A focus for us at The Little Marionette is to invest in relationships at the farm gate by building sustainable buying practices so that we can support our farmers, year after year.
For about 80% of the coffee that we buy, we have direct connections with producers – working closely with our partners to ensure that they are being commiserated properly.
As a company, we are working towards a goal of building personal relationships with 100% of the producers from which we source. We know, it’s a big task. But to us, we want no gap from farm to cup – and that means getting to know every single person in our supply chain.
Last month, we took another huge step towards that goal. One of our main blending beans, the chocolate and plum-driven component you all know and love, comes from the Huehuetenango region in Guatemala. As we’ve been buying the same Guatemalan for the past two harvests, we thought this would be a great place to visit next.
Here’s our head-of-coffee Tyler’s journal entry from her trip to…
The day after I arrive I’ll be meeting with our exporting partner, Christian, from Unitrade Coffee. Unitrade has been working with producers throughout Guatemala for 26 years. They’re more than just another exporting company. In 2004 they established the Coffee Care project, a non-profit organisation that leads social awareness projects in coffee-growing regions of Guatemala. Their mission: “to improve the lives of families and children that live in our working communities.” Education, nutrition and health are their fundamental pillars – they provide free medical care and food, build schools and above all, keep a close and supportive relationship with these producers and their families.
Today, the c-price (the price of coffee, which is the second-largest commodity behind oil, traded on the NYSE) is sitting at $0.99USD/lb. The cost of production in Guatemala is generally $1.60USD/lb, which means that producers are being paid much less for their coffee than what it is costing them to produce it.
Partnering with companies like Unitrade is vital, as Unitrade pays producers $0.30USD/lb over the c-price as a minimum (depending on which of the 3 quality brackets the coffee falls into). With the support of Coffee Care, producers learn to produce higher-quality specialty grade coffee and in turn, will be paid higher differentials for their product.
I meet Christian at the airport, and we have a fairly average arabica filter coffee. A little stone fruit, but mostly bitter and nothing to rave about (yet!)
We take a small 20-person plane to the Huehuetenango region, arriving late in the afternoon, and hire a truck to drive deep into rural Huehue. We stay at Hotel Manolo, a humble little inn with wifi and okay aircon in the township of La Democracia.
I wake up in the morning to an overly-confident rooster and look out the window. The sun is peeping through the heavy mist floating over the tall mountains. They’re covered in forest as far as I can see, and down below at the neighbours bright pink and yellow casa is an old, but functioning, wet mill and some small drying patios. Right at this moment is when the warm fuzzy butterflies of being at origin kick in.
The coffee we are here to meet the producers for is the Sierra Madre we use. That’s the name of a profile, a blend made up of seven different farms around Huehuetenango. 60% of that blend comes from Felipe and Sergio Martinez of Finca Los Arroyos.
Finca Los Arroyos is owned and operated by a father and son duo, based high in the rocky mountains of Huehuetenango. We drive for over an hour from the little town we stayed in and I start to notice coffee everywhere. I never could have imagined how hardy these trees could be. They’re growing from rocks, covered in thick red dust from the road, looking shattered, but starting to recover from a decent harvest season.
Close to the Mexican border, Los Arroyos sits at 1800 MASL in an area called La Libertad, which means ‘liberated’ – aptly named such after the Mexicans tried to invade in 1860 but were unsuccessful. At this altitude, there’s coffee everywhere and it is in full bloom. The smell of jasmine fills the truck.
“Smells like money,” says Sergio Martinez.
Los Arroyos is an ideal Finca. Unitrade has been working with Felipe since he purchased it over 30 years ago, off a very well-known in the industry neighbouring farm, El Injerto. It has an abundance of fresh clean water running off the mountain, which is perfect for milling. They have three wet mills – Los Arroyos at the top of the mountain, Las Ventanas halfway up, and the largest, El Injerto, here outside their stunning sunflower-yellow casa.
They produce 15.5 containers a year, which is 294112.5kgs (!) of washed speciality arabica, and Sergio produces a quiet 100kgs of natural (‘cause he likes it more than washed). We had the most amazing chicken soup with a side of screaming hot chiltepe’s for lunch, made plans for the future and how we could continue to support Finca Los Arroyos and Unitrade.
After spending a few days soaking up a heap of culture in Antigua, we managed to squeeze in a chance visit to a producer we’ve bought delicious coffees from in the past, Josue Morales. Josue has developed an organic composting system to enrich the soil with micro-organisms. It’s always great to make personal connections, and I’ll jump at any opportunity to meet the hard workers behind these mysterious coffees that make their way into our hands (and hearts).
