Exploring the Mountains of Huehuetenango

Posted by Tyler Holt on

Sourcing at origin had been a goal of mine for as long as I’ve been roasting, so when Onyx Coffee reached out about sourcing in Guatemala, I jumped at the opportunity. I had little idea of what to expect when I got there and showed up with an open mind and a duffle bag packed to last a week. I was so excited to finally see this side of the coffee chain, expand my coffee knowledge, and make lasting connections with the producers I'd be meeting in Huehuetenango. Sourcing from producers that offer single-lot coffees presents a level of traceability that is unparalleled. To be able to bring that back to Vesta and share that with our customers would surely prove to be an invaluable experience.

Direct sourcing would give me a glimpse of what life on a coffee farm could be like.  Observing first hand all the work put into that coffee ready to be sent out to roasters all over the world. I would have the chance to meet farmers, walk their farms alongside them and ask questions directly with the help of Oscar Melgar, my guide to everything in Huehue. 

Sitting snug between Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize, Guatemala is a small nation with a wide diversity of coffees. Guatemalan coffees are known for a clean, well-bodied cup with varying degrees of acidity. We would spend our time in the Huehuetenango region, one of the most remote regions in the country. Huehue coffees yield a bit of a bigger body and slightly more acidity in the cup. One of three non-volcanic regions in Guatemala, Huehuetenango is the highest and driest. Coffee is grown at an altitude of 2,000 meters and, because it is an outlying region, most producers process it themselves.

 

The Mountains of Huehuetenango

 

Day 1 


On the first day I met everyone from the Onyx Coffee team at their lab in Zone 4 (a hip, up and coming district in the city with tons of restaurants, bars and coffee shops) of Guatemala City. We cupped tons of coffee and gave our feedback and tasting notes for Onyx’s data collection. After the cupping we had some time to chat with some of the other roasters and cafe owners who were joining us on the trip to Huehuetenango. When we finished we were transported to a little airport where we boarded a 20 passenger propeller plane and headed for Huehue City. When we landed we met Edwin Martinez, CEO of Onyx coffee, and his father Don Edwin who would be hosting us at Finca Vista Hermosa, a farm that has been in their family since 1957. We drove to the Huehue house in the middle of the city and were shown to our rooms. I threw my stuff on the bed and went to the roof of the house to check out the surroundings and chat with some of the others. We gathered for a nice dinner and chatted amongst ourselves, a few of us split off to a local restaurant to get some beers.

 

Huehue house rooftop chats

 

Day 2 


We packed up our things and headed for Finca Vista Hermosa in Agua Dulce. We loaded up in two vehicles and I was lucky enough to ride with Edwin Martinez in a Land Cruiser. I had plenty of time over the two hour drive to pick Edwin’s brain and learn more about him, the Onyx team and their philosophy. As we drove through Huehue we saw coffee being dried everywhere, it seemed if you had the space to dry coffee, whether it was on your roof or a clearing on your property, you were drying coffee there. Edwin explained to me that virtually everything, every business is tied to the coffee industry somehow. 

 As we started to get closer to the farms we were beginning to see coffee plants along the road. The higher we went the more we saw, until it seemed like every shrub was a coffee plant. The entire mountain was strategically plotted out for the optimal conditions for growing coffee with two types of shade trees scattered in. Once we arrived at our first stop we met with Tulio, a 3rd generation coffee farmer who showed us around the drying patios and demonstrated the coffee washing process for us before meeting up with the rest of the group for quick Q&A session on a soccer field (large open areas were pretty rare on the mountains) 

 

Robin Guiterrez's Drying patio

 

After the Q&A session we all loaded up back into the truck and were headed for Robin Guiterrez’s farm. Robin led us through his farm and property, answering questions as we went along. He explained so much about the growing process and how many different variables can affect production, from an early wet season causing plants to have fruit and coffee blossoms simultaneously, to a fungus known as coffee leaf rust capable of wiping out an entire farm in days. It seems the biggest threat to a farmer are things that are completely out of their control, such as unpredictable weather or volatile market prices. Shifting market prices can cause farmers to cut back for practical reasons as it can affect things like putting food on the table and how much you’ll have in your pocket for the next year.

Once we finished up at Robin’s farm we headed to Finca Vista Hermosa, our home base for the next couple days. We were shown to our rooms and had a minute to relax then we went on an amazing hike to see the nursery for Finca Vista Hermosa. We hiked maybe 3 miles around the property with Edwin, Don Edwin and Oscar. When we reached the highest point of our hike, Don Edwin pointed towards a valley just beyond some mountains and told us that was Chiapas Mexico. It was a special moment for me, standing there looking down the mountain and seeing Mexico in the distance was so surreal. That moment I realized where I was. I was in that moment completely, I made it, I was on an origin trip.

 


The nursery for Finca Vista Hermosa

Day 3

 

We visited a beautiful farm called Finca La Esperanza that Edwin compared to Jurassic Park, probably because of the giant gate with overgrown shrubs, vines and bright flowers  surrounding it as you enter. We walked the property with Don Nayo as he showed us around a few different lots. Matt, a roaster from Cafe De Leche in LA, had brought a polaroid camera with him and wanted to snap a photo of some of the kids who were helping their families with picking. Once word got out that we were taking instant photos all the pickers came to have their portraits taken. In this moment the pickers went from being shy and not saying anything more than “buenos dias,” to smiling ear to ear, laughing, and admiring their new family photo. It was pretty humbling that something so simple brought so much joy to these families, and it was contagious for everyone on the farm. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh with them as they posed for their photos.

 

Drying patios at Finca La Esperanza

 

Next we headed for El Apiario, a coffee farm that also had a few apiaries on site. We’ve offered some of this farm’s Coffee Blossom Honey at Vesta Coffee Roasters before. We met Jorge Mendez, a dedicated farmer who has put in an endless amount of work to get to where he is now. Jorge started out as a picker and saved his money to eventually buy this farm in Agua Dulce. Jorge is producing exceptional coffees every year, and was in the middle of his second harvest as we were visiting and was expecting a third harvest as well. Jorge took us to the apiary, outfitted some of us in full beekeeper gear and opened a beehive for us to peek in. It was incredibly loud from the hundreds of bees that were buzzing around. Workers use a few puffs of smoke to sedate the bees so they become docile enough to handle and they grab the honey racks out of the hive. I snapped some photos and held a bee, but was a little too scared to hold the rack that was crawling with bees. As we were getting ready to head back to Finca Vista Hermosa Jorge sent us off with an entire rack of honeycomb that we would later enjoy with some freshly baked bread from Robin’s mother in-law, as well as a cup of coffee to end the night. 

 


Jorge Mendez with the rack of honey he sent us home with

 

Day 4


We had a little time to explore the farm in the morning before we’d head back to Huehue city for a cupping at the lab and storage facility for Finca La Esperanza. I took a little time to walk around Finca Vista Hermosa to check out some of the different lots and drying patios. I took a minute to sit in the middle of a lot that provided some shade and tasted some cherries. After a brief minute to myself we packed up and said goodbye to Finca Vista Hermosa and headed back down the mountain to Huehue City. Once we arrived at the Finca La Esperanza lab we were greeted by Don Aurelio and given a brief tour of the facility, then headed upstairs and dove right into a cupping. Man oh man did I taste some amazing coffees on this table! Everything was so exciting and beautiful with a lot of different tasting notes across the board. As we worked our way through the cupping Don Aureilo’s son offered for us to taste some of their more experimental coffee. We tasted a few natural processes and an anaerobic process. In Guatemala approximately 90 percent of coffee produced here is washed  or “clean” coffee, so having a chance to taste these different processes was truly special.

Edwin Martinez with Don Aureilo 

 

Once we finished with the tasting we loaded back up and headed for the airport to fly back to Guatemala City. When we arrived the groups all dispersed and went back to their Airbnbs or hotels to rest up and meet up later for a drink and some food. That night we found ourselves at a bar with live music. Like something out of a movie, the place was packed and everyone knew all the words to every song. I couldn’t help but smile. I was at a bar with live music, completely immersed in the culture of Guatemala City for a brief moment before leaving back to the states the next day.


Day 5


We had one last cupping at the Onyx lab before we would all be heading back home. On my way to the lab I ran into some of the other roasters from the trip at a coffee shop in zone 4 called 12 Onzas (I highly recommend this shop if you ever find yourself in Guatemala city). I stopped to have an incredible shot of espresso and enjoyed breakfast with them. While we were sitting in the shop another roaster from the trip popped in to grab some stuff to-go for her crew. It seemed this was the unofficial breakfast spot amongst our group. Once we were finished we walked to the lab together, enjoyed the cupping and shared some final thoughts from the trip and exchanged information. I said my goodbyes and headed back to the hotel to pack my things and get prepared to fly home.  

I had such an incredible time on this trip and learned so much about the farming process, and what life is like for these farmers and their crews. Waking up on a coffee farm, drinking coffee and enjoying the beautiful views of Huehuetenango was so surreal. I felt like I was living another life, traveling across Guatemala in the back of a truck. Driving back down to Huehue City I was remembering what Edwin had told me about everything being connected to the coffee industry somehow. So many people rely on coffee for their everyday life, it feels good to know that when you pay for an exceptional coffee that the profit  is not only put back into their farm, but back into their communities as well. Establishing and fostering solid relationships with farmers and letting them know we’re willing to pay above market prices for their coffee. Further justifying the labor intensive and often tedious work that is put into getting that coffee to us lets them know it’s worth it and we truly value their work.

 

Last group photo of the trip

 

 I’ll never forget the experiences and people I was lucky enough to meet while I was there. Experiences like Robin sharing his mother in-laws fresh baked bread and some sugar cane from his farm, to enjoying drinks with everyone on the trip on the patio of Finca Vista Hermosa, and many more. Onyx Coffee did such an amazing job planning this trip for everyone it really couldn’t have been any better. It was like a week long summer camp for coffee roasters. I’m looking forward to expanding my coffee knowledge on my next adventure in coffee. Continuing to learn new things, tasting new experimental processing methods as well meeting new people who put their life into their work is something that genuinely excites me. This trip has given me the ability to share the literal fruits of labor from these farmers with our own relatively new specialty coffee community in Las Vegas. I can’t wait to share more amazing coffee and experiences with all those who are interested.

 

 

Please Note: If you're looking to purchase something from this trip we do not currently have any offerings as of yet. If you were lucky enough to try the La Bendicion while we had it, be sure to check back regularly to see if we get it back in stock. We hope to have something very soon for you to try!

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