A few years ago, we blindly made our first visit to Guatemala. At the time we were working towards opening our shop in Ocean Beach. Our lives consisted of digging ditches, demolition, building and very little coffee. We didn’t know much about coffee. We were clueless really, but we were eager to learn.
We have now had our shop in Ocean Beach open for almost 2 years. While we are still far from coffee experts, we have definitely learned a lot over the past few years. This time we returned to Guatemala with more specific goals. We were looking forward to spending time with our friend Manuel, and the De Leon family. We were excited to cup this season’s coffee and to see the production of one of our favorite new coffees. As much as we love our shop, we couldn’t wait to get out of the cafe and in to the field!
We spent our first morning at the home of Jose Humberto Jr.’s family. They treated us to breakfast and showed us some machinery that had been passed down through generations. Coffee is the family business. We drank the coffee of Jose Humberto Sr.’s brother this particular morning. Jose Humberto Jr.’s Finca, Montanita sits above the rest of the family’s plots and has produced coffee that has quickly become one of our favorites! It’s a unique and special coffee and we were excited to learn more. “Senior” is an agronomist and Junior is an innovative dreamer. Together the combination of Senior’s intelligence and Junior’s creativity led to a fermentation process unlike any other — resulting in a coffee unlike any we’ve ever tasted! The process involves oranges, bacteria, and a lot of trial and error. They have found that certain varitals work well while others simply don’t work. The results from the first year were amazing, but the experimentation hasn’t stopped. Jose Humberto Jr. is still tweaking the process and pushing creative boundaries. For example, while most coffee ferments for around 24 hours, Jose is trying to slow this process down to ferment his coffee for up to a week which would heighten the brightness and sweetness of the coffee. Jose Humberto Jr. is always thinking outside of the box.
When we arrived at Finca Montanita, it was easy to see how Jose Humberto Jr stays inspired, Finca Montanita is a coffee paradise. This steep farm sits in the shadows of the tall overhead canopy. Intersecting trails lead to clearings in the brush, opening up to incredible views of the valley below. With most of the picking completed for this season, the farm rests in a quiet and peaceful environment. It is evident how Jose stays inspired amidst the beauty of this place. His passion for the farm emanates through his smile as he shows us around and explains which varietals are which. Pointing at the very trees that have produced the coffee we are so ecstatic about.
Coffee isn’t just a way for Jose to pay the bills, it is his passion. It’s been in his family for generations. He cares for his coffee, and cares for his farm and the result is amazing coffee that we have the privilege of drinking. His excitement is contagious and we are excited for everyone to try his “Orange Peel Process” coffee, rich with notes of dark chocolate and citric brightness. We hope that you are inspired by Jose Humberto Jr. as you drink the coffee coffee made possible by his fervor and zeal.
By Taylor Langstaff
Jet lagged and hungry, we wander through customs and into a new environment. None of us have been to Guatemala, and all we really know is that someone named “Jorge de Leon Jr.” is going to pick us up. Our knowledge of “Jorge” is that he had exported the coffee that we bought from Guatemala. Other than that, Jorge is really just a name on an invoice.
As we make our way to the busy airport exit, we see a young man standing behind a sign reading “OB Beans”. We pile into his truck, and drive out of the hectic Guatemala City. We make our way over the hill, and into historic Antigua. Before the short ride is over, the Jorge from the invoice begins to transition into a real person. Over the next few days we get to know Jorge, and his brother’s Manuel and Raul. They treat us like family and are an eternal source of knowledge for all that is coffee.
The de Leon family is humble, but over the course of the weekend we realize that we are among coffee royalty. Both Jorge and his father (also Jorge) have placed in the top 8 in the “World Cup Tasters Championship”. Between the 4 de Leon brothers and their father, they consistently take the top places in the national tasting championships. They hold multiple “Q” and “R grader” certificates, and the list could go on and on of their countless awards and accomplishments. Together as a family the de Leon’s cover all the bases in the world of coffee. They work as a team to: source and buy coffee from small communities and co-ops, provide quality control, oversee the milling process, export, roast, and even barista at their family owned cafe. The de Leon’s are very passionate about high quality coffee, and want to share their knowledge. They’ve even started publishing a magazine all about specialty coffee in hopes to educate fellow Guatemalans of the countries high quality coffee.
Thankfully the de Leon’s family mission in coffee education isn’t limited to solely Guatemalans. Over the course of our stay they answer thousands of our questions and guide us through the entire process that takes place before we receive the beans to roast. We have the privilege to visit different types of coffee farms and learn a lot from some of those who actually grow, pick, and process the coffee.
Alex Illescas grows coffee at Finca Jocotales just outside of Antigua. He gives us a tour through the hillside farms overlooking Antigua and directly facing the smoking Volcan de Fuego. As we walk through the different varieties of coffee, munching on “jocotes” (Alex’s favorite fruit) we learn how this small coffee community operates. Each family is responsible for their individual plots and the coffee it produces. Alex and Manuel help many of the families to strategically grow their coffee to provide the highest quality and greatest yields. This takes meticulous care and a lot of work. Not all families join their “program”, but more and more join each year as people begin to recognize the benefits that can come from Manuel and Alex’s knowledge.
