A Coffee Story

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, November 29, 2007 was originally posted on December 04, 2007.

DAY 10:  “Oooh!  Real coffee!” raved Camilla.  “It’s so good to have a good cup of coffee.”  As a former barista of a Seattle’s Best in Portland, OR, my traveling companion was a bit of a coffee snob — as many Americans have become in our contemporary coffee culture.  So far in Central America (and in other developing nations I’d been), we consumed coffee as the locals did — with hot water and instant coffee granules that locals were accustomed to through their upbringings in regions dominated by instant coffee pushing cartels like Nestlé.

Our good cup o’ joe was served at the Bagel Barn, an ex-pat hangout in Antigua that definitely put the “America” in “Central America.”  With many gringos sipping lattes and mochas whilst on their laptops utilizing the free wi-fi, stepping in was like walking into an American Starbucks. 

While the Bagel Barn’s specialties were bagels (that were mediocre at best), this is not another story of the doughy breakfast food (that was in San Pedro), for this is a different tale:  A Coffee Story.

GUATEMALA BOASTS (AND ROASTS) some of the world’s best coffee.  Different parts of the country have their different advantages for coffee production, and one of the premier zones is around the Antigua area.  Antigua is not only known for its Spanish colonial charm, but its ideal blend of soil, climate and elevation that make its coffee arguably one of the most highly regarded.  This was all explained to me at La Azotea, a cultural center and coffee plantation in the adjacent town of Jocotenango.

The day started in and around Antigua, where Camilla and I strolled around, energized by our morning brews of coffee beans.  We walked the cobblestone streets, checked out some shops, and visited the imposing La Merced cathedral on the northern part of the historic center.  Not surprisingly, Camilla was approached by many indigenous women trying to sell her scarves or jewelry. 

Getting to the Azotea plantation involved waiting for a free shuttle (at a time we didn’t know), or by means of our own.  “Let’s take a horse carriage,” I suggested to Camilla, seeing several of them circling the Parque Central, looking for a fare.  “Let’s hail the wedding carriage.”  We’d noticed that one horse-drawn carriage was decorated in veils, although not necessarily for a wedding.  We arranged a fare with the driver, and soon our horse took to the cobblestone streets, out of the historic center and out on the asphalt roads of town where it wasn’t common to see horses.  Camilla and I caught the attention of both tourists and locals alike, smiling and waving back to us.

“I think people think we actually got married,” she told me.  I told her that it could be her excuse for extending her time off from work, so she could stay in Guatemala a couple more days than planned.  “The parents of our black son got married,” she said.  The fake procession ended out on the edge of town, near horse ranches and fields of crops.  We paid off our horse driver and entered the plantation grounds.

THE MUSEO DEL CAFÉ of the La Azotea cultural center was a fascinating place for me — akin to the coca museum in La Paz, Bolivia — explaining all aspects of coffee: its history, its production, and its social impact.  (It’s not just a beverage to dunk donuts into.)

Originally from Ethiopia, coffee plants were first consumed by goats.  It was when the goat herders started noticing that the goats were all jittery and staying up late that they realized the potency of the coffee plant and begin consuming it themselves.  Eventually, they perfected a caffeinated blend that monks served their listeners so that they wouldn’t fall asleep during long, boring sermons.  (Seriously, I’m not making this up.) 

Over the centuries, the Ethiopian civilizations traded coffee with the Arab world, where it flourished and became commonplace — so much that it caught the attention of European traders.  Coffee became a hit in Europe, and in the 18th century, women called for a ban on it because it kept all their husbands out late when they spent hours socializing in coffeehouses.  (The men retorted.)  The social ramifications of coffee consumption flourished throughout Europe and eventually found its way to America.  In 1971, the first Starbucks was opened; they haven’t looked back since.  And to think it all started with a bunch of Ethiopian goats who couldn’t sleep at night.

Antiguan coffee sets itself apart from other coffee growing regions of the world, as the Antiguan farms take extra special care to their crops.  While coffee plants in many regions are “sun grown,” with no protection from the sun, Antiguan coffee is “shade grown,” providing for extra flavor and richness.  Also, unlike many places where coffee plants are harvested with machines, all Antiguan coffee fruits (picture above) are hand-picked by women. 

