Beer, coffee, and sun. Are your bags packed yet? —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Dan Floyd
Your boss asks if you want to go to Guatemala to search for the very best coffee for this year’s Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine release. “Hell, YEAH!” Beer and coffee and sunshine? You don’t turn down an offer like that.
THE ROAD TO ACATENANGO
A couple of guys from Goose Island and Intelligentsia Coffee and I arrive in Guatemala City midmorning to weather that’s sunny, dry, and in the upper seventies. (Intelligentsia Coffee is our next-door neighbor on Fulton Street in Chicago; they help select and roast the beans for our Bourbon County coffee variant each year.) As soon as we exit the airport, we’re greeted by our host, Raul Perez, with a huge smile and cold beers. (Warm weather, cold beer...perfect, if you ask me.) Raul’s family has had coffee running through their veins for almost 125 years. They are the proud owners of Finca La Soledad coffee farm in Acatenango, a municipality in Southern Guatemala.
We head west on the Pan American Highway toward Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing some of the best examples of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Baroque architecture, which are surprisingly well preserved for their age (ancient Mayan relics are also within driving distance). Combine the postcard-ready vistas with coarse cobblestone roads, and you know immediately that you are someplace extraordinary.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, first things first: FOOD! We stop in Antigua at the Cactus Taco Shop, sit down, and there behind the bar in the refrigerator case are bottles of 312, Goose IPA, and Honkers Ale! That is a sight to see. I know that Goose Island is now a global brand, but for me as a brewer to see our beers firsthand so far from home, the very same beers that I probably helped make, is definitely exciting. The tacos? Without a doubt, some of the best I’ve ever had.
With full bellies, we hit the road for Acatenango, continuing west on a bone-rattling ride through the mountains. About an hour into the trip, our driver suddenly pulls over to the side of the road. From out of nowhere, a man walks up to the passenger side of our van, and the sliding door suddenly flings open. (With recent stories of narcos in the area, needless to say we all jump.) In comes a cooler stocked with Gallo beer (known as Famosa here) on ice. (Our hosts, though we’ve only just met, understand us well.) We arrive at Finca La Soledad, the night sky pitch-black, and are greeted by Raul’s parents, Henio and Marcedes, and his younger brother, Jose. Even though Henio and Marcedes don’t speak English and my Spanish is terrible at best, we receive the warmest greeting. After several beers and lively conversation on the patio, it’s off to bed.
The next morning, I awake to an absolutely amazing view. The immaculately kept farm is nestled at the foothills of three volcanoes: Fuego, Aqua, and Acatenango. In the early-morning sunlight, what looks like clouds floating above Fuego is actually smoke rising from the (still active) volcano. A really good cup of coffee, of course, followed by a fantastic breakfast of steak, eggs, rice and beans, and homemade tortillas is a reminder that breakfast here is geared toward a day of hard work on the farm.
We start our farm tour by taking a ride on the back of a pickup truck along a rocky road, past hundreds of avocado trees (lunch!) and on to the highest point of the property (about 1,700 meters above sea level). We’re greeted by several coffee pickers, many of whom return year after year to help with the harvest, and we all try our hand at picking coffee cherries. It’s clear right away that we should leave it to the professionals, who make quick work of clearing only the ripest cherries from the heavily laden trees; any cherry that is not fully ripe is left to be picked another day. Then it’s back down the mountain to the wet mill, where the coffee cherries are processed.
After an extensive tour of the farm, we go over to the cupping lab. Here we are presented
with several dozen coffee samples to taste and evaluate, each being either a different bean varietal, grown at varying altitudes, or finished using an alternate processing technique. We taste through EVERY single one (with dozens of tastings, tougher than it sounds) as we try to select the one coffee we think will create the flavor profile we are hoping to achieve with this year’s Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine. Despite being completely overcaffeinated (and in need of a beer!), we come to a near-unanimous decision. From here the beans will make the long journey from the farm to the roasters at Intelligentsia Coffee.
It’s time to say good-bye to the sunshine and warm reception at Finca La Soledad and drive back to Guatemala City for the flight home. Our last stop is Paradigma Café. In an industry where the best coffee beans have usually (until recently) been exported, the café is a rare example of the locals saving some of the good stuff for themselves.
But for now, the frigid winter is still waiting for me in Chicago. Just think warm Guatemala thoughts.
DAN'S FOOD, COFFEE, & BEER PICKS
It’s hard to get closer than the coffee source in Guatemala, whether you’re staying in the capital or venturing out west to take in the volcano-lined views of Antigua Guatemala.
CIUDAD DE GUATEMALA
1-75, Via 5
Both a coffee shop and bean distributor, Paradigma is owned and operated by Raul Rodas (a good friend of Raul Perez and the 2012 World Barista Champion; he, in fact, won the competition with a coffee from Finca La Soledad). The beans are local, but the preparations traverse the globe, with espresso, cold brew, and Chemex-brewed coffee among the pour options.
(Asociación Nacional Del Café Guatemala)
The national coffee association of Guatemala will satisfy all your nerdy coffee-information needs (it helps to speak Spanish). The website is a major resource for farmers and café owners alike.
6a Calle Poniente
On the drive to Acatenango, it doesn’t get much better than this. I had about eight tacos. All were great. The menu includes classics like tacos de pollo (chicken with peppers and onions) and modern riffs like tacos castus (a sweet-and-sour pork, onion, and cabbage blend with chipotles).
14 A, La, 4a Calle Oriente
The serious barista-driven coffee shop and small-batch roaster/retailer thrives in a region that once treated brewed coffee more as a vessel for piling on other flavorings than as a worthy ingredient on its own. The café’s food is basic, but that’s not why the Fat Cat fanatics (Instagram: @fat_cat_coffee_house), which include a steady stream of professional coffee roasters from the United States and elsewhere, are here.
1a Avenida Sur
As mysterious as the name (Café I Don’t Know), Café No Sé is the sort of place where young hostel hoppers and boutique hotel regulars take pride in hanging out next to locals who have been drinking mezcal and listening to guitars strumming at this neighborhood institution for I-Don’t-Know how long.
3ra Calle Poniente #4
Feeling trapped in a string of Stateside post-college office gigs, Jorge Luis Guzmán took a crash course in brewing at UC Davis. That one week of hops knowledge would lead the future Antigua Brewing Company cofounder/brewer to an internship at Jailhouse Brewing Company (Hampton, Georgia), but only on the stipulation that Guzmán enroll in a 23-week correspondence program via the American Brewers Guild. Back home in 2015, a few years after waiting out local political battles and antiquated brewing-license legislation, Antigua Brewing Company would serve its first brew across the table from stunning volcanic views.Try Fuego, a citrusy IPA named after one of the local volcanoes, and wrap up the tasting with Excelentisima, a coffee stout that packs a punch at nearly 8% ABV.
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