Royal frequently counts Guatemala relationships not in years, but decades. The exporters and farms we work with began in the early 1980s before “specialty coffee” as we know it existed, from whom we’re still buying excellent single-farm coffees like Huixoc (“wee-shock”) and San José La Laguna. In the 1990s Royal began buying from small farmer associations ASOBAGRI and Guaya’b, some of the country’s most durable organic cooperatives who still provide the majority of our certified coffees from Huehuetenango, and whose resilience there continues to stabilize indigenous communities depending on the Fair Trade minimums and premiums their membership provides. During the past twenty years we have selectively added newer groups as they have formed in the evolving microlot market, focusing on our role as a point of discovery and exposure for new ideas in processing, lesser-appreciated regions, and more specificity. Our buying is still based on our early fundamentals, naturally with more and more additional flair in the mix.
The city of Antigua is in many ways a modern coffee eden. It’s iconic, laid back, gorgeously ornate, and for a city of its size it is absolutely teeming with historic coffee infrastructure. Coffee from almost anywhere in Sacatepéquez department is known simply as “Antigua”, and their sugar profiles range from butterscotch to marzipan sweetness, and acids from lemonade-like piquancy to dessert wine or tangy dried fruit.
Guatemala’s best centralized wet mills and best boutique exporters are based in Antigua. There are thousands of farms in the area, from the city’s legacy estates to patchwork smallholder communities climbing most of the way up Volcán de Agua, one of three looming stratovolcanoes that seem to be visible from every street corner in town and play a large part in Antigua’s famous soil composition. Such a variety of producers begets coffees with endless combinations of microclimates, elevations and varieties. There is a lot to work with here, and a lot of talent.
Antigua was at one point the seat of the governor of the entire Spanish Colony of Guatemala, which included all of present-day Central America and lower Mexico, and it continues to be one of the best-preserved colonial cities in modern Guatemala. Coffee estates, surprisingly large ones, still exist within the city limits, surrounded by stately walls and gated entries.
Perhaps always, but certainly for the past 15 years, Huehuetenango has had the best reputation of all Guatemala’s coffee departments. Coffees from here are often clear-flavored, buoyant, and brighter on the palate, with a balance evocative of tropical fruit juice and iced tea. Huehuetenango is a ruggedly steep and lush department consisting almost entirely of highland valleys that benefit from temperate climates at high elevations, narrow passages and sharp peaks, a landscape with seemingly endless potential for outstanding coffees.
Coffee here is grown on a combination of medium and large estates, including some of Guatemala’s most legendary, as well as far-reaching remote communities of smallholder farmers selling cherry or parchment to established grower associations and, often, freelance brokers. Most of Huehuetenango’s smallholders descend from pre-Columbian civilizations and identify as Mam, Q’anjob’al, Chuj, Jakaltek, Tektik, Awakatek, Chalchitek, Akatek, and K’iche’. The department’s entire population is estimated to be 70% indigenous, many of whom live with daily political and economic insecurity despite producing some of the country’s top certified coffees. Sustaining coffee production in Huehuetenango has been one of Specialty Coffee’s focal points in recent years since the highland’s mass migrations and conflicts are emblematic of challenges to indigenous smallholders everywhere.