As a coffee drinker who goes only for the best, you certainly have come across Guatemala coffee. I did too, but when I first tried it, it was just another coffee to me. Maybe it was just my ignorance and lack of experience, but I was not yet sold on it. But when I tasted a coffee from the highlands of Huehuetenango, I realized what I had been missing out. Don’t get me wrong, even a generic Guatemala coffee worth every penny, medium to full-bodied, but with balanced acidity and notes ranging from citrus to dark chocolate. But as I found out, there is an exciting world of regional Guatemalan coffees with amazing taste profiles out there for you to discover. Start exploring the coffees from various growing regions and single estates.
Depending on where you live, it might be a bit difficult to get your hands on anything beyond just standard Guatemala coffee. But you can find several reliable sources online.
A very interesting source is AltruisticJoe, a veteran-owned company. They specialize in microlots from selected and reputable farms. Check out their attractive offers and support their cause: 20% of their profits go to charity.
Follow me on this exciting journey. Here are some of my current favorites that can be easily ordered online from Volcanica, a most reputable roaster (first row) or from amazon.com to give you a head start. Just click on the images below.
What makes Guatemala coffee so special?
Guatemala’s geography is very diverse, and with it comes a huge variety of microclimates. These lead to enormous variations in flavor profiles. Almost all coffee plantations are at an altitude of around 5000ft and above and enjoy perfect growing conditions. Temperatures are stable and mostly moderate. At this altitude, there is also plenty of sunshine and moderate rain. Thirty-seven volcanoes, several of them still active, provide a mineral-rich and fertile soil adding to flavors’ complexity. And best of all, almost all coffee is shade-grown, which prolongs its maturation and intensifies the flavors. As an added benefit, shade-grown coffee protects the ecosystem and maintains an environment with rich biodiversity.
Guatemala coffee generally has a full body, moderate acidity, and a complex flavor profile with floral and fruity notes and a distinct hint of dark chocolate. But taste depends, among others, on the varietal, soil composition, altitude, and post-harvest processing. You can expect exciting taste variations when sampling coffees from different growing areas.
Coffee varietals grown in Guatemala
All coffee grown in Guatemala is of the Arabica species. The most common varietals are:
Geisha, resp. Gesha, is a varietal that has become wildly successful after its outstanding quality was recognized in 2003 in Panama. Panama Geisha coffee is fetching record prices year after year. In 2020 it was a whopping $1,300 for one pound of green coffee beans. Even though this outstanding varietal is notoriously challenging to grow, some Guatemalan farmers succeeded in producing excellent quality Geisha, contributing to their livelihood. Especially notable is Finca El Injerto, which has won first place in the Cup of Excellence eight times for several coffees varietals. Their farm is in the highlands of Huehuetenango where many exceptional coffees are produced.
Besides Geisha, they also grow Mokka, an heirloom variety from Yemen. It is a very rare and unique varietal grown by Finca El Injerto. Already in 2012, they achieved a record price of $500 for a pound of green beans. These beans are tiny, only about one third the size of regular coffee beans. They also produce Maragogype, another rare varietal characterized by huge beans and a complex flavor profile.
Guatemala’s 8 growing regions for exceptional coffee
Don’t get me wrong, coffee labeled just as Guatemala and without any regional specification can be great as well. But if you are like me, you will want to explore the unique and exceptional coffees that the various growing regions can offer.
These have been designated by Anacafé (Asociación Nacional de Café), Guatemala’s national coffee association. The 8 distinct growing regions are:
temperature range 64 – 72ºF
rainfall 32 – 48 in
altitude 5000 – 5600
Antigua is probably the most popular and well-known coffee from Guatemala. It has a full body, bright acidity, and a very complex flavor profile. It includes floral aromas, citrus, as well as clear hints of dark chocolate. The production area is close to three volcanoes, Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. Fuego is still an active volcano, and its occasional eruptions further enrich the soil with minerals. The volcanic soil helps to maintain an adequate level of humidity. Nights can be rather cool at this altitude. A dense canopy of shade trees helps to protect the trees from frost.
temperature range 57 – 88ºF
rainfall 48 – 72 in
humidity 70 – 80%
altitude 4300 – 6500 ft
Coffee from this region has a balanced body, bright acidity, and a clean finish.
