• Natalia Setio

Americas Beans Series 5 – Coffee Origin in Guatemala

Coffee Origin in Guatemala

Guatemala is located in Central America. It is a country with tropical rainforest weather, high humidity, and warm temperatures throughout the year. Together with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama, it forms the Central America Volcanic Arc. For this reason, Guatemala has a historical background of natural disasters as well as having fertile soil for commercial agriculture.

As mentioned in previous articles, coffee arrived in America through the Caribbean Islands around 1720-1730 with the famous story of the French army captain, Mathieu de Clieu. Afterwards, coffee was spread to other countries by the hand of Jesuits groups. During that time, Guatemala and the surrounding land were part of the same Spanish territory. The first known plantations were grown around 1770. By then, other crops used as the source of pigments were the core of the colony’s economy.

A Period of Natural and Social Earthquakes

Having volcanoes in the neighborhood can represent a potential risk despite appearing to be dormant. By 1773, the initial capital of Guatemala, Santiago de los Caballeros, was demolished by an earthquake and this sort of events naturally had a negative impact on the economy and continuity of business and politics. The chain of coffee trade was stopped that it took a couple of decades to recover. Intense shaking events weren’t limited to nature.


During the independence movements, coffee yields remained low besides there being a plague of locust destroying the major crops of “anil” (pigment). When Guatemala finally reached its own autonomy in 1821, the new government was witnessing the economic growth of Costa Rica. As a result, the new government created politics strategy to promote coffee cultivation. In 1850, the pigments crops were dethroned by coffee, and in 1859, it was made the first exportation. In addition, big “Haciendas” (a large plantation with a dwelling house) appeared across the country. From this point, yields increased in a decent rate over the years, attracting immigrants from Europe, particularly Germans and French, whose established communities inland were offered by the government (taken from the populations of the natives who were obligated by law to work in coffee plantation ’till 1934). In the following years, Guatemala increased its participation in the coffee market in America despite the eruption of the “Santa Marìa” volcano in 1902 which covered the entire plantations under ashes.


Thanks to the profits from coffee, the country invested in highways and roads, connecting rural areas to important ports and harbours. Guatemala also served as the birthplace of a series of inventions that changed the coffee industry at that time.


In 1876, Julio Smout, a naval engineer, invented the method of removing the pulp from the bean through mechanic disks. Then, in 1880, the same man invented the device that allowed the removal of the husk from the bean. This design didn’t change ’till 1901 when new adaptations were used. Around the same time, other compatriots such as Pablo Evelman in 1879 and José Guardiola in 1880 invented the rotational cylinder and the “Guardiola Dryer” respectively; their inventions were the base for the current machinery that is used in the harvest processing nowadays around the world.


Also, there was an invention that revolved around the coffee industry: the instant coffee. One day, Doctor Federico Lehnhoff found a cup of coffee that he had forgotten days before in the garden and noted that part of the solution precipitated in the bottom of the cup. Then, he brewed the coffee again before tasting it, finding out that the flavour didn’t change. This was the tale of how instant coffee was created by Doctor Federico Lehnhoff in 1913. From then on, the formula and the method haven’t changed.

Coffee and Global Instability

As we can imagine, the incidence of World War I and II and the Big Depression caused a similar effect to the economy of the coffee industry. There was a decrease in international prices besides the suspend on regular chains of supply to Europe. Guatemala, being highly dependent on exporting coffee, received a bigger impact than countries producing non-agricultural products. For example, by the time oil began to be exploited in Venezuela, it motivated a change in Guatemala’s economy to fill the new kind of demand. However, Guatemala had to wait until the coffee prices were restored.


After the World War II, international institutions and organisations were created to regulate the coffee prices and even to sign some agreements albeit with low success. Guatemala by itself created ANACAFE in 1959, an association similar to CENICAFE in Colombia, looking to represent coffee farmers, register yielding, and to invest in research and development of new coffee varieties. When the Broca (coffee borer beetle) was reported in 1971 and the Roya (rusty leaf disease) in 1976, ANACAFE led the efforts to fight against them and prevent a higher spread to the region by starting educative campaigns in rural areas.

Central America has been a witness of many conflicts that left scars over the societies. The period from 1960 to 1996 was boiling with violence orchestrated by paramilitary and criminal groups due to drugs and political motives. This led to several historical massacres. Despite a series of peace agreements and the cessation of activities of violent groups, old resentments and disputes are potentially active. However, the level of violence has been mitigated.

Coffee in the Present Days

There are three major zones for coffee production according to the altitude which affects the quality and flavour of the cup. The first is low zones (760-1,070 m) with a high growth rate, low acidity, and soft taste. The second is middle zones (1,070-1,200 m) with average acidity and taste. Finally, there are high zones (1,300-2,000 m) with high acidity and strong taste.


Despite the revenues for the country, the national consumption rate is low. Consequently, the best beans are exported and many “Haciendas” deal directly with international partners to sell them the coffee.


The natural rainforest has been reduced over the years for the development of the city, livestock, and for the coffee industry. Actually, it is considered that coffee plantations became the major artificial lump in Central America where forest filled with coffee plants and shadow trees are the source of oxygen. There is a huge potential risk due to climate change; new strains of diseases could attack the plantations in a short period of time and destroy this last oasis for the remaining native fauna and migratory birds which found the plantations as a substitute for the former rainforest.


We must always be reminded that we aren’t untouchable by the consequences of our actions on the environment.

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