The Long Hard Road of Gourmet Coffee

Posted by Dave Thompson on 19th Feb 2014

Coffee’s complexity really hit home this summer as I journeyed on one of my first visits to coffee growers in the Guatemalan highlands.I had just made arrangements to visit a coffee cooperative doing a workshop on how to reduce coffee rust (which has had a huge negative impact on Guatemalan coffee farmers in the last year) in a village what I thought was three – four hours away from where I was staying.The morning of the workshop, I headed out at 5:30am to catch what gringos affectionately call a chicken bus. These are usually very colorfully painted old school buses from the U.S. that, yes, often have chickens as passengers.

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I had always thought the term chicken bus came from the birds often found in baskets carried by local passengers. But today sitting six, sometimes seven, across as the bus was hurtling around mountain curves, I thought maybe the term came from the game the drive was playing with oncoming traffic as he tried to pass slower moving trucks.Or perhaps it is due to the daring feat of his assistant climbing on the roof to retrieve packages for passengers as the bus rumbling at 50 miles an hour, making any Hollywood stuntman proud.

After a couple of these buses, I finally met up with one of the staff members of the coffee cooperative to drive the last leg of the journey from the highway up to the mountain village by 4-wheel drive on an old single lane, rutted dirt track.I buckled in for what would be another 30 minute ride only to find out I would need my passport, which I had left back in my room, to get through several police checkpoints set up as a result of recent anti-drug operations.This particular coffee region is near the Mexican border and is a major route for overland narcotics to the U.S.

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The Cooperative staff were quite patient with me, off course I should have been traveling with my passport, and the driver had just driven down the mountain to pick me up, and I was really just an observer at this workshop, certainly nobodyimportant for them to go through all of this trouble.But, after the staff member consulted the Cooperative jefe (Director) we turned around and headed to their main office another thirty minutes away to get a signed letter we hoped would get me through the checkpoints. Fortunately, the letter worked and we were able to get through the six checkpoints within ten miles easily enough. After nearly eight hours on the road, we arrived at the workshop seriously late.

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The rest of the afternoon went without a hitch.Nicolas, one of the cooperative members, gave us a tour of his 5 acre farm that he started farming with his dad when he was 2 years old (he’s now in his late 50s).  Nicolas’ farm is thousands of feet above sea level on some very steep terrain.On this day, like nearly every other during the rainy season, we were hit by a brief but fierce rainstorm as we ate lunch at Nicolas’ home, making the trails around his farm quite difficult to navigate. Nicolas and the other coop members on the tour of course had no problem navigating the terrain and showed the rest of us how to navigate the muddy paths.

There is an axiom in specialty coffee that the best coffees come from higher altitudes often hard to reach. Well, Nicolas and the rest of the coop members’ farms certainly qualify both in terms of great coffee and location.It takes six-eight man hours to pick the 125lb bag of green coffee that I purchase, another hour for that coffee to get down to the main highway by truck and from there another six hours to get to the port where the coffee will end up on a container ship to the U.S. While I thought my journey that day was quite an adventure, it is the norm for specialty coffee. No other beverage, tea the lone exception, goes through such trials to make it to our table.

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