Teaching to Roast Coffee in Guatemala

Click this link to watch the video:  Giving Back in Guatemala

In February of 2016, I had the chance to work with a small cooperative in one of the most well known, coffee-growing regions in the world - Huehuetenango, Guatemala.  My job was to share my knowledge on all things related to coffee roasting, assist in setting up the equipment, and help implement the beginning stages of a wholesale roasting business.  To me, this is the most valuable asset I can give someone, and frankly, I never dreamed it would be possible until this opportunity arose. 

Partners of the Americas, a non-profit organization, made this trip possible.  They send folks like me, a specialist in specific sectors, to help underdeveloped countries in areas such as this.  For example, to help a group of goat farmers improve the production of their goat milk, a professor from Idaho donated his time and knowledge to help the farmers improve their quality, processes, and implement sustainable practices for their business.  

I had 6 days in Guatemala to make an impact on their coffee business and roasting abilities.  

Now, when you first launch a business, you live, breathe, and sleep the business.  You can’t help but dedicate all of your time and focus, if you want it to succeed.  But for the first time in 3 years, since launching Vigilante Coffee Company in Washington D.C., I have a strong team in place back at the cafe, which allows me to visit other countries and source amazing coffees from all over the world.  Except this trip was not about finding the best coffees.  It was about helping folks who needed the knowledge and skills that I have come to know from building this business.  Without my team, I would not have been in a position to finally give back in this way, of which I now realize, I crave.  This craving has brought to light that I simply feel so fortunate to be able to travel to such beautiful places, buy beautiful coffees and work in an industry I am deeply passionate about.

On the way to Guatemala, I sensed that this trip was going to change me.  I knew I would have an impact on this community, but never did I imagine how greatly it would do the same for me.  Honestly, I used to believe you had to make a certain level of income and be financially steady in order to be in a good position to give back.  I know now, this is not the case.

The time to start giving back is right now.

Rather than wait to accrue some high amount of money to make changes, what we can give and what truly matters, is our time.  Ask anyone in our company and they will tell you that I place tremendous value on time.  For with enough time, enough will power, and just the right amount of stubbornness, one can achieve just about anything.  I’m living proof of that.

Some personal goals I came up with as I prepared for this trip:

  1. Cleanse my body.  For the most part I eat well, work out, run and practice yoga, but as I become more and more engrossed in what I do, I see the importance in going to bed early, refraining from alcohol or any other toxins that could prohibit me from pursuing the optimum healthy lifestyle I am shooting for.
  2. Learn patience.  Something I’ve always lacked and need to train for, in a way.
  3. Understand the value of giving back.  And to allow this new understanding to ultimately consume me.

Below you will find direct excerpts from the journal I kept while tracking this experience in Guatemala.  It definitely differs from the usual itinerary of sourcing coffee.  I hope you will also find meaning in it for yourself, as it broadened my horizons for the better as a person and an entrepreneur.  To get the full experience, just check out Giving Back in Guatemala.

TRAVELOGUE
Huehuetenango, Guatemala

“I arrived in Guatemala!”  The air is clean, the weather is 70 degrees, and there is a calm feeling about the people here.  I’m headed to the hotel in Antigua for the night!

Volcan de Agua in Antigua

Upon arrival, Abraham met with me and we traveled 5 hours into the mountains of Huehuetenango.  The landscape of Guatemala reminds me of Northern California, with old, large trees that make you feel tiny in the world.  Once we arrived, we met the folks from the Cooperative Asdecohue.  Their director and two assistants were extremely kind and sweet people.  The director, Mr. Daniel was about 65 years old, which in Guatemala, is already pretty up there since average life-expectancy for males in this region is 69.82 years old.   We all sat down over a cup of coffee and discussed the purpose and goals for my time with them in Huehuetenango.  

Purpose: To provide knowledge and training on roasting.
Goal:  Achieve intermediate level of roasting skill for their head roaster and help lay the foundation for a wholesale roastery.

Shortly after, we headed to the warehouse where the roasting equipment was being kept.  As we walked down the dirt road towards the warehouse, Mr. Daniel gave me the back history of Asdecohue and how they came to acquire the roasting equipment, the money to build the facility in which the equipment sat, and the hardships they faced.  As we entered into the building I was introduced to a young guy with a huge smile on his face.  Enter Kenny, the Tostador, or as we call it, the Roaster.

