“Stopped in our tracks” might be an appropriate description of the effect this coffee had on us when we first cupped it a few years ago. Such lush tropical fruit notes and zesty acidity accompanied by delightful sweetness and velvety mouthfeel, we kept coming back to this coffee from the Cobán region of Guatemala, part of the country’s rainforest-covered Alta Verapaz department, to have another taste. Most roasters have ample experience with southern or western Guatemala thanks to the proliferation of balanced and caramel-sweet profiles across these regions, their robust producing history and established infrastructure, and enduring reputations in the specialty world. Cobán, on the other hand, tends to be overlooked in specialty buying, despite being one of the country’s top producing regions and having an official quality designation by Guatemala’s own national coffee sector, Anacafé. And, despite having producers like Luis Valdez who, in our opinion, is one of the best anywhere in Central America.
Finca Santa Isabel is a 70-hectare estate in just outside the town of San Cristóbal Verapaz, down the highway from the region’s namesake city of Cobán. Luis Valdés, affectionately called “Wicho” to distinguish him from his father and grandfather who are also named Luis, has been running Santa Isabel, and the family’s adjacent farm San Lorenzo, since 1999. Wicho started following his father around the estate when he was young and later earned an agricultural engineering degree before taking the reins. Constant humidity and precipitation year-round in this area creates some extremely complex challenges for processing and drying in particular. So much so that coffee from Cobán is often stereotyped as being heavy in the cup and dull, or earthy. Wicho, however, has used his life-long experience and education to overcome this obstacle. The entire estate is terraced to protect against erosion during the heavy summer rains. Wicho has also created several different drying strategies (raised beds, greenhouses, and mechanical dryers) to cope with the unpredictability of winter rains during the harvest. Each dried outturn of coffee is conditioned and then cupped and grouped into individual profiles; the “floral” profile is created with individual day lots that Wicho and his partners believe express the most complex and effusive aromatics of the harvest.
Dried parchment is taken from the estate to a dry mill in Guatemala City. San Isabel is equipped with multiple pieces of equipment to sort green coffee typical in most dry mills, such as, gravity beds, screens and electronic eyes. The mill also has a piece of equipment called a catadora, which is placed immediately after the dehuller and operates like a wind channel to remove broken and less dense coffee beans. Mild weather in Guatemala City provides ideal conditions for storing parchment in the warehouse until it is time to export.
In the past 10 years Wicho’s coffee has become some of the most sought-after in Guatemala. He is a kind, studious, experienced, and determined coffee producer capable of managing great complexity. A normal day during harvest includes calibrating 500 pickers on each variety in the field, daily processing, multiple simultaneous drying scenarios, over 200 hectares of coffee and forest management to keep thriving, experimental variety plots to plan, and a constantly threatening climate to monitor hour by hour. It takes quite a producer to get all the variables just right.