Through some short videos and a series of big, life-sized dioramas, the coffee museum took me through the entire true story of the Guatemalan coffee-making process:

1.  First, faceless (but somehow distinctly Guatemalan) mannequins plant coffee seedlings.
2.  Then, another mannequin, also faceless but in a straw hat, takes care of the crops.
3.  A mannequin in women’s clothes picks the coffee cherries and brings it to two other mannequins (also in women’s clothes) to sort out.
4.  Mannequins in striped shirts bag the coffee beans and have them weighed by another mannequin, wearing a hat.
5.  Two more mannequins process the coffee beans in a mill.
6.  A mannequin in silly-looking pants dries and rakes the beans.
7.  Ultimately, the beans are packaged, ground and served to mannequins in bad toupées

In one interesting display, I learned that one coffee plants yield 6.5 lbs of coffee cherries, which yields 1.5 lbs of coffee in parchment, which yields 1.25 lbs of green coffee, which yields a pound of roasted coffee, making about 40 cups.  This tidbit of information fascinated me, and without the use of any mannequins either.

But the most intriguing fact that I learned in the coffee story came on a pie chart:  for every dollar spent on a cup of coffee from a “megaroaster” in the States, the American coffee companies make 84 cents, while the country that provides the actual coffee only gets 16 cents:  a nickel goes to the farmer, eight cents to the farm hands, and three pennies to the exporter.  (It kind of makes you think twice the next time you spend $4 on a cup of coffee at Starbucks.)  However, in an effort to help local farmers from getting screwed over, there is the “Fair Trade” movement which aims to cut out the middle man, passing the savings onto local coffee farmers.  (Look for the “Fair Trade” logo on your next coffee house trip.)

Camilla and I cut out all middle men when we finally sampled pure Azotea Antiguan coffee at the end of the tour.  Rich, robust, and with a slightly nutty flavor, the hot coffee went down smooth as I slowly sipped and enjoyed the brew of ground arabica beans.  Camilla, the coffee connaisseur, made sure the aroma was up to par as well, and it passed with flying colors. 

THE PARTS OF THE AZOTEA CENTER reserved for two other museums weren’t as interesting to me.  In the museum of Mayan music, more faceless mannequins dressed up and played musical instruments.  In the Rincon de Sacaterequez, most mannequins just created a civilization and culture, while two mannequins got married.  Unfortunately, there was no mannequin of a horse to parade them around the old city like we’d done earlier that day.  In fact, there was no more real horse to take Camilla and me back to town, so we took the shuttle instead.

Almost all the locals back in town were on long, block-long lines at every bank; it was the end of the month — pay day — and I’m told the lines at every bank is a common, monthly sight.  Camilla and I avoided these lines and eventually ended up back at Bagel Barn (near our hotel anyway) to chill out, post another entry with my laptop and the wi-fi, and of course, drink more Antiguan coffee.  It was like being in Starbucks without the guilt, but with all the caffeine — so much that day in fact, that I barely got a wink of sleep that night.


The “Bohemian Breakfast” on the Bagel Barn menu reads:  “Two eggs, country potatoes, and bacon scramble.  Served with a toasted bagel, and your choice of cigarette or multivitamin.”

Next entry: Nocturnal Eruptions

Previous entry: Karma

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Comments for “A Coffee Story”

  • First and that’s a first!  Great story, wrote so well I had to go and get a coffee!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/04  at  04:05 AM

  • ROSE:  It’ll keep you up!
    ELISA:  Where are your hook ups?  I’m in San Salvador now, heading to the beach tomorrow…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/04  at  04:49 AM

  • those mannequins deserve a raise….

    Posted by markyt  on  12/04  at  02:13 PM

  • so the shadier the coffee..the better!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/04  at  02:17 PM

  • Shade grown is much better for the environment too!

    Coffee snobs unite - it’s a problem when I travel… smile So much so that I get tea! If you look for fair trade, or fairly traded, you can help to ensure that the workers get the better end of the stick - and perhaps increase the usage of good coffee, so that there are MORE fairly traded blends available.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/04  at  03:07 PM

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This blog post is one of thirty-nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: The Central American Eviction Tour* (*with jaunt to Colombia)," which chronicled a six-week journey through Central America, with a jaunt to Bogota, Colombia.

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Nocturnal Eruptions

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