Guatemala CoE #6 Special Selection
- October 2019
- Written by : Sam Sabori
National Coffee Roasting Manager / Green Coffee Buyer
Taking the CoE Risk
I want to give some background on why we present Cup of Excellence (CoE) coffees, and why these lots of coffee should be celebrated.
From a coffee producer’s standpoint, there is a lot of risk when it comes to participating in the CoE competition.
When looking at coffee production in a normal context, coffee producers are already exposed to considerable risk. They are the ones who stand to lose the most in the case of a drought, a frost, a pest outbreak, an extreme weather event, a market shock, or an experiment gone wrong. CoE just raises the stakes on this.
Entering the CoE is like putting a huge bet on one roll of the dice. Yes, there is the promise of more revenue and international recognition if a grower places in the top ten, but the odds are long. If a grower bets too much with the coffee they submit to the competition, they may end up losing big.
There are several reasons for increased risk, not least the strength of the competition; some of the best producers in the country enter alongside their peers. This requires a producer to submit their best coffee if they want a real chance at placing in the competition and participating in the auction. The best stuff is being submitted from across an entire country, which often means an abundance of exotic varieties (think the usual suspects: Geisha, Maragogype, Pacamara), so producing a fantastic lot of a traditional variety like Bourbon, Caturra, or Typica can sometimes not be enough to stand up to those that consistently perform well.
Another reason: coffees are evaluated later than a producer would like, several months after harvest. This timing is part of a grower’s decision to accept the risk of CoE in search of outsize reward. To unpack that a little: most coffee companies are trying to buy and export fresh-crop coffee as quickly as possible after it is harvested so they can present their customers with something new and exciting. Coffees reserved for the competition, of course, miss the window. If they don’t make it to auction, producers may be left with premium lots but nowhere to sell them since their clients will have already purchased all the coffees they need for the season.
So, Intelligentsia is purchasing and presenting these coffees to support and encourage producers to continue their pursuit of quality.
The view from the jury bench
While serving on the jury at this year’s Guatemala Cup of Excellence, the coffee from Los Lirios (The Lilies in Spanish) was my favorite. I very rarely award scores above 90 points, and I awarded it 90+ scores every time I tasted it over multiple rounds of the competition. Every lot was coded so we could not see which coffee was which, but I recognized this memorable coffee every time it came around.
That being said, Los Lirios did come with some controversy. The international jury was undecided on how great this coffee was. By that I mean the panelists, though calibrated on most coffees, struggled with this one. There were scores that ranged from from mid 80s to mid 90s, but despite all that, this coffee from Los Lirios sparked lively conversation. One thing we could all agree on was that this coffee had high intensity and a profile that was not like any other coffee in the competition.
After all of the evaluations of the coffees had taken place, we could see where the coffees had landed. Los Lirios placed sixth overall even though I thought it was the hands-down best in show. There were a select few jury members who felt the same way about this coffee, and we immediately made a pact to buy it together.
We were excited about the flavor profile. In the context of a competition that tends to surface Geisha and Pacamara varietal lots from the celebrated coffee region of Huehuetenango, the fact that this was something altogether different only added to its appeal.
An atypical Typica
What makes this lot of from Los Lirios so exciting is that it was among the top 10 and wasn’t an exotic variety from Huehuetenango. It was a Typica from the Lake Atitlán region that was cared for and processed with extreme precision. It was made with hard work and evident attention to detail.
Typica is a variety we have not come across in Guatemala over the last few years because of how delicate and susceptible the plant is to pests and disease. According to World Coffee Research, this coffee variety has very high cup quality, but is low-yielding and extremely susceptible to leaf rust, coffee berry disease, and nematodes that eat away at the root system. Yes, Typica still exists in Guatemala, but not so much these days because many producers have decided to place more resilient varieties on their land to minimize risk and maximize yields.
Lake Atitlán is the crater of a volcanic explosion that happened roughly 11 million years ago. As for the name, Atitlán stands for "between the waters." The lake is surrounded by multiple villages, each one home to indigenous communities with distinctive dress and language and culture. Also, since there is no road that entirely circles the lake, this means the easiest way to reach some of these villages is by boat, so if you desire to visit you should be prepared to take water taxis to and from wherever you decide to go.
The story of the region, how the locals interact, and the overall coffee quality potential in the region, is inspiring and has depth. I do not claim to fully understand the region or the people but I can tell you this is a place that is extremely unique to the other parts of Guatemala I have visited.
Finca Los Lirios
According to the ACE website, Los Lirios and its sister farm San Isidro Chacaya are nearly 100 years old. They lie along the southwestern side of the lake at elevations ranging from 1700-2100 meters. The farm is 90 hectares (more than 200 acres) but only ten hectares ( approximately 25 acres) are planted with coffee. These ten hectares produce just 100-200 bags of exportable green green coffee a year.