Guatemala Trip: Intro

By Ian…

Hello everyone, and thanks to Laura for setting up this blog as a venue for Bridgehead folk to express themselves to the broader specialty coffee community!

I was asked to present a few thoughts on my recent globetrotting experiences in Guatemala and Southern California. I’ve put this off a few days as I’ve been remarkably busy with various things since returning on Sunday, not the least of which being preparations for a new store opening. More on this later.

I must admit I don’t have a very high comfort level writing for blogs – I find argumentative coffee forums much more suitable to my style of expression – but I’ll do my best to recap the events of the past few weeks. It was probably about three weeks ago when I got a phone call from Les Kuan asking me if I would be interested in representing Canada at the WBC Judges Certification workshop in Long Beach. The idea was to get as many Canadians as we could to attempt certification so that, with a little luck, we could bring some greater expertise, experience and credibility to the pool of judges here in Canada while at the same time addressing concerns that judging has not been taken seriously enough in the past (opinions I cannot, from my experience, agree with).

Upon receiving word from the WBC that I was welcome to try my best in Long Beach, I was faced with an extraordinary situation. I still had two weeks’ worth of vacation to take before the end of December and, upon review of our plans for December, it wound up making the most sense for me to head off somewhere for two weeks on Nov 22 – three days after finding out about the WBC workshop.

After a quick google search involving the highly restrictive terms “Western hemisphere” and “hiking”, I naturally settled upon Guatemala as my vacation destination. A country close enough to L.A. to make a round trip possible while far enough away from home to clear the environment of familiarity and the mind of thoughts of work.

An hour after booking the flights I had a rough itinerary planned – stay in the major tourist destinations for a few days to acclimatise my body to the high altitudes, leading up to a 2 day hike of Volcan Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America. Perfect.

Guatemala, as I would soon discover, is a fascinating country due to its strength of culture, breadth of landscapes and abundance of automatic firearms. It’s also widely known for its coffee, which I ought to mention at least briefly here given the nature of this blog!

Anacafe, the governing body of the Guatemalan coffee industry, has marketed 8 distinct regions that produce excellent coffees in the country. No doubt, one can find unique and greatly differing experiences when tasting coffees from the central highlands of Antigua or the wild west of Huehuetenango, to name just two of the geographic origins widely recognized by coffee drinkers around the globe. Ask any Guatemalan and they’ll tell you their country produces the best coffee in the world. Granted this goes for just about any coffee producing nation, however the Guatemalans are far from making wildly exaggerated claims.

Bridgehead’s lovely Guatemalan coffee comes from a cooperative called Asobagri in Northern Huehuetenango (or HueHue, for short), not too far from Mexico. I’ve always been fond of this coffee either french pressed or clover’d – it’s quite sweet, with a remarkably saturated vanilla-like aroma that tends to fill the room. Unfortunately I wasn’t going to get a chance to visit this coop on my trip, given that it takes about 7 hours driving to get to Huehue (the city), and at least another 4 hours from there to get to the area where the coop’s members work the soil. Maybe next time!

In addition to cooperatives, agricultural organization takes many other forms in Guatemala. There are many large Fincas, typically owned by a patron land owner who hires out labour from the community or the market for migrant labour. Some of these have excellent reputations – for example Finca El Injerto in Huehue, winner of this year’s Cup of Excellence competition which netted it a whopping $80/lb (or thereabouts) for its top selection of green. Others, as I would find out, are less highly regarded by some. On my travels I would meet a German lawyer who had been working in Guatemala for some years helping Finca labourers fight for pay that was held back by landowners during the coffee crisis of several years past.

Also interesting is the coffee production of rural towns that the communities appear to grow, ahem, communally. One can easily find coffee growing on the outskirts of small towns just beyond the networks of alleys that connect small homes. More often than not locals are happy to show a curious tourist around, much to my satisfaction. This coffee is grown under entirely questionable conditions, but more on this later!

I found myself at Ottawa airport at about 5 o’clock Saturday morning. A full day of travel later, including far more time in Miami International Airport than a person with even the most limited appreciation for stimulation should have to experience, I was watching the sun set as my Airbus A300 descended on the sprawling capital city of Guatemala (City).

Upon arriving, I was quickly shuttled to my airport hotel/prison complex, where I set down my bags, admired the leaks spitting all over the electrical circuits leading into my Brazilian made 120v/50amp shower head (apparently Brazilian showers are heated by a reliable combination of fear and adrenaline, because there was plenty of both and no sign of actual hot water), and planned my Big Day In The City.

To be continued…

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