2018 marks our third year in a row traveling to the absolutely beautiful town of Antigua, Guatemala, and our 4th year working with with the Bella Vista Mill and Zelaya family. This year, in addition to our green buying team, we also took our cold brew manager, Taylor Cotton, along for the ride! We hit the ground running - explored the city, cupped through roughly 90 coffee samples, visited with the farm manager at Hacienda Carmona, toured the wet and dry mill at Bella Vista, and even attended a workshop with a group of Hunapu producers.
This is the name of the wet/dry mill and export company led by Luis Pedro Zelaya Zamora (LPZZ), a fourth generation coffee producer and trained agronomist. We’ve been working exclusively with Bella Vista now since 2015 for all of our Guatemalan offerings, slowly increasing our volume each harvest. Like last year, we will feature 3 unique single origin offerings from different regions throughout Guatemala in addition to using a 4th coffee as a staple component in our blends for half of the year. We continue to be impressed with the level of detail expressed here at a large scale, and this year is absolutely no different. Bella Vista has expanded their in-house roasting and cupping labs which are located in a rustic, lodge-style building that overlooks the main drying patios just beneath the base of Volcan de Agua. For many years, the main focus of the family business was straightforward commercial coffee production and export. However, since the early 2000s, LPZZ has been successfully turning the focus more towards speciality coffee and microlots. Year after year, Bella Vista does a tremendous job of choosing the best lots from the best producers in the surrounding areas. They only accept a certain percentage of ripe cherry and group each lot delivered to the mill based on the harvest date. This allows us, as roasters and green buyers, to taste through many different ‘day lots’ from the same farms and choose the cream of the crop. Though a few farms are owned directly by members of the Zelaya family, a majority of the coffee processed at Bella Vista Mill comes from many other farms around the area. The family has always worked with small producers in Antigua, and new relationships almost always come from introductions from families already working with the Zelaya family - ensuring close and stable partnerships. Though many of the farms are not their own, they are supported and bolstered by LPZZ’s connections to US and international coffee roasters. Access to these markets means he can select the best lots from area producers and pay premiums based on quality. For us, and for our customers, this means consistently some of the very best coffees out of Guatemala.
Furthermore, many improvements have been made to the drying methods at Bella Vista this year. A new drying ‘greenhouse’ has been built and filled with raised drying beds out on the main drying patio. This method is slightly more expensive up front, but the end result is the ability to dry more coffees at once by stacking them in layers of 5 to 6 high. The indirect sunlight and mesh screens both help to dry the coffees slower and more evenly. This is very beneficial, as the slower drying process keeps the cell structure of the seeds more intact - which equates to the green coffees ultimately being more stable and tasting fresher for longer! New methods have been implemented out on the concrete patios as well. Workers are taking the temperatures of drying coffees throughout the day to dictate how often they need to be turned. So during the hottest parts of the day, they are diligent about turning the coffees more often than usual. Again, slower and more even drying!
The Hunapu lots we purchase each year are a composition of around 200-300 smallholder farmers along the South and East-facing sides of Volcan de Agua - this is the closest volcano to Antigua and overlooks the Bella Vista drying patios. Lot compilation here works much like it does in most areas of Ethiopia - the farms are very small and cherries are delivered each day during harvest to the mill from any number of the participating growers. Depending on the day, the bulk of the cherries will be from different areas around the region, which is why Bella Vista keeps the days separate and allows us to select our favorites. We’ve learned that we prefer these Hunapu coffees from the East side of the Volcano because of the type of sun the plants receive - mostly, gentle morning sun. Bella Vista buys cherry from farms on the other side of the Volcano to the West as well, but the plants are exposed the much hotter afternoon sun. These cooler average temperatures on the Hunapu farms equate to slower plant growth, which means extended time for the seeds to absorb nutrients from the plants. We had the pleasure this year of attending a workshop that was happening with a group of Hunapu producers. This is standard procedure for Bella Vista, as they are continually reaching out and organizing events to work towards educating the small farmers they work with and push for the best quality. A large focus of the class was broca (coffee borer beetle) management, which is a continual issue in Guatemala. They were teaching farmers how to build different types of traps, stressing that they needed to be proactive with the management. If you wait until the broca has already started eating the fruit, then they will have no reaction to the bait on traps - upon which pesticides would become necessary to save the plants. Additionally, the class covered techniques to properly manage Grevillea - a very common shade tree planted through Guatemalan coffee farms. It’s a bit tricky because Guatemala get a lot of sun. Shade tree pruning techniques are centered around trying to maximize this sunlight during the main fruiting period and minimizing sunlight during hot summer months to protect the plants. Like last year, we ended up favoring the Bourbon varietal lots on the cupping table over the Caturra selections. The Hunapu coffees this year are bringing very clean and classic Guatemala coffee flavors to the table. Initial tasting notes - chocolate, brown sugar, apples, pears.
