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.