Partners in Crafting Quality Through Purposeful Discovery
The taste for finer quality specialty coffees in the UAE and the region has always been accompanied by an ever-present, playful, and intellectual curiosity for new and unexpected qualities that unfold in the cup.
It's a disposition that has inspired us to diversify our coffee collection continuously.
We see our friends enjoy that diversity in the number of origin countries we carry (currently 13!), the wide and intricate array of flavor profiles to appreciate, the inclusivity of brewing methods and flavor preferences we make way for, the span and depth of our producing partner network, and the breadth of well-informed and intuitive risk-taking we engage in — whether in sourcing, processing, or roasting.
For the same reason, we're always on the lookout for producing partners that share the same zest for discovery through purposeful, quality-driven, and creative exploration. Our partnership with Guatemala's Raul Rodas is an illustration of that.
Raul is a four-time National Barista Champion in Guatemala and the World Barista Champion in 2012, the specialty coffee ambassador of Guatemala to the world, and founder of Paradigma Coffee Trading.
Busting Stereotypes, Creating Opportunities
Last May 4, our close-knit specialty coffee community came together to meet, talk, and cup with Raul and find out how exactly Guatemala’s standout specialty coffees come to be.
We learned, funnily enough, that Raul’s first encounter with an unexpectedly exceptional Guatemalan cup profile, high in sweetness and tropicality, came by way of a happy accident.
It was 2011, and he had over-fermented a small batch of Yellow Bourbon cherries. At the time, he was a barista, green buyer, cafe owner, and roastery operator in a washed-process-dominated national coffee industry. Not wanting to waste the coffee, he still roasted and drank it.
To his surprise, the cup expressed, in his words, a “very, very pineapple” character, which was atypical of traditionally wash-processed Guatemalan coffees, most recognized for chocolate notes and a heavy body. At the time, Guatemala was raring to make its mark in the global specialty coffee scene more prominent, alongside earlier known and already differentiated origin countries, like Colombia, Honduras, and Costa Rica.
While Raul’s excitement then was rooted in the discovery of a new potential range of flavors, there was greater enthusiasm about the prospects of replicating effective natural and experimental processing protocols at the farm level that could multiply desirable sensory outcomes, which would have far-reaching benefits for all participants in the country's specialty coffee value chain. The largest beneficiaries would be the coffee workers involved in cultivation, harvesting, and processing, whose diligence across generations has been in want of greater rewards.
Raul winning the World Barista Championship in 2012 affirmed the promise of natural processing to craft flavor profiles that were remarkable, competition-worthy, and world-class. The coffee he represented was a natural-processed Guatemalan Red Caturra, fermented in cherry, in tanks for 24 hours and then directly placed on raised beds to dry.
As Raul recounted, his winning competition coffee had expressed a memorably silky body and novel notes of peppermint and pomegranate. He also shared how this victory emboldened him to continue on the path of seeking connections with farmers to produce wonderful coffees together and, not long after, extend the opportunity to collaborate with similarly oriented global roasters like Archers.
Rewards Outweighing Risks
Obtaining the few lots of natural-processed Guatemalan Pacamara, Red Catuai, and Caturra now included in our current coffee collection is a considerable sourcing achievement. As our co-founder and green buyer Frederick Bejo disclosed, natural-processed coffees from Guatemala had almost been unheard of until a few years back because the majority of producers were reluctant to take risks.
Their apprehension was that attempts at natural processing may waste good quality cherries that could be more predictably marketed as conventional washed coffees anyway, and also that there may not be enough clamor for non-traditional cup profiles.
The synergy of Raul’s experience as a barista — on the frontline and the national and world competition stages — alongside the meaningful relationships he has established with forward-thinking producers and like-minded roasters worldwide has given him credence and reassured his partner coffee growers that the rewards of venturing into innovative natural processing methods far outweigh the risks.
On the consuming side, we are rewarded with newly enjoyable takes on Guatemala-grown coffees. In our current collection — Finca Cuxinales Pacamara Anaerobic with notes of cherry, plums, guava, and a round, creamy body, is fascinating taken black, sweetly comforting with milk, and chocolatey on filter. La Cabaña Natural is a classically nutty and caramelly espresso, balanced by subtle apricot and grape accents that also shine with milk.
