Eduardo Cabrera, the fourth generation steward of his family’s property and lifelong coffee grower, could not be more exuberant about his sense of place. In his own words, “coffee is family, tradition, memories, happiness, and a little suffering; but I wouldn’t trade anything for the adrenaline during the beginning of harvest, my olfaction that never tires of the smell of the coffee flower, and the landscape of the lake, the volcanoes, and the coffee trees!” Little more need be said. This is one grateful coffee producer.
Finca San José del Lago is on the southern shore of Guatemala’s breathtaking lake Atitlán, long considered a place of ancient importance and still home to some of Guatemala’s most visible indigenous communities. Atitlán’s surface sits at almost 1600 meters and is a volcanic basin surrounded by dramatically steep escarpments, and, as Eduardo describes, numerous volcanoes. As one might imagine, the terroir here is exquisite for coffee, and a lot of coffee is grown in various communities around the lake, many of whom still successfully grow typica and bourbon, the first varieties planted in the area. However, it is rare to find coffee from single large estates such as San José del Lago. Most of the coffee from Atitlán is smallholder grown and either cooperatively represented or bought by independent processors at competitive local rates.
Eduardo’s great-grandfather first purchased the family land in 1909. He approached the land as a broker, whose business was buying and selling properties, but he became so enamored with the landscape that he could not bring himself to sell it. The original 200 hectares remained completely forested for decades. Coffee was first planted in the 1940’s by Eduardo’s grandfather, and although more recent cultivars have been added to the mix, the bourbon and typica plants that first went into the ground are still providing seed stock for the now 45 hectares of coffee that Eduardo oversees. When his grandfather passed away the farm became his father’s and uncle’s to manage, and they set about improving the infrastructure and adding crops to the land’s rotation such as bananas, avocados, corn, beans, tomatoes, chayote, cabbage, and heirloom squash. Finally in 2016 the decision was made to divide the farm into equal portions, one of which Eduardo and his immediate family named San José del Lago.
Processing on the farm takes place in the family’s historic wet mill. With the exception of the nails and a bit of concrete the entire operation was built from timber and stone native to the family land. The only mechanical portion of processing remains depulping. Cherry comes in from the farm, is depulped, sorted by density, and fermented in handmade tanks. After fermentation it is cleaned and then dried on a combination of raised screen beds and tarps. Selective picking for ripe cherry means the farm crew of 100 is usually harvesting the early-ripening typica trees first during the year, then the bourbons, leading to a natural separation by variety. Eduardo loves the artisanal traditions of hand processing and is proud that their only piece of equipment remains their depulper; however he and his team are constantly working to evaluate their methods and improve and diversify to help the farm offer a greater variety of coffees to the world.
San José del Lago shares farm profits with employees and invests in their education, as well as donates portions of its land for community development projects which so far has included a medical clinic, a school, and a water tank for the town of Santiago Atitlán.