“Why only the little squares though? I’m not doing it.” A man in a khaki ensemble leans back in his chair and stares at his two companions defiantly. They glance in my direction as I attempt to inconspicuously sip tea beside a salmon-coloured fountain at the D’Leyenda Hotel. “All of this Instagram business — marketing isn’t what it used to be. What’s with the tea over there? You’re in coffee country!”
My neighbours are a roasting family from Boston, here to find the perfect coffee beans, sourced directly from Guatemalan farmers. Despite my current status as a blasphemous tea drinker, I’m also en route to explore the organic coffee process. I climb into a waiting taxi to San Miguel Escobar, which is roughly 20 minutes outside of Antigua.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and church bells ring in the distance as families stroll through the main square, tiny dogs smiling at their feet. Volcán de Agua smolders in the distance, despite being inactive for thousands of years. A man in a white hat carrying two plastic baskets grins in my direction. He walks over to join me on the steps of the church, as the translator, Francesco Ricco Champney, pulls up alongside us in a dusty car.
The smiling man is Frederico Gonzales, an organic coffee farmer with De La Gente (recently rebranded from As Green As It Gets) — a non-profit organization that supports local coffee producers and artisans by helping them develop a marketable product, assisting with fundraising, offering technical and legal support, along with facilitating tours, researching new markets, and providing interest-free loans.
Frederico is the eldest son in a family of nine children, and started his business with a half an acre of land that he inherited from his father, who is one of the original members of De La Gente.
The three of us pass through the square, and climb a dirt road towards rows of lushly shaded coffee plants. The area is free of irrigation, uses no pesticides, and the discarded coffee fruit is reused as fertilizer. Frederico moves us through the picking process, which is all done by hand and consists of gently twisting the red fruit from the trees, leaving behind the stems, as well as the green ones to ripen. The crop is 100% Arabica, with the berries huddled together on branches like old friends mingling in tiny crimson jackets.
After picking for roughly 45 minutes, we carry our baskets with stained hands towards the processing area, which sits in the middle of the family compound — a neatly kept grouping of cinderblock homes, topped with corrugated metal roofs.
I climb onto the Flinstone-esque pulpero and start pedalling, as Frederico pours our bounty into a tangerine-coloured funnel, fruit shells hitting the ground as the fresh beans fall into a basket. The coffee is dried in the sun in a cement courtyard, but we expedite the process by taking pre-dried beans and roasting them over an open fire in the kitchen. They are then ground by hand, boiled in water, and soon I’m sipping a steaming cup of fresh black coffee (good coffee is wasted on tea drinkers), alongside a freshly prepared lunch of chicken and rice.
The coffee is sold ground or whole bean, with prices varying with the volume of the purchase and current market price. All of the coffee that’s sold through De La Gente(mainly to the United States, Canada and Belize) is produced by small family-run operations that benefit from direct trade, which cuts out the intermediaries who often benefit from the bulk of the profits.
Producers plant, harvest, bag and transport the coffee to the ports, with De La Gente managing the export and customs, sourcing clients, and then passing on 100% of profits back to the farmers. The results for the participating producers see profits rise 40% - 250% over what is made by selling only to the local markets. This helps the farmers and their families to build homes with water and electricity, pay for school fees, and purchase additional land and equipment.
Coffee is the second most valuable commodity that is globally traded, only behind oil, however being that the industry was originally developed as a colonial cash crop, many coffee farmers exist in a perpetual cycle of poverty. By supporting the practice of direct trade, consumers encourage the growth of independence and the promise of a better future.
Laura Cummings, Operations Manager for Lukes General Store in Vancouver, speaks to the motivation of carrying direct trade coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters: “Multinational companies often go to great lengths to hide their production methods and make it near impossible to follow supply chains. Roasters that promote transparency through direct trade help to break down this model and ensure consumers an ethical product. The main reasons we choose direct trade coffee are transparency of supply chain, incentive based rewards (farmers receive higher prices for higher quality), and last but not least, premium coffee through close relationships with farmers. I truly believe that consumers are becoming more aware of the processes that go into producing coffee and as a result purchase from roasters that live up to their ethical standards.”
Marke McNichol of Platform 7 Coffee Brew Bar in East Vancouver, notes: “In our deliberations concerning the roaster that would fit the vision of Platform 7, Stumptown fit the direct trade criteria perfectly. Beyond this, they have built a cult-like status with their selection of coffee farmers and certain areas within the plantation, along with their exquisite roasting methods.”
Back in Antigua, Francesco pushes his aviator glasses up with one finger, foot settling on the brake pedal as he pulls to a stop in front of my hotel. I wave through the passenger window, and pass through the iron front gate. I set my four bags of medium dark roast on a patio table and walk towards the Bostonians who are back from their day of meetings. They offer up tales around their new connections, and in return, I share a curated selection of my best Instagram photos — a visual history as a series of saturated little squares.
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland