruity, with a medium body and lively acidity.
Processing Guatemalan Coffee Beans
Most Guatemalan coffee beans are wet processed. This is the most efficient and effective processing method for Guatemala coffee because of the high humidity in most of the country.
After harvesting, the cherries are de-pulped with a machine and the inner beans are fermented for 1-2 days to release the oils and sugars in the beans. Wet processing, or washed coffee, produces high-quality coffee. When it comes to roast levels, Central American coffees like Guatemala coffee shine through well in a medium roast which highlights the natural sweetness of washed coffees.
Brewing Tips for the Best Guatemala Coffee
There are two main cup factors to consider when deciding which brewing method is best for Guatemalan coffee beans: flavor and acidity, or sweetness and body. The best brewing methods for this origin are French press, pour over, and cold brewing.
French press coffee is an immersion brewing method and is known for producing strong, full-bodied coffee. This works well for Guatemalan coffee beans, which are packed full of flavor. French press brewing highlights the body and sweetness in Guatemalan coffee, so choose this if you like a bold cup.
Pour over brewing highlights the acidity of Guatemalan coffee. The slower rate of extraction and presence of a filter creates a clean, balanced cup of coffee. This is a good brewing option for those that like a more delicate flavor profile and don’t want their coffee to overwhelm them.
If you want to get the most rounded appreciation for Guatemalan coffee, then cold brewing is worth a try. The long and slow extraction combined with the immersion style of brewing highlights all the best features of Guatemala coffee: light sweetness, bright acidity, and a balanced body.
Why Should You Try the Best Guatemalan Coffee?
Guatemalan coffee beans are a must-try for any coffee aficionados. As one of the most significant coffee producers in the world with a history of producing exceptional cup quality, Guatemala coffee is not something to be missed. If you’re new to coffee or are trying to explore new flavors, Guatemalan coffee is a safe origin to pick since their coffees are all well-balanced and not overpowering. Grab some Guatemalan coffee beans and start brewing!