In contrast, Manuel takes us to visit the slightly larger Finca San Cayetano. This farm is managed by Conrado who shows us what happens to the coffee after it has been picked. We closely observe as a truck loaded with freshly picked coffee pulls in. A crowd surrounds the truck and each individual offloads specific bags containing the coffee they have worked hard to pick throughout the day. Standing atop the wet mill next a scale is Conrado. He weighs and records each individual’s bag of coffee and gives them a receipt to later turn in for payment. The coffee cherries are then dumped into a large vat of water and the rotten or unripe cherries are sorted out. This leaves only the red, ripe cherries to be flushed through the wet processing machinery. After the red skin and pulp have been mostly removed, the cherries must be dried. Conrado senses rain is coming soon so we help them move all of the drying coffee under a roof. Each step of this process takes extreme care to provide the highest quality before it is taken away to the dry mill.
We leave the farming towns outside of Antigua and make our way back toward the city. Oscar Lopez meets us here at a large dry mill that processes coffee from all over Guatemala. This process is the last step before the beans are exported. Oscar shows us many large machines that provide another level of quality control. These machines further sort the beans in size and color. This huge warehouse is amazing in it’s detailed organization. The coffee is sorted, packaged, and cupped. After passing the many steps quality control and organization these sacks of coffee are finally ready to be exported.
In a few long days (and even longer nights) our time in Guatemala quickly expires. We have seen the entire process and met incredible craftsman through each step. Each has shown us unmatched hospitality and shared a wealth of knowledge. We leave Guatemala looking forward to return soon. The name “Jorge” evolved from a name on an invoice, into a real person, and now into a true friend. Not only has Jorge become “one of the Boys”, but so has his legendary family, and the talented individuals they work with (Alex, Conrado, and Oscar.) Simply learning about where our coffee comes from and the meticulous journey it takes to get to us would have been a great experience… but what we are really excited about is the relationships we’ve built and the opportunity we have to continue working with our new found friends.
There I stood, sweat pouring down my face. I was standing on top of a mountain, staring at the three coffee cherries in the palm of my hand. This was what we had set out to find. It was such a surreal moment.
Just days before, six of us took off on an adventure from San Diego, California in search of the origin of one of the Mexican small-lot coffees we roast. Our travels took us to the mountainous state of Oaxaca (generally pronounced wä hä’ kä ), located in deep southwest Mexico and home of the ancient Zapotec civilization. We arrived in the capital, Oaxaca City, and started our journey by touring the dry processing plant from which our coffee is shipped. We were all impressed by how meticulous they were in quality control. Each step was performed with care and precision. Each person was well trained and highly focused on their job. I was a little overwhelmed by the volume of coffee they processed every year. Maybe the most impressive thing was that they moved each 150 lb bag by hand–no pallet jacks, no lift trucks, just sheer muscle. Our team tried our hand at moving a stack of coffee, and found that, although small in stature, these Mexicans were very, very strong.
The following day we hopped in a van and traveled up into the mountains. The drive was long and sometimes perilous, winding around curves and up into the lush green mountain forests of Oaxaca. After hours of driving, we arrived in the little mountain town of Putla to meet the leaders of the Co-Op that supplies our coffee. They gave a presentation, and then our team explored the town and enjoyed the incredible food and culture of the area.
The next morning we woke up well before sunrise; the air was cool and damp as we loaded into the van. Our journey towards the top of the mountain was filled with driving on lots of dirt roads, crossing several streams, and a climbing a few steep inclines that made me wonder if we could make it in our vehicle. By the time we arrived in the village, the sun had risen, and there was a heavy mist hanging over the top of the mountains. We were greeted by several farmers and invited into a home for a breakfast of sorts. I always find it odd to eat chicken with live chickens walking around at your feet. We were grateful for their hospitality and excited to meet the rest of the farmers and hike up into the coffee fields.
As we walked back to the center of this small village the community began to gather. Through our interpreter we shared about who we were, and that we had been roasting and selling their coffee in San Diego. We thanked them for their hard work and dedication to quality and then showed them a small bag of their coffee beans we had roasted and brought with us. They excitedly crowded around us as we poured out a few beans into each of their hands. They told us that they had never seen their coffee roasted before. It was such a fun moment to bring back to them the final product that was made from the coffee they had worked so hard to harvest and export.
We then headed up into the fields together. In my mind, when I think of farms, I think of straight rows of plants, but this was way different. Their coffee farm was basically a mountain path with coffee trees sporadically planted among the other thick green foliage. After about a mile of hiking across several rivers, through thick brush, and up into the mountains, we began to see our first coffee trees. Most of the coffee cherries were green because it was early in the season. It took quite a bit to keep up with these farmers as they took us on their mountain path. They explained how they picked the coffee cherries one basket at a time and brought them down to a second location part way down the mountain. I was shocked by the sheer amount of effort it took to harvest the coffee and transport it.
As I stood there on the top of the mountain, surrounded by great friends and new community, staring at the coffee cherries, I felt so inspired–inspired by actually experiencing the entire process from farm to cup, inspired by seeing the small part we play in helping these farmers provide for their families and communities, inspired by their incredible work ethic and passion to produce high quality coffee beans, and inspired by their resilience and hope for the future. In fact the name of their Co-Op is Nuevo Esperanza which is translated, “New Hope.” I think this adventure left us mutually inspired with new hope for the future as we partner together to do as much good as possible from farm to cup