4 days with the Villatoros
With a slight bump our plane dropped onto the tarmac at the La Aurora International Airport. We deplaned as the sun crept over the horizon starting a new day, not in frigid central Oregon, but in beautiful, sunny, and warm Guatemala.
Every year Sisters Coffee strives to visit Huehuetenango, a working town in the north west of Guatemala, during the harvest to observe the new crop coming in. Our goals are quite simple: cup the new harvest to assess how the years coffee is performing and connect with the Villatoro family, our long time partners in the area. Our last visit was in 2016 and since we had not been able to make it back to Huehuetenango (referred to as Huehue). This year however, arrangements between Sisters Coffee, Onyx, and the Villatoros had all worked out perfectly, so on Monday, February 25th we landed to the crisp air of Guatemala City.
With just four days scheduled in Guatemala we wanted to make the most of our time. Rodin and Jenner Villatoro (Aurelio’s two sons) along with three of their cousins picked us up from the airport at six in the morning, we quickly grabbed breakfast in the city then headed for Huehue.
The drive from Guatemala City to Huehue isn’t far in terms of mileage, however the road incessantly winds about, snaking across the rugged terrain of Guatemala circumventing one volcano after another. Car sickness is inevitable, so we drank our waters and took little breaks to ease the pain.
Huehue isn’t a green tropical paradise like you might be imagining when you hear coffee grows there. From above the valley and surrounding mountains are arid and mostly brown gashed randomly by canyons, green with vegetation, cut by streams and rivers running down the mountain slopes.
Arriving to Huehue late Monday afternoon we got settled at the Villatoro’s house and shortly thereafter departed for their new bodega (warehouse). Since our last visit the Villatoro’s acquired a piece of land quite close to their house and built a new warehouse complete with offices, coffee storage, and cupping lab. The bodega is a beautiful building and a physical manifestation of the Villatoro’s drive to always improve their craft and grow the family business.
The first floor of the warehouse is mostly used for coffee storage, however jutting off to one side is a collection of offices, and comfortably nestled above the offices is the cupping lab. After a quick tour we meandered upstairs where Dennis, a cousin of the Villatoro’s and an active member in their family business, and Jenner Villatoro, head of quality for family farms, were setting up a cupping. Cupping is always a great way to get your feet under you on an origin trip. Because we cup everyday in our roastery in Sisters it feels natural and creates a sense of comfort even in a predominantly unknown place. Eleven coffees were on the first table, a nice quantity, not too many but also not just three. We dove into the coffees marking our notes on score sheets emblazoned with the Villaure logo. As we cupped the sun set behind the mountains to the west, a beautiful scene. Some coffee on the table reflected the sunset in their cup profiles. Five stood out with positive qualities, assorted notes of: red fruit, honey, molasses, caramel, tropical fruit, stone fruit, and lemon. There were two coffee we particularly didn’t care for with notes of: peanut, wood, and freshness. The coffees we agreed were best we selected for a final cupping on Thursday.
Tuesday dawned to a slow paced morning, a change of pace from the breakneck speed we usually move at during our trips to origin countries. We drank coffee and read before all eating breakfast together and heading back over to the cupping lab to taste another table of coffees. The sunshine was bright and warm, a quick check of the weather back in Sisters revealed a 70 degree fahrenheit difference between our temperature in Huehue and back home.
Cupping #2 went smoothly and three more coffees were selected for the final table on Thursday where we would select Sisters Coffee’s offerings from the Villatoros for 2019.
After cupping we went down the street and grabbed lunch, ceviche and a beer, Modelo Negra, with soy sauce, tomato juice, and pepper mixed into it. I was unable to finish either items.
Through with lunch, we headed out to the Villatoro’s farm Finca Villaure in Hoja Blanca. Rodin, head of logistics and operations for the Villatoro farms, and two of their cousins drove us out to Hoja Blanca. Nestled in a mountain valley Hoja Blanca is surrounded by coffee farms, a good number of which are owned by immediate and extended members of the Villatoro family.
The road that accesses Hoja Blanca is a bit sketchy, the road clings to steep mountain sides, deep ruts challenge the suspension of our 4x4 truck, and harrowing switch backs weave upwards all while dodging oncoming cars. However, it is all made worth it by beautiful vistas. We stopped at one particular stunning vista as the sun set behind the mountains, before us valley after valley lush and green extended until the highest mountain obstructed any further view.
The sun set behind the mountains and we moved on, arriving in Hoja Blanca after dark. Hopping out of the truck we were greeted by Aurelio and other members of the Villatoro’s extended family. After a quick exchange we proceeded into the house and met Araceli, Aurelio’s wife, and viewed the addition that had been added since our last visit. Immensely proud, Aurelio explained the primary purpose of the addition was to better host coffee buyers like us when they came to visit. We then sat down to dinner with the Villatoro family, their cousins coming in and out greeting Rodin and grabbing food while we ate.
Wednesday was spent walking around the coffee drying patios. The way their community is set up, as the valley rises their houses ascend with it, resembling steps leading up the valley walls. On top of their houses concrete patio give them flat space used during the coffee season to dry coffee. Free from the dense surrounding foliage the sun strikes the coffee and the concrete drying the beans with the heat of its rays. The concrete, heated by the sun, in turn radiates that heat back into the coffee beans further drying them. In this manner the Villatoros can dry their coffee more quickly helping to keep production moving in the busy harvest season.
With only one day planned at Hoja Blanca, midway through Wednesday afternoon we departed Finca Villaure for Huehuetenango. On the drive back we took the old road to visit a farm in a neighboring valley that Jenner, Rodin, and Dennis had just purchased. No longer the main road due to a volcanic spring that over a decade earlier had washed part of the road away. This old road was even worse than the road we took out to Hoja Blanca. We crawled along at slow speeds, creeping over roots, rocks, and in and out of small ditches. When we arrived at the new finca they were receiving cherries from some of the neighboring farms, which was quite the ordeal. A large group had gathered all shouting instructions to each truck that backed in to give cherries. Once parked they transferred the bags of coffee cherries onto a larger truck and another truck would take the empty trucks place. It was quite the spectacle. We also took a quick tour of the coffee patios and washing station at the finca. The sun set while we were on the patio, dousing the nearby mountain, a tall jungle covered hulk with an impressive white rock face, in beautifully warm orange and red sunlight before the light cooled to a pink and purple as the sun set over the mountain behind the farm. After an impressively sugary juice box, we completed the journey back to Huehue and called it a night.
Thursday, our final day with the Villatoros, was delightful. After eating breakfast and packing all of our stuff we went back over to the Villatoro’s warehouse to cup the final table of coffees. Upon arrival we greeted Jenner, Rodin, and Dennis who had stayed up late the night before prepping the coffees for our final cupping. We had our eight favorite coffee from the previous two cupping tables plus Rodin added four natural coffees he had been experimenting with this year. Rodin turned on some music and we got down to cupping. Once the notes had been compiled and compared we settled on two washed coffees and one natural coffee that Sisters Coffee will work with in 2019. This was a definite highlight of the trip, the ability to communicate our thoughts and preferences directly with the Villatoros and hear their impressions and opinions brought a new element to bare. After years of working with the same specific lot this year we will be offering three different coffees from the Villatoros which I believe truly highlight their ambition, innovation, and drive to grow and produce the highest quality coffees.
We are still ironing out the final the logistics of this year’s purchase but I’m hopeful by early summer we will be roasting and offering a couple of coffees from Guatemala that are uniquely Villatoro.