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Voyaging to La Suiza. Part 1: Procafé

Posted by Shane Sullivan (DLG Intern)

Jack-knifing and cannonballing into the full-length pool, the evening hum of Nuevo Progreso punctuated the merry cries of the relieved bathers; dogs howled, taxis roared up and down fiendishly pitched streets, and the impatient rooster cock-a-doodled relentlessly.

We had arrived in Nuevo Progreo an hour earlier, glad to have reached the night’s resting place after one of those exhaustingly indolent days in the car. Eleven in total, we marched into Yolanda’s hotel; Danilo and Ola, the head of Sales and Marketing for DLG, led the way followed by Greg, Spencer, Becky, Shelby, Dave, Mason, Mackenzie, and Joel: the Coffeebar team. Composed of the owner, managers, roasters, and baristas, the team was now only a day away from encountering the skillful smallholder coffee farmers whose coffee they had been serving for nearly a year.

 Yolanda’s.

Yolanda’s.

Early the next morning, we woke to the same cock-a-doodles that had haunted our dreams and, after a typical Guatemalan breakfast of eggs, beans, and tortillas, climbed into the beds of two pickup trucks bound for La Suiza. Tucked into the hills of the San Marcos region, you won’t find La Suiza on a map. The only accessible way in and out is one road, uniquely passable in pickup truck or on dirt bike and even then, the hour drive requires skill and concentration. Teetering up the lower reaches of the road, we spectated the ever-changing scene: small clusters of houses, children playing soccer, goats grazing on low-hanging branches, coffee drying in the mid-morning sun, dogs scurrying about, and an endless stream of curious eyes trailing us as we rolled past.

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Twenty minutes up the dirt and cobble road, we veered off the route leading to the skies and took a quick detour to the small town – if it could be called that – of Nuevo Eden. From a bird’s eye, Nuevo Eden might appear as a mere speck in a fecund sea of green. As we rolled up the grassy drive, a humble church loomed in front of us flanked to the right by the local cooperative’s beneficio and to the left by Procafé, our morning destination. Procafé is a cupping lab situated at the base of La Suiza’s sprawling ascent. Entirely composed of enthusiastic youth, the lab exists to serve the community. The idea behind the establishment is to help improve the coffee quality of the surrounding region. During harvest season, farmers flock to the doors of Procafé to have their coffee professionally cupped and scored. A higher score means better profits and from year-to-year, cupping scores act as a basis from which they can measure the effects of nuances in their methods of cultivation and processing. Based on the tasting notes and temperament of the famer’s coffee, Procafé suggests methods that the farmers can use to reap a higher quality harvest in the year to come. They are the life-blood of the region’s coffee-based-economy, a cornerstone of development and continued improvement.

 “Ponder, spit, slurp, and spit.”

“Ponder, spit, slurp, and spit.”

That morning we were visiting these precocious youths for a symbiotic class in coffee cupping. Dave, a former employee of De la Gente and now the head roaster at Coffeebar, is a certified coffee cupper. Procafé had asked if we might stop by and assist them in “calibrating” for the upcoming harvest. “Calibrating,” more or less, means to bend, in unison, those fickle taste buds of an entire group of people so they might reach a consensus about a particular cup of coffee. Not having the slightest clue as to how this happens, I sat back amused and attentive as the Procafé staff went about setting up the strikingly scientific method of preparing a coffee cupping. Clusters of cups, grouped in threes, were placed around two circular tables; spittoons were set in each corner, as to permit the scientist to taste, but not swallow, the shimmering brown liquid of their experiment; silver, fine-handled spoons, as well as clipboards with scoring sheets, were handed out to all participants; and timers were placed in the center of each table – timing what? Each stage of the cupping process was allotted a precise space in which to exist… amidst ticking seconds commenced the coordinated ballet. Swarming around the tables, the scientists leaned over the cups of ground coffee and sniffed, scoring the dry fragrance before adding water, waiting, and taking another whiff. To my novice delight, the addition of water changed the fragrance spectacularly: what once was chocolate peanut butter became floral aromas or piquant notes of cherry. Then came the spoons, plunged into the brimming cups, methodically raised to cosmically-tuned pallets, and slurp! The louder the noise the better, the more experienced, the richer the flavor. Slurp and spray a fine mist of coffee across the pallet. Ponder, spit, slurp, and spit. Round and round the table the scientist, and varying levels of amateurs, swirled in pure silence, save for the staccato of shhhuuulp! Speaking in a coffee cupping is not permitted, frowned up you might say. It corrupts the purity of the mouth and mind – silence staves off the suggestive osmosis of opinions. To calibrate is to test each individual against the whole… to be one of mind and pallet in the vacuum of an experiment.

For thirty minutes, perhaps forty-five – one loses a sense of time in the silent rhythm of a cupping –, we circulated through the room, scrawled notes on our clipboards, sniffed and slurped, and focused on thinking through our mouths. Then, the windows were open, words were again allowed in the sacred space, everyone laughed and exchanged notes, pondered flavor profiles, and wondered if they were in fact calibrated. Danilo and Ola brought all comments and opinions together, translating impressions from both groups into a comprehensible dialogue.

The calibration was a success, though there was inevitably some differentiation. Coffeebar had brought a few African coffees, which were new to the taste buds of the Procafé group and herein we discovered the majority of the collective’s asymmetry. The precision of coffee cuppings necessitates freshly roasted beans; however, it is illegal to bring unroasted coffee beans into Guatemala. As a result, the Procafé team was a bit thrown and intrigued by the coffee from the high reaches of Africa. For coffees of the region, Procafé was finely tuned to the subtleties, scoring all of the coffees within a point of each other. Dave, being the veritable expert of the group, was impressed by the young scientists’ method and results. His only advice was to be more confident in the region’s respective coffees, which he had scored two to three points higher than any of the Procafé members.

Pleased with the morning’s productivity, we all sat down to a delicious lunch, chatting, laughing, and tamping down our caffeine highs with a hearty meal. After digesting our feast with a few handshakes and pictures, we thanked the Procafé group, remounted our trusty Toyotas, and watched them shrink in the distance as we waved and yelled adios!

 Coffeebar and Procafe in front of the cupping lab.

Coffeebar and Procafe in front of the cupping lab.

La Suiza – it loomed in our minds as our transport churned and growled up the rutted, dirt slopes, wending past sprawling vistas of fecund flora and fauna reaching towards the coast. For weeks we had all been imaging this ascent, the one road into this isolated mountain community. La Suiza was obscured by a cloud of mystery and we were a few meager minutes away from striding across the town square to meet Maximo, the head of their coffee cooperative.

After nearly an hour of rocking and jolting in the back of our pickup trucks, redistributing the human load after one clacked and popped and refused to move, we finally glimpsed a worn sign welcoming us to La Suiza; the road suddenly flattened, and we found ourselves sitting in the community’s central square: we had arrived.

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Keep reading… part two here.