A return to Guatemala 2019
Jonathan Cates

It always seems to take some time for me to “unpack my bags” and write about an expedition to the source of our coffee, an origin country, a magical land, always south of Kansas City.
Honestly, I feel like once it’s documented on a page or screen, in written word, that journey is finished. Luckily, I always have a couple of months to wait for the arrival of the coffee we find. While my bags are still packed, the tales flow from memory, to mouth, to anyone within earshot. I’m not exactly sure if waiting to write things down clarifies in my mind what actually occurred, or just increases the height of the tale.
As far as I can recall, everything that happened in those weeks leading up to the Expedition, our time in Guatemala, and even continuing into the current day, are all true. Only a couple of names have been changed to protect the innocent, but no locations have been renamed. 
Please read along, and allow me to remove the memories from my bags. It’s time to unpack. The aroma of the coffee from San Jose Poaquil will transport you along with me, and the first sip will make this tale easier to swallow.
If some of this sounds unbelievable, well you’ve never ridden with me in a truck through Central America.  I’ll wait right here while you grind and brew a cup. Let’s Go!
There are coincidences, serendipitous events that happen all the time. In Guatemala, there is something else. A force of some sort that we might not recognize in our everyday hectic lives. I experienced this force the first time we visited there, and five years later, the strange coincidences began the moment I decided it was time to go back…
I’ll start from the beginning in a timeline of sorts.
It takes approximately three to five years for a coffee shrub to produce enough fruit to harvest. John Greiner, and I first traveled to Guatemala after the harvest in 2014. While the freshly planted seedlings we saw in the nursery above Lake Atitlan were growing, John moved to Portland, Maine and I spent a number of years traveling to Nicaragua.
When my Apprentice Chris decided to move to the other Portland, I made a curious call to John to see how things were going in Maine, and he  answered the call somewhere in the Green Mountains of Vermont. We’ll be back in Kansas City in a few weeks! How about we pick up  where we left off? Jajaja, Perfect!
The coffee around the Lake was now ripe, and ready to taste so it seemed like a good time to check in with what might be going on at the tiny Cooperative we visited long ago.
John, you want to go back to Guatemala?
You driving again? Absolutely. The guy in Guatemala City  said he has the same truck for us. OK, I’m in.
The first step in preparation for an Expedition like this is to pull out the maps, and look up old friends.
To my surprise, a quick Google search for San Miguel Tzampetey brought up a video that had been uploaded 2 hours before.
 A man speaking English was filming the town where he had grown up.
In Spanish he was speaking with the family who lived there, just down a path from the COOP. He quickly changed from Spanish to English, as he continued tearfully talking about how difficult it is for these people to make a living from day to day.
He was saying that even with the benefits of living in the USA, he missed the simple things about living above the Lake.
Who is this man filming just inside the town I need to pay a visit to? Within a few more clicks, and a few more photos, I was chatting with Carlos via Messenger.
Lo and behold, he was visiting his farm where he grows coffee to have processed at the COOP. For the past few years he’s driven his Jeep from the USA to Guatemala to harvest the beans that grow on his small plot. I tell him I want to visit again soon.
Absolutely sceptical, he says he’s leaving the Lake to come back North to work, and should be there in a few weeks. I let him know that if he brings me some green coffee back I’d roast it for him.
I need to taste it, and if it’s still as good as I remember from years ago I will make a plan to visit San Miguel.
A few weeks later, and I have 4 lbs of parchment to mill by hand with a letter saying it has been a dream to find a Roaster who knew the quality of the small town above the Lake.
The sample I had was just enough to taste that the quality had been maintained at the COOP. I decided I needed to meet Carlos in person to deliver his roasted coffee. Gracie and Sylvie’s spring break was coming up so we planned a trip through Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and back to KC.
Along the way, we scheduled a family dinner and I invited my new friend Carlos. I think he was a bit overwhelmed by the group we had at the Mexican restaurant.
We exchanged handshakes, and I delivered the coffee he had brought back, with a proper label and roasted to perfection

 

