As always, the weather in Guatemala in January and February was especially invigorating. This year in particular, it provided an extra welcome relief from an exceptionally cold and snowy winter here in the Midwest. The prospect of trading my office for the outdoors is a much appreciated benefit, but make no mistake, our trips to origin are not leisurely vacations. A great deal of business essential to the success of PT’s as a roasting company must be accomplished in a relatively short time frame. This is why our Direct Trade partnerships are so vital. Through longstanding friendships, we are able to make the entire process between producer and consumer mutually more efficient, from sourcing of lots, cupping first-pick samples, overseeing picking and processing, negotiating contracts, and arranging export, just to name a few of the multitude of issues involved in the coffee supply chain.
Our relationship with Juan Diego de la Cerda and El Socorro is a perfect example. As visitors, we seek to squeeze all we can out of every minute at origin. Yet, as frantic as we may feel, it pales to how harried our producer friends are at this time of year. They are requested to play nonstop host to a variety of visitors, while overseeing all stages of the harvest and processing and trying to balance work and family life. I am always grateful for the time Juan Diego is able to give to us, because each visit offers new knowledge and insights into the ever-changing world of the producer. As a geographer, one of these changes that occupied our discussions this year was of particular interest: climate change.
Over the last 6-7 years, the demarcation between wet and dry seasons in Guatemala has grown considerably. Around Palencia, the harvest period from January through April has been getting drier and drier. El Socorro luckily has a high-elevation water source – otherwise, clean water for processing at the wet mill would be in scarce supply. Advancement of the coffee borer beetle (broca del café) and coffee rust fungus (roya) have been aided by the increase in average daily temperatures. This has increased the costs of production to many farmers by necessitating the use of more pesticides and herbicides. El Socorro has been able to almost entirely avoid both threats for three primary reasons: 1) distance from other coffee farms; 2) high average elevation of its coffee-producing lands; and 3) exceptional management practices involving monitoring and isolating outbreaks.
Juan Diego is quick to point out that factors attributable to climate change are not all negative. Increased average temperature within the macroclimate has opened up new land previously unsuitable for coffee production. El Socorro has recently been able to expand production an additional 100 meters in elevation.
One of my favorite things about El Socorro is that its success is tied so directly to a single concept: diversity. Currently, 75 hectares of coffee are produced across a total land area of 750 hectares. 60-65% of the total area is tropical, highland forest (predominantly pine-oak), much of which is a protected nature reserve. Much of the remainder of land is used as pasture for dairy cows, some row crops, and flowers, primarily hydrangeas. Although the macroclimate is tropical monsoon, the coffee lots are distributed throughout the total 750 hectares, on every possible slope orientation and within 13 distinct microclimates. Through much knowledge and experimentation, Juan Diego has been able to identify the best combinations of the above variables, as well as elevation and soil composition, in which his specific varietals thrive. The Maracaturra and Pacamara lots were not simply placed where there was space – a great deal of trial-and-error went into locating the perfect spots for these coffees. Likewise, the same process is occurring now with new varietals including Geisha. Of course, the need to maintain the natural biodiversity of the land is essential to the success of the farm on numerous levels. Endemic tree species provide vital shade for the coffee plants at certain elevations and slopes; several native plants fix nitrogen in the soil, alleviating a fair amount of need for additional fertilizer; and the primary forest complex supports a wide variety of bird species that help to control insect pests.
Production itself involves lots of “P”s – planting, pruning, and of course, picking and processing (I’m sure you can think of many more). El Socorro’s attention to the latter two were evident in last year’s Yellow Reserve offering that we just sold out of. This choice selection of yellow bourbon and caturra was one of my favorite coffees of the last six months. If you didn’t get to try it, don’t fret. We’ll have more new crop arriving towards the end of summer…