While I cozy up and watch the snow pour down outside my window here in Denver, cafecito in hand, I'm thinking back on much warmer times during our visit to Guatemala to see our coffee farmer-roaster partners last October.
It is warm indeed in Fraijanes. Despite towering at a familiar mile high in the sky (5,000+ feet of altitude), its a temperate, rainy and humid mountainous area. And humid means ... hot. So I came to celebrate the shade, and boy was there shade at Finca de Dios.
Despite a few years of agricultural work under my belt, I don't think I truly appreciated the bliss and beauty of shade-grown coffee. For every 10 coffee trees, there's at least one other species of towering timber making the light dapple through. From tropical pines with their hair-like needles dangling from a blue sky, to the Inga with the notorious cushín fruit that puckers the mouth, to bananas providing quick-fix shade for baby coffee seedlings.
This is not a farm of cash crops, it's a forest of coffee.
We trekked through this food forest with our Gento partners, the 3rd-generation coffee-farming family at Finca de Dios. Ashley, the daughter-farmer-scientist and roaster extraordinaire, proudly toting her sombrero and casually traversing the uneven ground of the steep hillsides. Ellen, the mother-farmer and first female agronomist in Guatemala, nobly holding her bastón (walking stick, mostly for looks), exuding that delicious balance of modest expertise as she shares the secrets of her father's farm. And Stuart, the doting husband-engineer-cheerleader, humbly and gladly taking the backseat to the mother-daughter duo running the show. They make for quite an irresistible bunch.
Ellen inherited the farm from her father, Don Roberto, a local legend and the namesake of Convivio's finest light-roast microlot coffee. The rebel she is, Ellen couldn't accept growing commodity coffee and selling in the traditional supply chain; she saw how that game left farmers behind for decades. Luckily, her daughter shared her rebellious (and intelligent) streak, and began studying coffee science, cupping, roasting and ways to add more value at the point of origin. Gento coffee was born.
The family laughs as we approach the beneficio, the plant where the coffee is processed. "Sorry about the color," Ashley says. "We were going for zapote," a salmon-colored local fruit I had devoured just that morning, "but it came out demasiado rosado (too pink)," she says. I personally love the way the zapote-terracotta pink of the adobe building pops against the green of the forest, the blue of the sky. The audacity of the color schemes in Guatemala says something about its sense of hope.
The beneficio is where all the fresh coffee cherries harvested from Finca de Dios come to be processed, a mere 100 yards from the farmhouse steps where we had our morning cafecito, also colored in a pleasant "too pink."
For the sake of brevity, I'm going to [extremely] simplify the processing of coffee that happens here. But please, please know... this is a labyrinth of laborious and intricate art. A labor of love, not for the faint of heart. As we like to do at Convivio, we should all take a minute to honor the hands and the land it takes to get coffee to our tables.
Weigh and Wash - Harvesters bring in their loads of picked coffee cherries for the day, they're weighed and given an initial wash with water.
Wet Mill and Selection - The cherries are put through a wet mill. "Bad" cherries (harvested too early or defects present) float to the top; the good ones wash on through.
De-pulp - The cherries are put through a machine that takes the fruit pulp off to get to the seed, or bean as we call it in the coffee world).
Fermentation - The beans are put into basins filled with water and left to ferment, helping to take the additional mucilage (fruit residue) off of the bean.
(Re)wash - The beans are put through an additional wash to clean off any left over mucilage and other residue from the fermentation process.
Drying - The beans are put on the patio to dry for a few hours under the sun (fingers crossed their is sunshine!)
Greenhouse - The beans are moved into a controlled humidity greenhouse for 5 days where they will finish drying, with someone stirring and rotating them constantly throughout the 5 days.
(Re) Drying - The beans are put out on the patio again, for another few hours before being bagged up and finishing the processing period.
And all of this happens in ONE DAY. To live up to Gento's Specialty Coffee Quality standards, the coffee must be fully washed and processed the same day it's harvested. A labor of love indeed.
