The Hot New Thing in Guatemala, Land of Coffee? It’s Coffee

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GUATEMALA CITY — In the narrative spun around specialty coffee, there are two kinds of places: those where people cultivate the beans and those where people consume the end result.

On one side, the sturdy farmer from somewhere in Latin America or Africa plucks red coffee cherries against a tapestry of emerald plants. On the other, men and women in cozy cafes sip from fragrant cups of coffee identified by their exotic origins — Guatemala, for example, a small country of cloud forests and glistening mountain lakes where varied microclimates engender countless coffee varieties.

But the picture is shifting. Guatemala is no longer just exporting coffee. It is also home to an expanding community of coffee shops where baristas point out the peach and raisin notes in the daily special and tasting classes (“cupping,” to the initiated) are scheduled each Saturday.

“The community will grow,” predicted Raúl Rodas, the 2012 world barista champion, who has his own coffee shop and distributor, Paradigma, in the city’s trendy Zone 4.

“We need more producers, more consumers, more coffee houses,” Mr. Rodas said over coffee at a competitor, El Injerto, where he greeted the baristas by name and explained how to identify the hint of a cocoa powder flavor with the finish of each sip.

The phenomenon of “third wave” coffee, with its intense focus on every step of the coffee chain — from identifying the farms that produce the best quality to roasting the beans and educating consumers — has begun to spread across the coffee-producing countries of Latin America. But the fervor of Guatemala’s scene may top them all – even though the pool of potential consumers is very much smaller than in Mexico City or Bogotá.

“We would do this even if they didn’t pay us,” said Ricardo Morales, a barista at El Injerto, established by the owners of a century-old export plantation of the same name.

It is the baristas who are driving the third wave here, said Diego del Águila, who is in charge of the coffee school at Anacafé, Guatemala’s national coffee association. “The coffee shops are changing consumers’ idea of the way to drink coffee,” he said. In just the past year, seven coffee shops have opened in the leafy neighborhoods surrounding the association’s headquarters.

The trend is also altering Guatemalans’ perception of their claim on one of their most important exports. “Four or five years ago it was difficult to keep coffee inside the country,” Mr. del Águila said.

Anacafé’s coffee school offers a barista training course, which includes a module on the art of drawing patterns on latte foam, as well as courses in coffee roasting, which many coffee shops now handle themselves.

On a recent Monday, 10 aspiring baristas clustered over two metal tables at Anacafé’s school, where the beakers lined up on shelves and counter tops suggest a middle school science lab. At one table, an instructor, Paulo Meléndez, 24, who took his first barista course when he was only 13, was showing the students how to prepare coffee using a French press.

After pouring hot water over the ground coffee, he waited 45 seconds, then stirred just three times, waited another three minutes, skimmed the foam from the top of the mixture and then pressed the plunger.

The students sipped from espresso cups, commenting on the acidity, body and weight of their coffee, which comes from Guatemala’s Huehuetenango region.

Then Mr. Meléndez moved onto the Melitta pour-over technique, using a goose-necked pot to pour water first over the entire filter and then over the coffee in a spiral movement.

“It smells different, it’s more acidic,” was the verdict from one student, Xiomara Montenegro, a lawyer.

Mr. Meléndez agreed. “It leaves our mouths dry like a dry white wine,” he said.

Alejandro Quiñónez, an architect, was there because he hoped a barista certificate would allow him to travel in Europe and work in coffee shops there. “As a Guatemalan, you grow up with coffee from your grandmother, everybody drinks it,” he said.

Veronica Shin, a South Korean student who had lived for 10 years in Guatemala, also hoped to work part-time as a barista. Her Guatemalan qualification would have extra cachet in Korea, she said, because Guatemala’s coffee is prized there.

It is difficult to make a business of a specialty coffee shop, and it is a labor of love for those who embark on it. In a country where many people do not even make the minimum wage — less than $12 a day — spending as much as $2.50 on a cup of coffee is a reach for all but a tiny sliver of the population. And even for those with some more disposable income, there is the question of habit. “How do you convince somebody who has always bought coffee in a supermarket to join the ranks of specialty coffee consumers?” Mr. Rodas asked. His answer: “The more we spread the culture, the larger the market will be.”

He also links backward, to the coffee farms, developing coffees with between 16 and 20 growers each year. On sale at Paradigma recently were three separate coffees, identified by region, farm, variety and the date the bean was harvested and roasted. “Orange peel, floral, brown sugar and a spicy finish,” read the description on a bag from the humid northern region of Cobán.

Mr. Rodas appears to be succeeding in spreading the gospel to his loyal customers in Guatemala City’s tiny high-technology district. “They have taught me to try coffee, to trust in my palate,” said Oscar Villagrán, the chief financial officer at a software firm, who comes in after lunch most days. “When I drank bad coffee, I didn’t know it. Now I feel the difference.”

Many of the third-wave baristas got their start at one of Guatemala’s local coffee chains, falling into the business by accident.

Gerson Otzoy was one of them. Then, seven years ago he took the money his brother and sister sent from Spain to join them and bought an espresso machine instead. Now a new Astoria Rapallo espresso machine with a retro sheen occupies pride of place on the counter of Fat Cat, the coffee house he runs with his brother in the colonial town of Antigua, an hour’s drive west of the capital.

Mr. Otzoy began roasting his own coffee three years ago. “That marked the difference between selling coffee and selling experience,” he said.

Pedro Martínez, who used to train baristas for a local chain, & Café opened Café Sol, his own coffee house in Antigua in December, buying exclusively from small producers and changing varieties every few weeks.

It is a far cry from how he grew up, with a pot of coffee of unknown provenance on the stove morning and evening. “When I was a child, we always heard that the best Guatemalan coffee went to other countries,” he said.

Now Mr. Mártinez leads young baristas on tasting trips to coffee farms. “The young people are very curious,” he said. “Some of them dream of opening their own coffee house.”