Kenny 

As Mr. Daniel and Kenny gave me the tour of their warehouse I listened closely, trying to absorb every word they said.  My Spanish is so-so these days, as I don’t have many opportunities to practice it regularly, but I typically engage and understand it all in the end.  From the conversation I gathered that the roasting equipment was in good condition, just needed a deep cleaning.  The sample roaster was not connected to a gas line, was a bit dusty, and didn’t appear to have been used recently.  Their Guatemalan, manufactured large roaster, nicknamed by Kenny as “Mary Jane”, had some quirks to say the least.  But Hey!  I've worked with less, so I knew it would get the job done.  

Asdecohue Cooperative Building

As we toured the facility I couldn’t help but notice large bags of cement, tiles, wood, and industrial building supplies scattered throughout the warehouse.  Not only that, but entire sections of the warehouse were completely raw and incomplete, almost as if the construction company decided to pack up their tools and head out early for the day, then never came back.

As we continued the tour, Mr. Daniel pointed out several large silos (equipment used for green bean sorting of defects and quality coffee), mills, and more.  I had seen this equipment in my coffee travels before but only at large processing facilities, such as with our partners in Colombia.  It’s basically a station where farmers can bring their coffee to be processed and sold.  The equipment I was looking at was still covered in plastic or sitting unused, covered in dust.  It became clear that this equipment was not being used regularly.  

Mr. Daniel asked if I knew how to operate this heavy-duty processing equipment.  My response, “I’m a roaster.  I can teach you how to roast and analyze green beans, but I am not a machinist nor am I familiar with this type of equipment, so unfortunately, no I cannot be of help with that."  I mean, we're talking over 500k worth of processing equipment!  That’s a serious investment and to have it sitting there collecting dust, had me at odds with myself even more.  I later learned that the European Union donated this equipment to them back in 2011.  It was installed and set up, however, no one ever checked back in to follow up on this investment.  Was it even an investment at that point?  

As we wrapped up the tour of the facility I thanked Mr. Daniel for his time.  The roasting equipment alone was going to be an uphill challenge.  But this is the kind of stuff that wakes me up in the morning.  I live for the hustle, and so, I couldn’t wait to get started.   

First things first, I arrived and completely reorganized and systemized their roastery.  We began with building makeshift tables made of pallets.  Next, we connected the sample roaster to the gas line, set up our cupping table, and cleared out all the clutter.  Things like building supplies, bags of cement, and so on were taking up the work station area.  Finally.  A clean space to begin anew.

We used the white board available to list our goals and objectives for the week.  I must add, I love white boards.  They allow me to articulate what I envision and accomplish goals quickly, creatively, thoroughly, and with a team effort.  Kenny and I had a quick meeting, where I explained my background in building a business from the ground up.  I was able to convey what I hoped to achieve while at the Co-op.  

Discussing roast curves

We finished around 7pm.  I returned to my hotel, only to find out that it happened to be owned by the same gentleman who is serving time in the US for drug cartel.  For the next 5 days, this is where I would regain sleep and energy - haha.

For the rest of my time there, I was out the door by 6:45am and arriving to the Co-op by 7am.  I wanted Kenny to get into a workflow of cupping local coffees from surrounding farms in Huehuetenango, sample roasting small batches, and finishing his days with production roasting.  This became our routine.  When you’re learning to roast it’s just as much about the roasting process as it is about the cupping.  Cupping is the development of one’s pallet.  Coffee cupping, or coffee tasting, is the practice of observing the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee.  Think of it like working out a specific muscle, like your bicep.  You hit the gym, you do curls, you watch the progress occur over weeks and months, until you've reached a point of success in development of the muscle.  

Your palate is no different. It requires consistent workouts to develop it, and when it comes to coffee one can never do enough palate curls.  

 

As our days went on Kenny spent more and more time learning to sample roast.  We spent time discussing the effects of airflow, time, and ideal parameters for sample roasting.  I would have Kenny sample roast the same coffee 10 different ways.  We then would cup those roasts the next day and analyze the difference between each one using his notes (from during the roasting process) as a cross reference to see what was different.  

