Coffee has been grown in Costa Rica since the late 18th century. In modern times, Costa Rica, by far the most economically developed country in Central America, has set the standard in Central America for sustained good quality. While a few farms process their own coffees, much of the fresh-harvested crop of coffee cherries is trucked from farms in the mountains to regional centers, which extract, dry, sort and then blend the beans. Regional integrity is maintained.
Coffee is grown along the Costa Rican mountain chain that runs through the center of Costa Rica like a spinal cord, from Nicaragua in the Northwest to Panama in the Southeast. The climate on the Atlantic side is often clouded and rainy, while on the Pacific side the weather can be dry to moderate, producing more consistently crisp flavor profiles. Some of the finest coffees come from the Tres Rios area in the Central Plateau, where Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, is located, and on the steep slopes of the Tarrazu region to the southeast of the Plateau.
Almost all Costa Rican coffees are either the Caturra or Catuai variety of Arabica. Costa Rican coffees are always processed using the washed method. The finest qualities are grown at altitudes of 4,000 to a little over 5,000 feet. Coffees grown at these altitudes are given the designation SHB, strictly hard bean. These coffees are lively, full-bodied, and aromatically pleasing. The best grades are carefully sorted by distinct sizes for even roasting, with defects and low-density beans eliminated.
When I drink a fine Guatemala coffee it evokes an indelible image of its lands and peoples. Guatemala is the climactic heart of Central American culture, history, topography, and coffee production. No other Central American country has the cultural and geographical complexity or drama of this jewel-like country. It is a land of two evolving nations, one of ancient indigenous peoples, mainly Maya, constituting about 50 percent of the population, and the other of an invasive, still alien, complex European culture, there to stay forever. The Mayans guard their mysteries, which slowly recede into the mists of time as the pace of modern change accelerates, yet their two worlds coexist and have only begun to intertwine and blend.
Physically, Guatemala is a mosaic of micro-environments intricately nested within and upon two very different mountain ranges, separated from each other by the Motagua River, bursting with power from the west and slowly diffusing toward the east. Both ranges rise above 13,000 feet, higher than anywhere else in Central America. The southern range, bordering the Pacific Ocean, is the Sierra Madre; it has thirty-three volcanoes, many with perfect cones and several that are active. The northern range, Sierra Cuchumatanes, is part of the continental divide and features sharp ledges thrust upward in all directions and angles like a series of chaotic waves in a cataclysmic earthquake. All this in a country the size of Tennessee…
Guatemala’s multitude of landscapes is mirrored by its many unique coffee regions: they comprise the widest range of high-quality coffee expressions in North America, a true treasure trove! We have just started exploring in 2012 and will continue to do so in the coming years. We are featuring five regions of Guatemala from the 2012 harvest: Antigua, Acatenango, Patzún, Atitlán, and Huehuetenango. We invite you to explore these incredibly sweet coffees, many of great refinement with nuanced notes of fruit, and others quite bold.
Our Maya Cooperative Tzampetey (ZAM- pe [as in pet] -tey [as in hey]), in Sololá, from a mountainside overlooking the spectacular 5,000-foot-high Lake Atitlán, gives us particular pleasure: despite severe obstacles this determined group has produced a really well-crafted coffee with delicate notes of citrus-laced dried fruit and black tea.
From Pacific-facing Acatenango (ah-kah-tay [as in take] -NAN [as in naan bread] -go), we offered coffee from La Soledad, an area cooled in the afternoons during the dry season with clouds rising from the Pacific. This year we roasted it to produce a refined espresso with accents of pear and brown sugar. We expect to have it back next year.
Our classic Pulcal (pull-KALL) is grown on the slopes the Volcán de Agua, one of three volcanoes ringing the famed city of Antigua. Pulcal pedigree goes far back: it was awarded “Best Coffee in the World” at the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1898. The cup offers up plum, cherry, and orange scents from a bittersweet chocolate base as the cup cools.
Next, from an isolated ridge within a canyon in Patzún, comes the aptly named El Vergel (ver-HELL) Bourbon—The Orchard. Here is a farm completely separated from other coffee lands by steep walls in every direction. El Vergel has honeyed body with exquisitely nuanced layers of strawberry, green apple, and refined chocolate lace.
Finally we have Huehuetenango (way-way-tay-NAN-go), only a decade ago hardly on the Guatemala map of great coffee regions and now the homerun champion of all the world regions in the Cup Of Excellence competitions. Five distinctly different coffees are from Huehuetenango, a land of towering, drunken mountains with deep shaded valleys. Its unique terroir imparts distinct citrus minerality to the Bourbon, Caturra, and Maragogype coffee varietals. This characteristic is particularly clear with our La Bendicion (ben-dee-SION): here is a remarkably elegant cup with crisp pristine notes of the sweetest lime!
