One example of a producer in Guatemala that has found success in experimenting with processing methods is Finca La Senda, a small family farm in Acatenango. The owners, Arnoldo and Maria Eugenia Pérez, used to sell their cherry to nearby cooperatives, but they began to do their own processing on the farm four years ago. In that time, they’ve conducted hundreds of processing experiments and developed a distinctive processing style. We spoke with Yancy Pérez, the owners’ daughter, and her husband Paolo to find out more about their family’s journey.
Relaxing at Finca La Senda, a family-run farm. Image courtesy of Finca La Senda.
‘Yancy’s grandfather started farming coffee there 60 years ago. It was a traditional farm, picking the cherries and then selling them to the local cooperatives,’ Paolo says.
The family decided to try processing on site to make the farm more profitable, in order to allow Yancy’s parents to retire, he explains. ‘At the cooperatives, there is zero premium for quality, and the cherries are all being mixed together. We knew there were good cherries on the tree, so we came up with the idea that if the terroir is right and the plants are being taken care of, why don’t we try to export directly? Of course, the business plan looked much cheaper than the reality!’
Honey process coffees drying on raised beds. The owners of Finca La Senda have optimised the process from picking to drying, by carrying out hundreds of experiments. Image courtesy of Finca La Senda.
They built a conventional wet mill on the farm but began experimenting immediately, with the help of a consultant, Thomas Pingen. ‘In the first year, we did 120 microlots alongside our main lots to try out different processes,’ Paolo says. ‘Our consultant helped us with the best practices; we just pushed them to the extreme. We came to the conclusion that is the right direction for the coffee from our farm.’
From the beginning, they focused on long, controlled fermentations, Paolo says. ‘We started in year one with 80- to 100-hour fermentations, and in the second year we got a bit braver. But we had to do a lot of experiments until we had the courage to ferment for up to 400 hours.’ Depending on the process, their fermentations might start with up to 12 days’ carbonic maceration as whole cherry, prolonged fermentation in tanks after depulping, and then further fermentation on the drying beds. The depulper captures residual liquid from the pulp, and that liquid is used to kick-start the fermentation of the next batch of cherries.
Ripe cherries are brought to the wet mill in boxes, rather than sacks, in order to protect the fruit. Image courtesy of Finca La Senda.
The long fermentation steps mean the farmers must take extra care with their fruit: They transport it in boxes instead of bags, and they wash it before they bring it to the wet mill. ‘This means that we don’t bring in unwanted bacteria and can control the fermentation,’ Yancy says.
Controlling Water Use
One major reason that the farmers at Finca La Senda chose to tinker with traditional processing methods was to save water, as they have a limited supply of it on the farm. They started out with a wet depulper, a fairly typical setup for specialty coffee farms in the region, and used a high-pressure stream of water to wash off the mucilage after fermentation. Like many other farms in Guatemala, they recirculated the water to reduce waste, using about 1 kg of water per kg of cherry, but they were not satisfied with the results. ‘The utilisation of water was okay, but the high pressure water was damaging the greens,’ Paolo explains.
Last year, they tried washing the coffee completely manually, putting it in a tank filled with water and stirring it with wooden paddles. Although the method was effective, it was extremely tiring for their workers.
This year, they came up with an innovative solution they call the ‘Jacuzzi’. Inside the washing tank, the water is filtered and then pumped through small holes in a tube lying at the bottom of the tank. The jets of water slowly agitate the green coffee, loosening the mucilage. ‘We aren’t looking for 100% washed,’ Paolo says. ‘If it’s not completely clean, it’s even better. The little bit left continues fermentation on the drying beds and adds flavour.’
The ‘jacuzzi’ in action: fermented coffee is poured into the tank, and gently agitated with jets of water to loosen the mucilage. Video courtesy of Finca La Senda.
The Jacuzzi requires very little water, which means that by the end of the process the water is thick with pulp. ‘You can’t recirculate it,’ Paolo says. ‘At the end, it’s like a mashed banana! So we have been focusing on how we can treat it.’