A lean thin man joined the party on the patio with us - Maynor. He is the artistic genius paying arduous attention to the perfection of this process. Never without notebook in hand, and never too far from his whiteboard at the mill, Maynor has an intimate relationship with details - temperature, humidity, sunshine, time. The scent of each batch during fermenting is noted. Every time.
"Todo trae su receta atras." Each batch has a unique recipe behind it, he tells me.
This, my friends, is specialty coffee. This is why we pay a premium.
After the beneficio, we continue the trek around the 50 acre farm with the Gento family. Not surprisingly, Ashley and her mother know this place like the back of their hand. Down the hillside of caturra coffee trees to the first nacimiento ( water spring), the one they stumbled on years ago when first exploring their inherited land. Dropping down to the little creek that provides ditch irrigation to the lowland, older coffee trees. Climbing up towards the second nacimiento Vivi tells her mom, who has been courageously wandering these hills with us at the ripe age of 80, "Ponte tu 4x4 mamá!" Estelita puts her 4x4 mode in gear as we rumble down through old growth pines housing the chirping thrushes and grackles.
There are numerous microlots on Finca de Dios - petite and particular quadrants of the farm where slight changes in altitude, humidity, shade, and soil conditions alter (and often enhance) the flavor profile of the coffee. We've all heard of single origin coffee - Microlot coffee is a step beyond that, made of small batches with the delicious diversity of terroir.
La planicie is the flat region on the top of the hill where you can see for miles and where last year's hailstorm came through threatening this year's harvest. La joya, "the jewel" is where the paca and new geisha varieties are found, Ellen's experimental plot awaiting their first harvest in 2022. El Bosque is the forested lot where the tropical pines tower towards the sky and the bourbon varieties grow their cherries in joyful clusters. El zapote (remember, that salmon-colored fruit?) lays behind the mill and hosts the cuturra varieties, lovingly nick-named chaparritas for their short and bushy growth patterns.
Despite my prodigious note scribbling, I barely pass Stuart's agronomy pop-quiz at the half-way point. I can't begin to scratch the surface of the knowledge that comes from a lifetime allegiance to these trees.
And after Ellen and her bastón, Estelita and her 4X4, and me and my insatiable curiosity for the forest are just about trekked out, our hosts return us to the house, to the patio next to the herb garden, for a little afternoon cafecito.
Last year's cherries harvested from Ellen's expertise, that went through Maynor's magic, that Ashley roasted to perfection, are now dripping through a Chemex filter on the table while I keep an eye out for hummingbirds. And on the side, a little panito para empujar (pastry to help the coffee go down), because cafécito can't come to the table alone.
But more important than the delicious dishes on our table is comes after. It's the sobre mesa - the after table. It's where we tell our stories. It's what happens after all the libations of the table have settled happily in our stomachs. It's what a dining table was made for.
Stuart tells tales of the region - the men that built the first railroad through, the neighboring farm's bucolic delight for corn and the pasture where their cattle graze, the spectacular view of the moon rising from the hill on the West side of the property. Ellen pokes fun about the stray dogs wandering the farm that she's adopted as her own. Vivi exchanges parenting wisdom with Ashley, the expecting mother-to-be. Estelita dotes on her late husband Ronny, the intrepid community leader, the friend Stuart says "will always have a place here."
I find myself returning here often when I'm in Guatemala. To hospitality. To time slowing down. It's quite quotidian for Latin Americans, and when I dig deep to my roots on the Great Plains of Oklahoma Southern Hospitality I can find it commonplace too. The joy of sitting, sipping, salivating on a good day's work.
And its what keeps us coming back to familiar tables. The hospitality that makes us feel welcome and wanting for more. I will be back to Finca de Dios soon, hopefully to pass Stuart's agronomy pop-quiz on my second try. For now, I'll use these snowy days in the winter of Colorado to cozy up with my cafecito from Finca de Dios, and let it spur my creativity for getting the doors open to Convivio Café, a table where everyone feels welcome to sit, stay and sip on a good day's work.