We visited the Carmona estate this year and got to spend some time with the farm manager, Melvin Denillo. Carmona has been in Maria Zelaya’s family since 1910, when it was purchased by Maria’s grandfather, Luis Pedro Aguirre. Mr. Aguirre passed the farm on to Maria’s mother and now Maria is the third generation owner and manager of Carmona (Maria is the aunt of LPZZ). A big roya (coffee leaf rust disease) outbreak in 2012 hit Carmona very hard and a large majority of the farm was compromised. However, with the help of the team at Bella Vista, Melvin and the Carmona grounds crew started working on more intense tissue management, plant nutrition and pest/disease control. So far these efforts have slowly resulted in healthier plants each year with increasingly larger yields. Upon the rows of red and yellow Bourbon, Melvin explained to us his new tissue management techniques and how it’s helping the farm to stabilize in a happy and healthy state. Carmona has its own small wet mill, fermentation tanks, and drying patios - dried parchment coffee is delivered to Bella Vista for final processing. An interesting note is that Carmona both lies at a slightly higher altitude than Bella Vista and uses fresh, cold spring water for all of their processing. This means the coffees from Carmona have longer fermentation times (usually nearly 48 hours) and longer drying times. Each year the Bella Vista team selects the top day-lots to purchase and put in front of us on the cupping table These coffees from Carmona are truly a treat, as they present a slightly more delicate and exciting flavor profile - milk chocolate, strawberries, prunes, citrus acidity.
This region of Guatemala is about 120 miles from Antigua and nearly on the border of Chiapas, Mexico. Though we have never visited, last year we began exploring some coffees that Bella Vista had started purchasing from this area. In this case, the coffees are pulped and dried on the farm and then transported to Bella Vista in Antigua for dry milling and packaging. Our selection this year, Ixban, comes from the same area that our La Ensenada was from this past year - San Pedro Necta. Coffees from this region are particularly exciting for their added layers of complexity and big, syrupy fruit flavors. We’re tasting: wine-like flavors, vanilla, peach, pomegranate, and red grapes.
One of our favorite coffee discoveries last year was Los Santos, from the Chimaltenango region. Though the flavor profile leans fairly basic, the coffees from Los Santos are consistently sweet and clean and chocolate-driven - absolutely perfect for our Espresso Savio and bell’s Blend. Los Santos represents a large group farmers from the entire area of Chimaltenango. There is a little give and take here - we have access to much larger lots by purchasing Los Santos coffees (good for blend consistency) but there is much less detailed separation. These coffees are simply blended all together and separated by each harvest day; on the other hand, many coffees coming through Bella Vista are separated further into specific varietals, drying methods, sections of the farms, etc. All processing is done at a mill that LPZZ rents in Chimaltenango and the coffees are delivered to Bella Vista already hulled and ready to be bagged for export. We again cupped through about a month’s worth of day-lots to find our favorite coffee from Los Santos. Taste notes from origin: lower but balanced acidity, chocolate, red apple, brown sugar, nutty.
We will be using Ally Coffee, based out of Greenville, SC, to import these coffees for us. After we made our selections in the cupping lab at origin, they were reserved for 1000 Faces and additional samples were sent back to the roastery to make final decisions. It’s beneficial for us to taste the coffees roasted our way on our equipment in a less hectic environment (it’s much easier to pay attention to 4 coffees on a cupping table than it is 80, trust us). We were very pleasantly impressed and scored the coffees even higher than we did when in Antigua. Ally and Bella Vista are currently in touch and coordinating space on an Ally shipping container for export. We expect these coffees to land in the US late this month - stay tuned for fresh Guatemala releases throughout the late Summer!
We feel extremely hopeful moving forward working with Luis Pedro and Bella Vista in the future. It’s evident how their whole team is set on pushing quality forwards year after year. One of our goals in the future is to start visiting some of the Hunapu farmers and learning more about how these extremely small producers are growing their coffees (a lot of Guatemala coffee farms are geared towards more estate-style growing like at Carmona). Ultimately, Bella Vista has access to many great farms and many great farmers. We’d like to explore the available offerings over the next few years and eventually settle on a small handful of farms that we dedicate ourselves to buying from year after year. This feels like a more tangible relationship for us, as we can focus our energy on specific people instead of larger groups. As for now, we’re very excited for our 2018 offerings and cannot wait to share them with you!