At the moment, they are using the liquid as fertiliser. ‘We filter it, add kitchen waste and ash from the cooking fire, treat the pH, and bring it up to the fields and use it to irrigate the trees. We realised the plants are reacting very well,’ Paolo says.
Thanks to the Jacuzzi and an ecopulper that requires no water to run, the farm now uses one-quarter as much water as it did previously. ‘We basically don’t use water at all in the process, except for a very limited amount for washing the greens, and for washing the cherries before people select them at the wet mill,’ Paolo says.
The Jacuzzi was cheap to build. The plastic pipe cost US$5, and they utilised a recirculation pump and filter that they had already bought but no longer needed. ‘The idea was to replace a lot of machinery with almost nothing,’ Paolo says.
This type of low-cost innovation could really help other farmers, Paolo suggests. ‘If you buy a beneficio today, they still build them with the same model, with recirculation of water, and high-pressure washing.’
‘We just learned there is a step more, and guess what — it’s cheaper,’ he says. ‘You can work with four times less water and save at least half of the money [you would have paid] for machinery that you don’t need — and you get a much better product.’
For Finca La Senda, focusing on fermentation is what has made many of these advances possible. By maintaining good hygiene practices and controlling the fermentation conditions, they’ve been able to extend the fermentation time considerably, without introducing defective flavours. The prolonged fermentations mean that the mucilage is completely broken down before washing, making it easier to remove, without relying on high pressure water jets. And finally, embracing the traces of mucilage remaining on the parchment after washing, and allowing it to continue fermentation in a controlled way on the drying beds, has added to the distinctive flavour of their coffees. ‘What we learned is that mucilage is gold. If you remove it too early, or too much, then you lose in terms of quality,’ Paolo says.
Meeting the Market
While some of the work that has gone into the experiments at Finca La Senda has helped the Pérez family meet their goal of earning higher prices for their coffee, not every investment has paid off, and it has taken them four years to break even.
‘Adding different varieties and processes adds a lot of costs,’ Paolo says. ‘Roasters are volatile in what they’re asking for — one day they ask for carbonic maceration, and you do it, and then the next day they are asking for something else.’ Trying to follow changing fashions can be expensive, Yancy explains: ‘You invest a lot in carbonic maceration, tanks and everything, and then the roasters say, ‘”No, we want the natural.”’
For this reason they steered away from fashionable varieties such as Geisha and focused on reviving traditional Guatemalan varieties such as Pache. With the right process, Pache can produce very distinctive flavours, Yancy says. ‘As a natural, it can taste like mango, or tropical fruit.’
Natural process coffee drying under shade. The owners of Finca La Senda attribute their coffee’s long shelf life to the slow drying process it undergoes. Image courtesy of Finca La Senda.
Some steps, such as washing the cherry before bringing it to the mill, add to the cost without making any difference to the bottom line. ‘As a producer, there are a lot of elements that you feel people don’t pay enough attention to,’ Paolo says. ‘The market is only paying for the [cupping] score. Being hygienic or being completely dirty — if it’s an 88-point coffee, it’s more or less the same.’
The Pérez family have struggled with another issue: the cost of drying. They dry their coffee on raised beds under shade, refusing to use mechanical dryers such as Guardiolas. This gentle, slow drying means the coffee has a much longer shelf life than average, they say, and they have managed to get their green coffee to germinate even two years after harvesting. However, limited space means that drying has been a major bottleneck in production for them, and they are being forced to look into alternatives. ‘Our harvest took two and a half months longer than anyone else, and that has been a real challenge,’ Paolo says. ‘There is some romance around it, and roasters love to see the pictures. But does it really pay? The answer is no.’ The problem is that only the tasting score their samples receive, not the shelf life, is reflected in the price the farmers get for their coffee. ‘The price of the coffee is always the same, whether we dry with Guardiolas or with a more expensive method,’ Yancy adds.