During one of our training days, the famous surf competition the "Eddie Akiaku" held at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu, was being streamed online.  So, I pulled up the surf competition while we all cupped coffees! It was awesome to experience another Eddie, but this time from Guatemala.  Last time there was an Eddie, which only happens when the surf is 20 feet and over, was in 2011 when I was roasting for Downtown Coffee in Honolulu Hawaii.  Back then, I had the chance to see it in person - that was special.  This time, it was even more significant because I could share this moment with Kenny and Abraham, while roasting from an unfinished warehouse in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.  It was a unique experience to say the least, and one we all enjoyed. 

Once Kenny had a good grasp on the basic fundamentals of roasting, we started to roast on the big roaster, Mary Jane.  Due to the fact that there were no gas lines leading to the building, we had to roast using propane gas.  This isn’t abnormal to see in developing countries, but throughout the US, the majority of roasters are connected to a gas line located within the building.  I started my company in a basement with close to nothing.  This is how I roasted for my first year in business.  Again, I can't help but think how my startup days of Vigilante were coming in handy, helping me push through challenges we were facing in Huehuetenango.   

Roasting on "Mary Jane"

Mary Jane could roast 30 kilos or about 66lbs at a time.  Many roasters have sweet spots, or sweet weights - specific weights at which the roaster operates optimally.   Mary Jane's sweet spot was at about 45lbs.  So, we did batches of 45lbs and roasted continuously for hours at a time.   When it was all said and done, we had roasted over 700lbs of coffee together, cupped over 100+ sample roasts, and developed a friendship.  

A unique opportunity presented itself when an Italian woman and her colleague showed up at the Co-op one day with the intention of cupping coffees for purchase and export to Italy.  The directors, 6 in total, came to the warehouse. Kenny and I led the cupping for this visit.  The directors, the Italians, and even I were impressed with Kenny.  He was professional, precise, and helpful to everyone throughout the cupping.  He took the time to explain the difference in each roast and described the progress of his roasting training.

Cupping with Italian exporters

It amazes me how warm, authentic, and welcoming the people of Guatemala were, especially Kenny the roaster, and Abraham my guide.  We spent 6 days together and I can honestly say, I gained two friends within that time.  We talked about life, work, and coffee.  We talked about our families, our hopes, and our fears.  We discussed ways we want to improve and grow as coffee professionals.  We discussed the relationship between our countries.  They told me stories of factories, where Guatemalans work in intense conditions for US companies, making less than $9 per day.  I told them stories of believing in my dreams and working day in and day out to achieve them, regardless of the odds.  They shared with me the hardships their parents faced and I told them about Hyattsville and the amazing community we have there supporting our cafe and roastery.

It became very clear just how blessed I truly am.  We take for granted so many things in our country.  To name a few, the fact that we have a consistent systemized way of removing trash, the ability to recycle EASILY, and access to milk - already these are game changers.

And milk man!  Milk is one of my absolute, favorite things to drink!  But more importantly, in Guatemala, they offer 1-2 different kinds of milk in the entire country.  Getting fresh milk produced well and tasting great in a latte or cappuccino is damn near impossible to find.  Be grateful that you can walk into a Safeway and choose from about 6-8 different brands and/or kinds of milk.  That is most definitely NOT the case in every country.

By the end of the trip, I had run through just about every feeling or emotion there is.  Happy, worried, sad, mad, excited, let down, proud, and love.

 

I was happy that I could have an impact and assist Kenny and Asedecohue with getting the roastery up and running.  It was far from finished, but we had come a great way in a short amount of time.  I was sad because I now fully understood the hardships these people faced on a daily basis.  I was mad because I felt small, as if my impact was not as great as I had hoped it to be.  I was excited when I first arrived and looking forward to giving 100% of help in any way I could.  I felt like I let the folks at Asdecohue down because I was only able to get them to this point, at which I was now going to leave and return home.  I could not help them with their processing equipment.  I could not offer long term solutions to finishing their warehouse.  It killed me that I couldn't carry out the project and watch over it.  I felt proud when Kenny realized the potential behind his roaster, Mary Jane, and was able to apply the knowledge passed on to him.  I felt love from these people, this community, and their country - an opportunity I could not pass up and am fortunate to have experienced it.  

Giving Back in Guatemala Video

Abraham (Guide), Chris Vigilante, Kenny (Roaster)