April 29, 2015

Why is it Difficult For Cafés at Origin to Purchase Coffee


My first nine weeks in Guatemala were spent studying Spanish in Antigua – arguably the Latin American hotspot for coffee. Armed with my notebook to write down and memorize the hundreds of new words I was hearing, I set out with my little orange book to learn and take notes on all the espresso I was trying.

I tried espresso in dozens of coffee shops that exist in Antigua and that cater to tens of thousands of tourists that pass through each year. And to be frank, it was a very disappointing experience. I was served double espressos with eight ounces of volume, espresso that had no flavor, watery espresso, burnt espresso, super acidy espresso and out of all those coffee shops I only found two who knew what they were doing. They had quality beans and served me something worth drinking.

I believe the poor experiences I had in Antigua were partly due to a lack of training of the baristas, but more importantly the quality of the coffee being served was subpar. There are multiple factors I believe that contribute to this problem I had of finding good coffee to drink, and those same factors directly affect my ability, as a coffee shop owner, to get good coffee for my shop in a coffee producing country.

Spanish Version: Por qué es Difícil para las Tiendas de Café de Origen Comprar Café

coffee extraction cartoon

In a producing country where coffee quite literally grows on trees, why is it so difficult for me to purchase specialty single origin coffee for my shop?

Why is It Difficult for Coffee Shops in a Coffee Producing Country to Purchase High Quality Coffee?

Firstly, 85 percent of the coffee produced in Guatemala is exported to other countries. Right from the start, the majority of good quality coffee is being bought and sent somewhere else to people who are willing to pay a higher premium. Although this is great for Guatemala’s export income, the consumption of good quality coffee within the country is reduced. However this does make sense as over half of the people in Guatemala live below the national poverty line so money isn’t generally spent on luxuries such as coffee.

coffee plantation in guatemala natural

Farmers often live in poverty. In Santa Rosa, Quiche ravaged for years by civil war, I encountered disease filled, bourbon coffee plants that were easily over 40 years old. The locals didn’t want to cut them down or replant them for fear of losing what little income from the coffee that the plants still produced.

Secondly, micro lot farmers don’t generally “hold” crops to wait for possibly better prices later in the year. When you’re working as a subsistence farmer who plants coffee, your main thought is not holding onto coffee until you can sell it for the best price possible, it generally has to do with getting cash in hand as quickly and as soon as possible. The initial harvest time sale of coffee allows for a great deal of quality coffee to be available, but this means a shortage for the rest of the year. So, when it comes to us getting quality coffee for the shop the easiest time to get it is by negotiating for coffee right before harvest time.  At any point after that, we have to purchase coffee from a small group of trusted sellers who have a good network of farms to buy from. There are a number of excellent larger scale farms that keep coffee on hand all year long to sell to consumers and shops, but getting it at a good price can be difficult and our profit margins would be reduced paying those higher prices.

arabica coffee leaf rust

As the very real threat of La Roya or Leaf Rust has reduced coffee tree yields, farmers incomes have reduced, making them increasingly desperate to be paid, (in cash), as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, the majority of coffee farmers I have met mix their coffee varieties at harvest. Today in the specialty coffee industry the trend is all about buying single origin, single variety coffees and then mixing them as desired to assure consistent roast and excellent taste. This to me, as a shop owner, eliminates a lot of coffee that I could buy because I am searching for a single variety of coffee that, potentially, will mix well with another to achieve a desired taste. The habit of mixing coffee is made up of three components: a lack of education of the farmers about how to make their ventures more profitable, local mayors donating a variety of coffee plant types to farmers especially during election years to win votes, and finally because farmers are selling coffee for weight rather than quality, thereby incentivizing them to fill the bag.

Because of that most of the farmers that I have encountered have a mix of Bourbon (Red and Yellow), Catimor, Tekisic, Sarchimor, Catuai, Caturra. All of these varieties come mixed in the same bag, which limits the number of farms I can purchase from as someone who wants a single origin/blend coffee.

coffee plants in a guatemalan farm

The mayor of Cuilapa, Guatemala donated hundreds of thousands of plants last year to local coffee farmers.

Finally, producing good coffee is an expensive venture. Coffee is a crop you plant today and wait a number of years to see any kind of return. This is compounded by the fact that when a farmer does begin to harvest and sell, the premium paid for the risk they’ve undertaken is very small. Here in this part of eastern Guatemala, I’ve never seen the price rise above Q285 ($36.72) per 60kg in cherry. The standard day wage for field workers in Guatemala is around Q50 ($6.44). Many fertilizers commonly used cost upwards of Q500 per liter and every little one of those coffee plants can cost Q1.50 to Q3.00 plus the transport. Multiply these costs by the three-year waiting period for the first harvest and financial capital needed to produce even a bad tasting crop of coffee is significant.

natural coffee pesticide for leaf rust la roya

Working alongside local coffee farmers in 2014 to fight “coffee rust” using organic treatments developed in the mountains of Guatemala.

All these factors play into the challenge that can present itself in trying to find good coffee in this country. In time it should become easier and easier to find good coffee as the custom of drinking good coffee has already begun to develop in the capital of Guatemala and, like most trends, it will only be a matter of time before it trickles down to the more rural areas creating a higher demand for well prepared, quality coffee.

Here in my little coffee shop we will continue to serve cup of excellence single origin coffee.

Article edited by N. Bhatt.

Perfect Daily Grind.