A few days after returning to KC, John and I are on a plane to Guatemala.
The plan is to hook up with Brian Phillips of Anthem Coffee Imports in Guatemala City. He has a couple of Roasters with him who want to discover Guatemala. Normally, when the gate goes up at the Airport Truck Rental, it’s a race up to the mountains. This time though, we decided to spend two days in Guatemala City. 
We met up with the group, and immediately wanted to know where to find coffee. Luckily, the famous El Injerto Estate Cafe, and school happened to be across the street from our hotel. Perfect, it was as if they were waiting for us to arrive.
After a small breakfast, a shot, a macchiato, and chemex of a natural processed pacamara from the Baristas at El Injerto, it’s time for our group to go taste coffee at a Mill  in downtown Guatemala City. I’m told  to follow a silver Honda Civic. No problem.
Turning right out of the hotel, a few blocks down ,and suddenly the silver car makes an unexpected U-Turn. Ahhh, we’re going the other way. John’s already got both feet on the dashboard, and his right hand on the grab bar. He knows my driving style. The medians in Guatemala are nothing compared to the Tranques of Nicaragua I’m accustomed to flying over. 
Within minutes we’re behind a civic. Faster, it’s that one up ahead turning left again, remember the huge dent in the bumper John! It’s the only way to differentiate Gino from the hundreds of identical silver sedans cruising around the city.
Upon arrival at the gate going into the Mill, a Broadway sticker is strategically placed on the lead car, and the guard house.  I always carry a stack in the pocket of my Roasting Jacket. You just never know when you’ll need a tag.
 Nothing could have prepared me for what lay behind the gates of the Montenegro Farms complex in the heart of Guatemala City.
As we  drive into the complex, we pass a large school, playgrounds, and very modern houses. We were ushered down a lane that lead up to a parking area next to what looked like a concrete factory. Gino says to jump in the waiting trucks, and everyone will caravan up to the farm. Two SUV’s and a couple of pickups are idling, ready to go.  
I was born to drive in Latin America, but when the opportunity to ride in the bed of a Hilux presents itself, I’m all in. That’s the way you tour a Coffee Farm. Sitting on the back corner, one foot on the floor, the other foot on the bumper straddling the tailgate. It’s like riding a horse. Shift your weight up when you hit the bumps, and hold on tight. Perfection.
The road turns down hill, and we pass through three different gates. Immediately, we’re transported to a stunning, shade covered farm. Finca La Labor. Introductions are made, and Don Francisco Quezada begins explaining the History of this Farm. He grew up here, learning about the coffee trees from his Grandfather. We walk through the different plots, as “Chespi” explains that the idea for the Farm is not to be highly productive, but rather to produce extremely special coffee. 
Finca La Labor is approximately the same size as Central Park in New York City, and acts as the lungs of Guatemala City. It is a special place, that the families have decided to keep as natural as possible within the Capital City.
We walk through one of the oldest plots of coffee to see the Giant “Official” Tree of Guatemala. It’s branches are huge, giving shade to at least 200 shrubs underneath it. Chespi reminisces about how he would pass out lunch, and water to pickers when he was a young boy. After a few photos, and a rest in the shade, Federico asks if anyone is hungry. 
Somehow, the caravan is waiting for us at the end of the path, so we all jump in for a quick ride over to Chespi’s home for some lunch. Uber eats is on point in Guatemala, and within 20 minutes a feast of Pollo Campero is delivered!Delicious fried chicken is devoured, beers are cracked open, & more beers are enjoyed sitting in the glass lined living room. Talk of coffee processing, and flavors found in the different regions of the highlands are discussed. 
Chespi, asks what I like about Guatemalan coffees. I explain I appreciate the diversity of the areas, I understand the push for standing out from other coffees by experimental processing methods, but that I love the clean, bright, acidity of the finest washed coffees in Guatemala. He laughs a little chuckle, and agrees that those are his favorites. Some would say Old School, but I think the traditions and information passed down for generations, from Grandfather/Son/Daughter that to wash coffee, and dry it properly is very important to maintain consistency. Let’s go taste some coffee my friend, I think you’ll like my coffee. It’s set up over at the Lab.
With that, we load up in the trucks to go back to the concrete factory area. Past the Rain Forest Alliance, and Organic coffee building we enter a warehouse full of activity. Bags with marks I recognize are everywhere. Stacked to the ceiling, it’s obvious that every Specialty Importer from all over the world uses this mill to process coffee. Through a door towards the back, and one of the most state of the art computerized tracking system I’ve seen is just inside. Up the back stairs, to the cupping Lab. 
My head is pounding by now, I can smell the coffee grinding, cups clanking. It’s time to taste coffee, and these guys have everything under control. Hanging out with the Roasters and Cuppers at the Mills are where I always enjoy myself the most. These folks know every single coffee by smell and taste. It’s about 2 o’clock, Coffee Time.

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