Then we have jazzy La Esperanza, featuring citrus-soaked apple cider and peach notes. Next come three tiny microlots from the Cup Of Excellence “Olympic champion,” El Injerto (in-HARE-tow). We have two contrasting giant bean Pacamaras: one from the farm section called Palo Gordo, with full bodied tangerine, cashew, and Assam tea notes, and the other from the Pandora Del Carmen section, serving notes of very dark molasses, cashew, and a hint of caramelized onion! The third microlot is a Maragogype (ma-ra-go-JIP-ay), a parent of the Pacamara variety, with even bigger beans and with flavors of delicate filigreed sweet lime, pear, and peach.
Panama is a sliver of land connecting two continents, where one can view both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Panama runs east, from Costa Rica, to west, with a center spine of mountains that take a rest at the Panama Canal and then resumes before trailing off into Colombia.
All of Panama’s small coffee production takes place on the Pacific side of the mountain chain near Costa Rica, to the west. Its most prized coffees are grown on the western and eastern sides (facing the Pacific) of the dominant 11,000 foot high Volcan Baru where coffee is grown at elevations of 3,500 feet to nearly 6,000 feet.
While the coffee regions have a lengthy dry season, stretching from December to May, rainfall is very plentiful, with yearly averages of 125 to over 150 inches. Certain slopes on the western side of Volcan Baru, above the charming town of Boquete (pronounced Bo-keh’-tay), have a continuous precipitation in the form of mist even during the dry season. Growing conditions can be difficult, with cold winds during the dry season sweeping down from the Atlantic Ocean to the north over the mountain chain and then descending through the coffee fields on the Pacific side, often drying and stripping the leaves of many coffee trees. During the long wet season the rains likewise come from the Atlantic to drop their moisture on the Pacific coffee-growing side, as illustrated by the adjoining photo showing the Valley of Boquete with coffee slopes above. The extreme wet conditions on these slopes can make fungal outbreaks on the coffee plants a real problem.
Despite these difficult growing conditions Panama has continuously produced highly esteemed coffees with classic sweetness and proportion. In the 1990’s some of its lower grown coffees were substituted for Hawaiian Kona to which they bore an extreme resemblance in looks and in flavor profile, and sold to many duped US roasters, resulting in federal prosecution of its “importer.”
Panama has held annual coffee competitions since the late 1990’s. In 2004 the first prize winner leaped into the imaginations and cupping labs throughout the gourmet coffee world. Price and his son Daniel Peterson had offered a lot of a little-known, very rare coffee variety called Gesha, separated from other varieties for the first time, grown on a very high altitude small corner of their La Esmeralda Farm. It was unlike any other coffee in the Americas, pronouncedly so! Today a number of Panamanian farms offer this variety, with La Esmeralda leading the way in every competition since (2007). It has put tiny Panama into the center of the gourmet coffee map, offering a multiplicity of flavor profiles from its many microclimates and diverse Arabica varieties found nowhere else, so far, in the western hemisphere.
El Salvador covers slightly less area than Massachusetts. El Salvador’s upcoming and increasingly sought after farms are found in two west-to-east directed mountain ranges. The northern range, shared with Guatemala, is part of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. The southern, bordering the Pacific Ocean, is defined by a chain of over 20 volcanoes. El Salvador is graced with volcanic mineral-rich slopes high in altitude, a rainy season laden with Pacific moisture, and a pronounced dry season as dehydrated air blows over from the mountains of Honduras bordering on the east, a terroir to dream about!
El Salvador is recognized as a producer of some of the best large-scale commercial coffee available anywhere. Quality control is a hallmark. Coffee is graded by growing altitude: above 1960 ft is Central Standard, above 2950 ft is High Grown, and the highest quality is above 3950 ft, called Strictly High Grown (SHG). After Cup of Excellence’s 2003 introduction in El Salvador, an appreciation of the coffee-grower as an “artisan” has been spreading throughout the land. Much smaller farmers, such as La Montaña, are gaining major recognition thanks to the Cup of Excellence program.
El Salvador’s varietal distribution is 68% Bourbon, 29% Pacas, which is a mutation of Bourbon with similar flavor, and the remaining 3% is comprised of many varieties, including Pacamara. The prevalence of the less productive but higher quality heirloom Bourbon variety is due to El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980’s which kept it from the widespread “modernization” of more productive varieties that swept so many other areas of Latin America. The huge and very high quality Pacamara bean was masterminded in El Salvador in 1954, and is a cross between Pacas and the large-beaned but low density Maragogipe.
Santa Ana has been the most prized coffee region of El Salvador, located in the far west of the southern range and marked by the gargantuan Santa Ana volcano, which coated the area with ash in 2005. Large quantities of the highest dependable commercial quality are grown here, mostly of the Bourbon variety that produces a classic cup.
In many ways the most exciting region right now is Chalatenango, in the western portion of the northern mountain range. Three years ago roasters would probably respond, “Chalawhat?” In the mid-nineties some farmers in Chalatenango began planting Pacamara. Seemingly out of nowhere in 2006 a Pacamara from Chalatenango’s Los Planes Farm carried a flavor to die for, garnering 2nd place at the Cup of Excellence. Using their Pacamaras, three small to medium sized farms placed 1st, 3rd and 4th in the 2007 Cup of Excellence competition!