Now, it’s time to head to the Producer Roaster forum in Guatemala City.
Producer Roaster forum
The forum is held at Anacafe, the National Coffee Association of Guatemala, and it runs for 2 days. More than 40 international roasters are attending, as well as many local producers from Guatemala and wider Central America.
We arrive at our hosts’, Dinamica, ‘coffee awakening camp’, where we will be glamping with 15 other coffee professionals for the next 5 nights. There is a brew bar where we all share coffees and recipes from around the world, a bonfire and four huge tents amongst the last patch of forest left in Guatemala City.
Dinamica are exporters and producers. They’re a family company with three generations of farming and over 40 years of exporting experience on their resume. Leading us this week is company director Chespi and his nephew and producer Fede.
They’ve prepared 3 days of programs which included visiting two of their farms, Finca Vascaya, a 4-hour bus ride away through some amazing old towns, and La Labor, which is the last remaining farm in Guatemala City. It’s immaculate, and we learn about leaf rust and how they keep it under control, pruning and stumping, and how to make organic fertilizer.
The highlight for me was guiding Dinamica’s master roaster on how to get the best out of his vintage Probat with some roasting friends from Germany and Norway.
The Producer Roaster forum was the best industry event I’ve ever attended. Put on by Perfect Daily Grind, it was straight to the point: connecting roasters with producers for two full days of intense discussions on the future of the coffee industry. We discussed markets all around the world, and what we can do as consumers to contribute to the sustainable future of our industry.
As a roaster, it reiterated the importance of relationships – supporting producers year after year, watching them succeed, and produce better and better coffee.
The producers gained a better understanding of the obstacles we face here in Australia too. It’s such a tight market, and the cost of a cup of coffee hasn’t risen in over 10 years (which was news to them). But there are ways we can positively navigate this. That’s why going to the source, having open conversations over lunch and making these producers part of The Little Marionette family is so important for a better understanding of how we can move forward together.
Bumping into a few producers who The Little Marionette has purchased coffee from in the past, like Herminio Perdomo and his wife Sandra Mejia of CaféScor Honduras, was a feeling that is hard to explain. Their honeycomb caramel coffee is what I think of the moment I hear the words ‘Honduran coffee’, and it was so great to connect with them.
The world’s first coffee blockchain auction was also held at the forum by Yave, and we were pumped to be involved. All of the producers who had submitted their high-scoring coffees were at the forum. Roasters and producers, side by side, cupped a table of about 20 coffees.
I had made good friends with a couple of legends from a roasting company in Norway, Miguel and Francesco of Nordhavn. We had cupped together a few times already at Dinamica and always had the same favourites on the table, so we decided to team up and bid on a coffee together. We blind-cupped separately, and each chose 4 coffees, and of those 4, all 3 of us had the same 3. So, naturally, they were the ones we were to bid on.
We coded them with names like ‘Lady’ (that was a delicious Geisha), ‘Friend’ (we made friends with a great man David Solano – he’s young, humble, Guatemalan barista champ and an innovative producer, his coffee was the most outstanding on the table!), and then there was ‘Banana’, a coffee that got us all laughing.
It was SO delicious and full of flavour notes we don’t come across often, like mango and lots of banana.
We grabbed a beer, sat down on the rooftop terrace and nutted out the prices we were willing to pay, converted it from many different currencies and weights. After some heated, intense, passionate discussions between three excited roasters, we came to a conclusion.
We ended up winning ‘Banana’! This coffee was produced by Don Alfonzo Anzueto Sandoval. His farm Calahute Alto is in La Democracia, the area I stayed in on my first night in Huehuetenango. It’s a Parainema Natural, which we paid $5.40USD/lb for. At market price, it could have gone for the trading price of coffee that day which was around $0.99c (and not sustainable!), so everyone was pleased with the outcome. We can’t wait for it to arrive in Australia, any day now.
We finished the Guatemalan leg of the trip off with a traditional Guatemalan feast at the Dinamica family home. Sitting at a table full of the most passionate, kind, genuine coffee professionals, drinking delicious red wine and eating all the cheesy empanadas, it was the perfect end to a magical week.
“Do I have to go to bed?” I think.
My flight to Costa Rica leaves in 4 hours and we’re still talking coffee around the bonfire. It’s starting to rain, so it’s time to say goodnight to my new life-long friends and get some shut-eye before the next leg of my journey.