Arriving at Finca La Esperanza
Hesitant to move as if it would break the beauty of the moment, I stood speechless and still on the rooftop terrace of the Villatoro's home at the Finca la Esperanza coffee farm in Hoja Blanca, Guatemala. Moments earlier we had arrived from a jarring four hour drive which began in Huehuetenango. The last 18km of mountain road took well over an hour.
The road was narrow and made of dirt, it switchbacked through the green yet drying mountains. It was just wide enough for two trucks to pass when they encountered each other. But passing nearly always required one of the trucks pulling over as far to the side as possible and stopping, thus allowing the other truck to creep by and offer a friendly honk as they went on their way. Because of the constant stream of trucks heading down that day, it was a slow crawl we maintained as we ascended higher and higher into the mountains. But we did eventually arrive, and in time to witness the splendor of the last offerings of the day.
Perched high up in the valley, the sun had just managed to set behind the mountain ridge. Enough light lingered in the atmosphere to see as far as the horizon could push. The warmth of a Guatemalan evening in March was delightful to feel upon my Minnesota skin just coming out of winter. Bird song was fluttering still boisterously through the darkening atmosphere, and crickets were just beginning to be heard. Boys and young men stretched out on the patios, relaxing where hours ago the coffee seeds from the surrounding hills had been set out to dry. The engine of the last wet mill had just ceased, and one by one, chimneys were beginning to throw smoke into the air above all the homes.
Just as the awe of the moment was turning inward with encroaching nightfall, Rodin, the son of Aurelio (one of the the 12 siblings who own and run the farm) appeared on the staircase rounding the corner of the home carrying two cups of coffee. He approached Josh and myself handing us each one, and encouraging us to drink. I didn't hesitate. First sip - my tastebuds were rocked by the vibrancy and juiciness of the cup. My mouth watered for more, and my head tingled just slightly as the pleasant arrival of a complex sensory experience uncovered new curiosity.
After a second sip, I turned to Rodin and asked what we were drinking. He pointed to an adjacent ridgeline and said “this is a natural processed coffee from my lot right over there.” He briefly explained how they had selected it to be a lot for that method of processing only after several years of experimentations and comparisons. Then Rodin disappeared and Josh and I were alone again, standing silently with the last sighs of dusk and the sips of a quite perfectly placed cup of coffee.
Then....the returning wanderings of my curiosity. How did I get here?
'Tips for a Cause' and the Villatoro Building Project
Several years ago, Josh (my travel companion and owner of Fika Coffee) had visited this same farm, and developed the beginnings of a relationship with the Villatoro family. The coffee, as well as the family behind the coffee must have left an immediate impression, because every year since then Fika has made a point of buying coffee from them, and Josh has gone out of his way to grow a relationship with the Villatoro’s and also with Onyx Coffee, the importers of Finca la Esperanza’s fine coffee.
Then in 2018, Fika decided to up our commitment to the Villatoro's and their coffee. In addition to buying coffee from Finca la Esperanza, Fika decided to extend our yearly 'Tips for a Cause' project to support the construction of a Bodega for the Villatoro's near their home in Huehuetenango. The Bodega would make it possible for the coffee from Finca la Esperanza to be processed in house, and with assured higher quality practices. Namely, it gave the Villatoro's more power to control the movement, and storage, of their coffee.
‘Tips for a Cause’, was an idea that came about in 2017 as a way for Fika Coffee to be a more active contributor to the communities of people we depend on for our livelihood; a method to become part of their life in a more meaningful way; and a reason for believing in community and its necessity in the world. ‘Tips for a Cause’ quickly revealed to us that it is through generosity which we are best suited at bettering the lives of those people around us. It also includes and invites our customers to be the catalyst for this generosity.
All in all, from the hands of thousands of customers, over $9,000 was collected in our cafe tip jar to directly support the project. In March of 2019, when we made our trip to Guatemala, the bodega was already fully operational. Hundreds of bags of parchment coffee were stacked up in the garage, and the lab and cupping studio up above was dialed in.
I had never met any of the Villatoro's before, but upon arrival at the bodega as the family and team members trickled toward the entrance where we stood, a sense of appreciation twinkled in the eyes of each one of them, bridging the language barrier and offering a felt warmth and welcome. The world today depends on so much unseen interconnectivity, I later thought.
From northern Minnesota to the wild mountains of Guatemala all because of coffee; and the complex process which brings coffee from seed to cup. A process which most of us in the professional coffee world are only connected to a portion of, often a small portion. Yet, a hopefully expanding portion.
For me it was expanding through this trip to Guatemala. Up until that point it was roasting and serving coffee that I was connected to. Now, I was at least dipping into connection with the growing and sourcing of coffee, and the people whose livelihood is spent there. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder - it is certainly more than just coffee that brought this group of Guatemalans’ and Minnesotans’ together, Isn't it?
“Coffee is People”
There is a saying that was put in front of me early on when I started working at Fika Coffee. It is quite simple actually, “Coffee is People”. It is a saying that Josh has used often enough, but always with seeming intention and awareness of the conversational direction.
Occasionally I hear him introduce the expression into a conversation in our cafe. I heard him introduce the concept to another roaster on our trip to Guatemala. And although the idea behind the expression is simple at heart, and quite agreeable I believe, somehow I still had an internal aversion to it. I don’t know if it was that the expression seemed cliche, or even misrepresentative of the complexity of coffee. But whatever was causing the aversion, it began to shift and fade throughout my time in Guatemala.
Principally, the expression states the obvious; coffee is a plant, that bears a prized fruit, which demands human interaction every step of the intricate process that brings it from seed to seed to cup. The human interaction component being the emphasis here. But even understanding this - understanding it intellectually, perhaps even imaginatively - wasn’t enough for me.
For just as I had intuited, the reality of coffee was indeed far more complex, nuanced, and awesome than the simple expression appeared to reveal if one hangs literally to its surface. And in large part, as I had learned through my time with the Villatoro’s, that was due to the complex, intricate, and wondrous nature of the human beings involved with the process. Coffee you see, is indeed wonderful, awesome, intricate, mysterious, and variable precisely because people are wonderful, awesome, intricate, mysterious, and certainly varied.
Seeing the immense amount of work that goes into bringing high quality coffee to the world humbled my perceptions, yet undoubtedly advanced my curiosity. While the aspect of coffee relating it to people I saw at home in the Fika Coffee cafe was one angle, now I was witnessing an entirely different aspect of the intricacies which directly tie coffee to people. While the enjoyment of a cup of coffee may happen in a moment, the working toward that moment relies in an absolutely practical manner, on years of decision making and on the ground human labor. What the Villatoro's revealed was that the human labor could indeed be a labor of love.
While I feel much more at ease to declare “Coffee is People” since meeting more of the 'people' which the saying refers to, I must admit there is still a yearning inside me to uncover more understanding in the multi-faceted coffee industry.
For now though, I return to the cafe, and the roaster, with my heart filled with gratitude to all the people out there working with coffee at the ground level; the farmers, the cultivators, the pickers, the millers, the drivers, and all the ones involved in the processing too - my heart goes out to you. And I now roast and serve up each delicious cup in our northern Minnesota cafe with a little more confidence that your story is being shared too.
Coffee beans grown at Finca la Esperanza are currently being used in our North Shore Blend. During our trip we also selected a number of beans for purchase that we will be roasting this summer. We'll let you know when they are available.