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The Magic Bean

When locusts destroyed Guatemala's blue-indigo and red-cochineal harvests in the early 19th century, ending its lucrative role in the dye industry, no one imagined that a tentative replacement crop called coffee would one day drive the country's economy. The country has all the factors necessary—moderately high altitude, mineral-rich volcanic soil, adequate rainfall, and distinct rainy and dry seasons—to be a major player in the coffee world.

The Asociación Nacional del Café, the Guatemalan Coffee Association, recognizes and certifies eight regional coffees. Tasters wax poetic about Antigua in particular, using terms such as "spicy," "smoky," "flowery," and "chocolaty" to describe the highly nuanced flavors of Guatemala's arguably most famous coffee. Like Antigua, the nearby Fraijanes and Acatenango —the association added the latter as a designated region in 2007—are cultivated in soil enriched by volcanic ash, and are protected from the climatic vagaries of ocean air, giving these three coffees their well-known bright acidity. Volcanic soil is also the key to the flavor of Atitlán and San Marcos, but their wetter climates, particularly in San Marcos's case, make for softer, fuller-bodied coffees. Guatemala's three nonvolcanic regions—rainy Cobán, moderately wet Oriente, and dry, remote Huehuetenango —also give rise to full-bodied brews.

Guatemala has become the darling of fair-trade advocates: much of the industry here remains the province of small producers, especially around Lake Atitlán. The isolation of regions such as Huehuetenango necessitates close-by milling and drying of beans by local cooperatives, thereby keeping much of the labor in the community and creating a sustainable product. Some 95% of Guatemalan coffee is shade-grown, a green, migratory bird–friendly method of cultivating the product, requiring lower use of pesticides and fertilizers and resulting in less soil erosion. However, production costs for many small operations have begun to exceed prices fetched on the world market—shade-grown means smaller yields, for example—forcing an increasing number of individual farmers off their land and into the cities. Still, coffee has helped transform historically poorer areas of the country, such as the Oriente, near the Honduran border. Producers look to fair-trade certification as a way to produce a better product and reap a higher resulting price. The Germany-based Fairtrade Labelling firm presently certifies several producers here with its fair-trade imprimatur.

The rub for the coffee-loving visitor is that it's difficult to find a decent cup of the stuff here. True to the realities of economics in the developing world, the quality product goes for export, leaving a lower-grade bean behind for the local market. Nor does it help that Guatemalans heavily lace their coffee with sugar. Your best bet is an upscale hotel or restaurant, one in tune with international tastes and that will have export-quality coffee on hand. Souvenir shops also have good product for you to take home.

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