Photo: Cooperative coffee growers who know a thing or two about good coffee.
The coffee beans themselves are best hand selected when harvested. There's even whispered talk around more remote hillside farms that beans picked by Guatemalan virgins are something extra special - but that might just be wild hearsay. In the event, eyeball selection means only the beans meant to be picked are picked. The harvested beans are, through necessity, transported by hard-packed mule to the grower's own farm, there they are dried in the sun on the corrugated tin roofs of every farmhouse for between four to six days. This, I tell you, is only the beginning of what is surely the best coffee drinking experience ever.
The farmer's wife, who knows a thing or two about coffee, checks the drying beans daily. When she is happy - and only farmhouse wives have this long-honed handed-down skill, the beans are taken from under the sun into dark storage for another three to four days. Then comes the real thing - the special process that Starbucks and other international coffee retailers just don't get. The dried beans are hand-rolled to remove the husks, also to get rid of any individual bean that really shouldn't be there. The still green beans are then heaped a handful at a time onto a large flat-iron pan heated over a wood-burning, brick-built stove that is more often than not located in the main corner of the farmhouse kitchen. This is how the hand-sorted coffee beans are roasted... over open fires for various lengths of time depending upon which roast of bean is decided. It is the wood - the sun-bleached wood selected for the roasting burn that is important. This is when Guatemalan farmer's coffee gets special. The Guatemalans, they call it 'Cowboy' coffee...
When roasted, and once more it is the grower's wife who decides when the roast is done, the beans are again eyeballed by female eyes to chuck out any single bean that is not quite right - then the beans are ground by hand using traditional wood carved rolling-pins. They are ground on solid matts on the farmhouse floor, by the farmer's wife dressed in traditional garb whilst leaning hard on her hands and knees. Both Gary and I later agreed how this is not an unattractive sight; a Guatemalan woman in colourful dress grinding coffee can be a long lasting vision for a lonely man and his posterity. A large iron pot is set boiling on the same wood-fired stove. The ground and fresh roasted beans, still warm, are chucked by the heaped handful into the boiling water - for precisely six minutes. White muslin cloth is then set over a lavishly decorated serving pot, the boiling coffee is sieved through the muslin rag directly into the ceramic pot. When dry, the leftover ground beans are fed to the pigs or returned to the coffee fields to fertilise the moist volcanic soil. Drunk cowboy style, this coffee drinking experience is something special.
Coffee and Guatemala are like peas & carrots as Tom Hanks once said. This is how farmers' coffee is picked, roasted and drunk by the growers of Guatemala. Grown on the high volcanic slopes of the Volcán De Fuego
volcanoes that surround the old conquistador city of Antigua, the small grower's cooperatives have banded together to fend off the big boys, who more often than not ruin good coffee in their mad-rush to shift volume. The loud middle men and the money-driven, far-flung traders have driven down the price of beans to the point that small independent growers, who know an awful lot about coffee, live a subsistence lifestyle largely unknown to sophisticated latte drinkers who lounge in the downtown chain-owned coffee houses - the ones generally found in the western world. And did you know that drive-thru coffee drinking is the ultimate sacrilege to the art of knowing good coffee? Forget all that nonsense from the likes of Starbucks, who show vivid colour posters of happy farmers with their smiling families on coffee-shop windows to entice you in... the impression of Starbucks working hand-in-hand with their extended family of Guatemalan growers is entirely false. It just doesn't happen like that. The large commercial growers, who harvest on a vast scale, are driving out the smallholding farmers - because the grower's land itself can be made more valuable.
De La Genta Small Farmers Cooperative
is just one of the increasing number of growers' cooperatives found in Guatemala and elsewhere. Give them a try - you'll never taste coffee like it. Forget your percolator, your espresso maker, that awful cartridge-fed machine you got for Christmas, your drip-maker and every other damned gimmick for making coffee, roast the green beans yourself in a pan then grind them up by hand - perhaps with your partner or husband standing behind you with a mischievous grin in his eye. Chuck the grounds into a pot of boiling water then sieve the boiling coffee through an old shirt or muslin cloth. Add whatever you need to meet your personal tastes. Or you can buy the ready-roasted beans supposedly hand picked by Guatemalan virgins - although definitely dried and roasted by independent subsistence cooperatives who desperately need your business.
Visit De La Genta Cooperative Growers, Guatemala.
Gary, my step-brother and long standing friend, suggested that we rent a car in the Bahiá Del Sol, El Salvador. We left Sänna tied to one of Bill's mooring buoys, then drove northwest along the coast of El Salvador to cross the border into Guatemala. From there we made our way north to the old Conquistador city of Antigua to explore spectacular earthquake shattered Spanish ruins. The towering volcanoes that still belch flames are Guatemala's hidden secret - my daughter Louise, who travels Guatemala and Central America with her work, suggested we hunt down the small coffee growing farmers who farm the fertile slopes of the volcanoes. We found the trail and learned much about their heartbreaking troubles... and also how coffee 'Cowboy' style is still drunk in the old traditional way by those who know their product best. It's a fantastic experience - Guatemala's brown gold. Try it.
But please... not with milk, especially chilled milk. If you like your coffee white then use powdered creamers, they are formulated not to change the molecular structure of your drink.
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Read more about the mishaps and mayhem of Nellie, The Ship's Cat