And of course, there is the popular La Laguna Anaerobic with notes of pineapple, passion fruit, dark cherry, and molasses, a tropical, punchy, and dazzling pour-over which, this summer sparkles on our palates and goes nicely with ice.
On the producing side, premium payments are made for cherries that meet the stipulated ripeness criteria, which can only be selectively hand-collected by seasoned pickers adept at efficient techniques that ensure quality and do not harm the coffee trees. Processed with precision and purpose, these coffees command higher prices from buyers who, more often than not, would have had the lots commissioned and thus also would have made advance payments for them to begin with.
Significant incentives for Raul’s collaborators also come in other forms. One is improved access to emerging and higher-end specialty coffee buyers in Raul’s network of international roasters like in the Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe, whose customers have the palate for more fruited and intense flavor profiles Guatemalan natural and natural anaerobic processed coffees have been gaining renown for.
Another is access to Raul’s globally informed insights on how to better anticipate and cater to such markets’ taste preferences by maximizing the cup quality potential using the farms’ available varieties and resources.
Standout Coffees, Custom-designed Coffees
From Raul’s talk, we understood that Guatemala’s standout coffees are necessarily custom-designed coffees because the critical activities that contribute to creating distinctive cups that merit warm market reception require human ideation, intention, expertise, and dedication.
Ideation and intention begin to come into play prior to the start of every harvest season when Raul is approached by international buyers about the cup profiles they project their respective clientele will enjoy. Resolved to be their “eyes, ears, and taste buds on the ground,” Raul matches their needs with the producers and farms in his dossier, to configure the right combination of specific varieties and processing methods that will construct the desired cup profiles.
Meanwhile, expertise and dedication thread through crucial farm-level activities, from the careful selection of specific coffee varieties compatible with the different microclimates, ongoing maintenance and nourishment of the coffee plants in the healthiest conditions throughout their life cycle, thoughtful and selective handpicking of cherries at time of harvest, and all the complexities of post-harvest processing.
Such expertise and dedication are embodied by Raul himself, whose warm and welcoming demeanor eases and enhances his interactions with the people who engage with him — be they coffee farmers, specialty coffee buyers, and even, as we witnessed during the Talk, specialty coffee newcomers, who were visibly comfortable and excited to pose questions to Raul.
10 Cups, 10 Strides into the Future
As Raul painted the big picture of specialty coffee production in Guatemala, he also foregrounded labor and processing as two decisive factors, where ongoing challenges must be overcome, to ensure they can always facilitate the creation of quality and desirable flavors in the cup.
The current challenge around labor is skewed toward the younger generations whose interest in pursuing their inherited trade as coffee farmers, farm managers, or farm workers, is declining due to their aspiration for better financial prospects and the dream of a better quality of life abroad, like in the United States. The immediate impact of this is felt at the farm level where, for example, it can happen that healthy cherries are at the optimal level of ripeness and ready for harvest, but there is not enough labor to work on them.
Meanwhile, the current challenge around processing is skewed toward the older generations of coffee farmers, farm managers, and farm owners whose interest in non-traditional and progressive processing techniques has yet to be fostered.
Playing his part in contributing to the solution, Raul devotes his efforts and expertise —through his work in Paradigma Coffee — to demonstrating to both the younger and older generations the extent to which specialty coffee can be materially rewarding, especially with innovative and intentional processing.
The coffees we were fortunate to cup covered a range of varieties from several coffee-growing regions, processed in different ways.
They included innovatively processed Maracaturra, Pacamara, and Geisha from Q Processor Isauro Solares of Finca La Cabana in Nueva Sta. Rosa; a natural anaerobic, extended fermentation Red Caturra from Adolfo Hernandez of Finca La Laguna in Antigua; traditionally natural-processed Bourbon from a coop in Atitlan; a washed Java from El Socorro Farm in Fraijanes; and a washed Geisha from Francisco Cardona of San Francisco Cotzal Farm in Quiché.
As we cupped, it was not difficult for us and all our friends to imagine that the ten coffees we tasted were also actually ten brave, optimistic strides along the path into Guatemalan specialty coffee's flourishing future.
Written by: Nadine Onate | Photos by: Pauline Disuanco