The Acatenago region is known for its thick forests, home to a rich flora and fauna. At the same time, these forests offer plenty of shade for the coffee trees. The active Fuego volcano occasionally sends mineral-rich ashes and keeps the area fertile. Thanks to the Pacific Ocean’s breeze, the coffee beans can be sun-dried, which adds a characteristic flavor to the coffee.
temperature range 68 – 72ºF
rainfall 72 – 92 in
humidity 75 – 85%
altitude 5000 – 5600 ft
Coffee from this region has a full body and a bright, citrusy acidity. Fruity aromas and a hint of dark chocolate add to your enjoyment. Almost all coffee in that region is grown on the three volcanoes’ mineral-rich slopes around Lake Atitlán. Daily winds blow over the cold waters of the lake uphill and create a unique microclimate. The lake also provides water for wet processing the harvest.
temperature range 59 – 68ºF
rainfall 120 – 160 in
humidity 85 – 95%
altitude 4300 – 5600 ft
The coffee beans produce a well balanced, medium-body cup, less acidic but still with distinctly bright flavors.
Cobán has by far the most rainfall of all Guatemala coffee-producing areas. It rains more or less all the time, and it is surprisingly cool all year round. More rain means more clouds and not as much direct sunshine as in the other regions. The coffee trees grow in soils of limestone and clay, producing an interesting flavor profile.
temperature range 54 – 79ºF
rainfall 60 – 120 in
humidity 70 – 90%
altitude 4,500 – 6,000 ft
Clearly defined full body and bright acidity and complex flavors. Guatemala’s most active volcano, the Pacaya volcano, towers over the region. With frequent eruptions of mineral-rich ash, it enhances the soil in its vicinity.
The region’s high altitude of up to 6,000 feet and a lot of seasonal rain are ideal growing conditions. The mornings are often cloudy and foggy with an occasional drizzle, but the sun soon dries the soil quickly. These conditions allow for sun-drying the coffee beans on the Fraijanes Plateau.
temperature range 68 – 75ºF
rainfall 48 – 56 in
humidity 70 – 80%
altitude 5000 – 6500 ft
Coffee from this area is currently my favorite. It is very smooth and rich with balanced and bright flavors. There are distinct notes of fruit, dark chocolate, and caramel, and the aftertaste is light and clean. It is a low-acid coffee, making it the perfect choice for anyone suffering from GERD or acid reflux. The Huehuetenango region is the highest and driest in Guatemala. Warm and dry winds blow from the Mexican plains of Tehuantepec and protect the trees from frost, which at a high altitude of over 6,000 feet could be a risk in less fortunate locations. This area is one of three growing regions of Guatemala without volcanoes. The highlands of Hueheutango are a very remote area of Guatemala, near the border to Mexico, with a mostly indigenous population. Plantations are very often operated by small farmers who sell their harvest primarily through cooperatives.
A very pleasant coffee from this region is available at AltruisticJoe. This is a very unique and veteran-owned seller, carefully roasting their coffee to the optimum level before shipping.
temperature range 64 – 77ºF
rainfall 72 – 80 in
humidity 70 – 80%
altitude 4300 – 5600 ft
Smooth and medium body, bright acidity with hints of dark chocolate and oranges.
Coffee production in this remote area took off only in the 1950s. Traditionally, small producers were growing coffee in the Nuevo Oriente area. In recent years, the region became economically very vibrant with more and more large coffee plantations. New Oriente is located in the East of Guatemala on a range of extinct volcanoes. The soil is mineral-rich but somewhat different in composition from other volcanic locations as it contains more clay. The climate is generally rainy and cloudy.
temperature range 70 – 81ºF
rainfall 160 – 200 in
humidity 70 – 80%
altitude 4300 – 6000 ft
Medium to full body, bright acidity, and delicate floral notes. San Marcos is Guatemala’s hottest region and also with the most rainfall. The annual rainfall can be a massive 200 inches or 5 meters. Rainy season arrives rather early than in the other regions, and the coffee trees bloom faster. Weather patterns during the rainy season can be quite unpredictable. Drying the harvested coffee cherries can therefore be quite a challenge. Coffee farmers use a dual approach, drying in the sun when possible, and finishing the drying process with a Guardiola dryer.
Why has Guatemala coffee been so successful?
Even though Guatemala is a very small country, it still maintains the number 10 position among coffee-producing countries with 2.3% of world coffee production. Several years ago, before Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and Honduras expanded their production, it ranked number 5 in the world.
Guatemala still focuses on producing consistently high-quality coffee, and exports about 90% of its production. This is also thanks to the great work of Anacafé (Asociación Nacional de Café), Guatemala’s national coffee association. It was established in 1960 and represents coffee farmers from around the country and helps them by setting quality standards, creating a favorable brand image, and providing professional education and support.