Guatemala special feature: why Guatemalan coffee is one of the country’s biggest exports

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala Guatemalan coffee

Guatemalan coffee is one of the country’s major exports, making the region the ninth biggest exporter in the world. Here’s why coffee remains so important to the country, and how the industry developed.

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala special feature: Guatemalan coffee and its history

Annual exports worth up to $775 million make Guatemalan coffee the second biggest export from the country. The biggest is bananas, worth around $1.35 billion per year, and raw sugar comes in at around $448 million per year.

In fact, coffee has been the cornerstone of Guatemala’s economy for more than a century. Around 125,000 producers produce the coffee for export and are responsible for 40% of all revenue from the agricultural sector. Guatemala exports coffee primarily to the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Canada and Nicaragua.

Where is Guatemalan coffee grown?

The main coffee making regions in Guatemala are San Marcos & Nuevo Orientea, Faijanes, Huehuetenango, Cobán, Atitlán, Acatenango and Antigua. Here’s a brief history of Guatemalan coffee and why it’s so important for the country’s economy.

There has been a coffee making industry in Guatemala since the 1850s, and right up until the beginning of the 21st century it was the biggest producer in the world. In 2011, Honduras took over as the top coffee producer globally, but Guatemala is a close second.

When the coffee industry developed in Guatemala in the mid-19th century, the cultivation of coffee beans went hand in hand with cochineal plantations. In the south west of the country, small coffee plantations began to be established, but it was slow progress. Foreign companies began to swoop in and buy up plantations, so it became difficult for local people to finance their own.

The biggest barrier to a swift growth for coffee production at this time was a lack of workers. But by 1887, coffee production reached more than 22 million kg. Ten years later Guatemala was able to export just over 133 million kg, and the biggest plantations lined the southern coast of the country. Today, Guatemalan coffee beans are considered some of the highest quality available. This is down to the ideal growing conditions in the country, comprising the perfect mix of rich, volcanic soils and a temperate climate.

Coffee beans grown in Guatemalan regions do not dry naturally. This is likely to do with the climate and high humidity levels. This means that coffee producers use a wet process to make their product. The outer shell is taken off the bean, which is then washed. During this process the finest beans float to the top and the unusable ones to the bottom. This method produces a consistently smooth depth of flavour.

Regional flavour profiles of coffee in Guatemala

Each region offers a different flavour profile for its coffee beans, leading to a variety of Guatemalan coffee that is popular the world over.

  1. Coffee from Antigua

This is probably the region in Guatemala that produces the most popular coffee. Thanks to Antigua’s nutrient rich soil, coffee beans are rich and flavourful. The minerals in the soil come from past eruptions of the Acatenango and Agua volcanoes. Fuego is a still active volcano that adds to the mineral rich soil content even now. Combined with high levels of rainfall and a consistent sub-tropical temperature, Antigua is coffee heaven.

  1. Coffee from Acatenago

The Acatenago region is 2,000 feet above sea level and covered in thick forest. A high altitude means cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean. This means that coffee producers in this region can sun-dry their beans, which adds different flavours to the product’s profile. Coffee beans are grown in the same areas as the active Fuego volcano, where they thrive in the nutrient rich soil.

  1. Coffee from Atitlán

Most (95%) of the coffee beans grown in Atitlán are on the slopes of the volcanoes that surround the large lake. The soil in this region is one of the richest in the country, thanks once again to the minerals deposited by the volcanoes. Coffee from this region is deep and full-bodied with lighter notes of citrus.

  1. Coffee from Cobán

Cobán differs from other Guatemalan coffee growing regions because of its cooler, rainy weather. The humidity, combined with soil packed with limestone and clay, cultivates balanced coffee beans. They produce a medium bodied cup of coffee, with less acidity.

  1. Coffee from Huehuetenango

This is one of just three non-volcanic coffee growing regions in Guatemala. The Huehuetenango region is also the highest and driest at an altitude of above 2000 metres. Warm winds flood the area arising from the mountains of Tehuantepec in Mexico. These winds protect the coffee beans from any frosts. The beans grown here result in a full-bodied coffee with fruity notes and a high level of acidity.