March 21, 2017

Producer Perspective: How to Farm Specialty Coffee


Since 1998, we’ve farmed our 100-year-old family farm in Acatenango, Guatemala. Our farm, Santa Felisa, has been passed down through four generations. But while we’re aware of the traditions we’ve inherited, we’ve made a lot of changes. The biggest of those is our move to specialty coffee.

Combining our ancestral culture of coffee production, environmentally friendly practices, and direct trade hasn’t been an easy endeavour. Here’s how we did it.

Lee este artículo en español Perspectiva del Productor: Cómo Producir Café de Especialidad

Coffee cherries

Picking ripe cherries is a key aspect of specialty coffee production.

1. Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture is close to our hearts, and a key step in our move to specialty. We’re a sibling team, Annabella and Antonio Meneses, and Anabella studied a master’s degree in Ecological Agriculture. This has allowed her to lead the team in this area. She introduced the idea of farming according to the needs and conditions of the coffee plants, soil, and community.

Our core principle is shade-grown coffee – farming in a forest environment. It’s based on the believe that you improving coffee quality by improving the quality of all living things in the field. We focus on using environmentally friendly techniques to obtain unique flavors in the cup.

Coffee cherries

Ripe coffee cherries on Santa Felisa. 

2. Experimenting With Varietals, Picking, & Processing

We also knew that sustainable agriculture wasn’t enough on its own. We wanted to experiment to find the best varietals for us, the best processing methods, and the best picking methods. So we created a botanical garden, with more than 30 varietals of coffee, to discover which coffees flourish in our microclimate.

In 2008, we imported Geisha from Costa Rica’s Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE). It’s the world’s most acclaimed coffee, internationally recognized for its exotic flavor. Later, we added more exotic varietals: Mokka, Rume Sudan, SL28, and sub-divisions of Geisha, like Giant Geisha and Dwarf Geisha.

We now produce six different varietals on our farm – and, thanks to our experiments, we’re confident that they are the best ones for our particular microclimate and soil.

SEE ALSO: Specialty or Commodity? How Brazilian Farmers Choose

Since 2006, we’ve also experimented with coffee processing methods. Our Kenyan-style fully washed process with dry fermentation, K-72, is one of our most popular methods. So are Orange Honey and Natural Slow Dry processed coffees.

We’ve also tested different picking times and brix readings (amount of sugar in the cherry). Now we ensure that all our coffee is harvested with a sugar content of 22 brix or higher.

Coffee cherries

Santa Felisa expanded the selection of varietals.

3. Cupping and Quality Control

However, in order to evaluate the quality of our coffees, we also needed to be able to cup them! Since this is the way that roasters and green bean buyers will taste our coffees, it’s important that we can recognise what they’re looking for.

And so Anabella became a Q Grader, qualified to cup Arabica coffee. She then set up her own cupping laboratory in the farm. This allowed us to do two things: first, analyze the results of our experiments. Whenever we taste a new characteristic, or more sweetness, in the cup, we celebrate.

Secondly, it positions us a must-visit spot for roasters and buyers. They know that they can come here and taste six different varietals processed in four different ways in a cupping lab.

coffee cupping

Anabella Meneses became a certified Q grader to evaluate Santa Felisa’s coffees.

4. Marketing and Distribution

Our next step was branding and marketing. We used social media promotion to position ourselves as a producer of specialty coffee, and then used coffee shows to gain contacts for direct trade.

In 2011, we decided to launch Santa Felisa Special Reserve Estate Online auction. It’s been a successful sales strategy, but also also one that relied on an understanding of logistics and exports. Fortunately, Antonio had experience of this. It allows us to export coffee to China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, the USA, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and more.

At this point in time, we were already producing and selling specialty coffee. However, it’s important for us to keep the momentum going in both areas. And so we keep in close contact with all our customers. We invite them to give us feedback and let us know of experiments they would like to try. There’s been a strong demand for natural coffees, so we’ve built more and more raised beds. We believe in coffee, but know that we need to create products that meet customers’ needs.

In addition to Santa Felisa, we also manage Los Jutes and Parraxaj. In 2016, a Los Jutes natural processed Geisha micro lot took second place in Cup of Excellence Guatemala, selling as two nano lots for $53.10 and $53.00 per pound. Competitions like this are also important for increasing consumers’ awareness of our farms.

green coffee beans

Santa Felisa Coffee worked to create a recognised brand.

5. Your Farm Workers

It’s also important to remember that, if you want your farm to continue to be a success, you need to look after your workers and their families. We commit to not using child labour and supporting the children of our farm workers in finishing high school.

We also donated land from our farm for the building of an elementary school. Additionally, we support – and Anabella directs – Las Nubes Daycare and Tutoring Center in Acatenango. It provides nutritional meals, medical supervision, and education for children of nearby communities.

Santa Felisa

The coffee community of Santa Felisa.

We believe the path to success lies in a combination of elements: the right microclimate and varietals, trained and experienced staff, processing methods, attention to detail in the cupping lab, and strict quality control during export. Quality must be there in every single stage. And don’t forget your marketing: it is perhaps the most challenging aspect of all.

Entering the specialty market wasn’t easy, even with the advantages that our backgrounds bought. But we are proud to farm sustainable, high-quality coffee.

Written in collaboration with Antonio Meneses. All photo credit: Santa Felisa Coffee

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