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Central America in the Whirlwind...

Region by region, nature has not been kind to this country’s production - it will be of erratic quality and erratically delivered throughout the season. It will fall chiefly upon processors and exporters to ensure that the quality delivered will be of the high standards and of the distinctive regional character for which the nation, as a whole, strives. The USDA estimates that Guatemala’s total production will be 4.9 million bags, repeating last year’s bumper crop. How Guatemala will repeat its record setting crop of last year, with harvest already running six weeks late, is beyond the comprehension of many exporters there. “When the crop is late, it’s always less,” noted Klaus Monkemueller, a noted exporter.

While the quality and distinctive character of Guatemalan coffees is well appreciated, it is seldom noticed how close it is in production to its northern neighbor Mexico. Actually, Guatemala exceeded Mexico’s production last year by a quarter of million bags. It is certainly not the stated goal of Guatemalan coffee farmers to leave Mexico in the dust; Guatemalan farmers, in fact, are being encouraged to diversify. Nonetheless, with a little more bad luck on the part of Mexico and a little more zeal on the part of Guatemalans, Mexico may find itself ranked fourth in hemisphere-wide production before it gets around to achieving its stated goal of attaining the number two spot.

In Antigua, growers will be especially hard hit trying to supply the world’s demand for genuine Antigua, even when using especially forgiving definitions for where such coffees must be grown. (ANACAFE, the nation’s association of coffee growers stipulates that all Genuine Antiguas come from the department of Sacatepequez.) According to several reports from the region, total production will be down 30-40%.

In the area around Lake Atitlan, production will also be down, by at least 10-15% according to exporters familiar with the region. Others say that it will be even worse. “There is no coffee there,” one exporter exaggerated.

Hue Hue Tenango may be the closest in production to last year’s figures that any region of Guatemala will attain, but most reports are hedged with doubts about both the quantity and quality from this area.

Fraijanes’s production is coming in slowly at this writing and is projected to be 20% lower than last year: “Low and slow” was the summation of one exporter. Farmers there are said to be just starting harvest, while the first pickings are usually in December. “We did not have the best flowering we could have asked for last year and while the crop might be said to appear promising, the likelihood is that a lot of the cherries still on the trees are going to yield one bean and a floater,” Monkmueller noted.

Coban is said to be having the usual problems with drying with which this cloud covered region usually contends. The crop is projected to be close to average but not up to what it was last year. Quality should be good as well. This year the rains have not yet come and there is anticipation that the coming year’s crop may be even worse and that this will delay flowering and shorten the overall time that the crop has to develop, restricting yields.

In the U.S. much is made of the recent failure of two of Guatemala’s largest exporters in terms of the impact that this will have on the financing of other Guatemalan exporters. The exporters contacted for this article did not blame any particular event for the currently high interest rates, or even express the opinion that the rates were especially high; problems were acknowledged but not regarded with alarm or even as being new. “There is,” Monkemueller observed, “an overall lack of money, a lack of liquidity in the banking system right now. The other problem is inflation: you have to turn your money over very fast.”

Panama is certainly not a factor when it comes to assessing world supply and demand levels, but its growers have been making a prodigious effort to attract the attention of the specialty trade in the U.S. and in this they have been largely successful. Their visibility as a specialty producer far exceeds their production of roughly 150,000 to 200,000 60kg bags a year - a little more than a rounding error in calculating the crops of many of their neighbors. Catimor plantings here are proving to be an effective hedge against market fluctuations, particularly in years when crop size is slightly more than that which was internally projected (NOT the problem this year).

Whatever Panama’s crop will look like this year, two things are clear: it will be late, perhaps very late, and it will be short. “Our production at La Torcaza Estate is looking dismal this year,” Carl Janson, one of four brothers who own the Barú area farm which produces the catimor-free La Torcaza Estate. Quality-wise, for our farm at least, we are hoping for just a bit better than last year, fortunately.” Other high-quality farmers, from the Boquete side of the Barú volcano are also hoping to maintain quality, but have no illusions that the crop will come in any time soon, or be up to last year’s level of approximately 175,000 bags.

Conclusion - Plus ça change...
A major U.S. Newsweekly’s online version recently ran an article on caffeine and coffee. The facts, as usual, were garbled but there was one sobering error … it spoke of the recent increased popularity of coffee in the U.S., especially with regard to specialty coffee. The media regularly reports on this “new popularity” and equates it with increased demand, but we in the trade know better. The coffee that used to be brewed at home is now flavoring a lot of milk drinks, but overall demand has not increased in any statistically significant way, and neither has quality. But people are TOLD they’re drinking better coffee, and because it is masked with so much milk, they can’t tell (and aren’t particularly curious to find out) that it is just the same old, same old.

There are a few farms in Central America that are producing excellent coffee year in, year out. While these farmers are receiving excellent prices for their production, most farmers and exporters are discovering that it is more profitable to pay lip service to the specialty phenomenon while at the same time working hard to maximize production. The ongoing popularity of the catimor hybrids, which produce a coffee no experienced and discerning cupper would willingly drink, are a case in point. The day may come when the two “Mild” producers may not be able to call their coffee by that name, thanks to their catimor plantings. Central America’s biggest producers, and even its smallest, seem ambivalent about being eligible for the term as well.

Timothy J. Castle is the president of Castle Communications, a company specializing in marketing and public relations for the coffee and tea industries. He is also the co-author (with Joan Nielsen) of The Great Coffee Book, recently published by Ten Speed Press, and the author of The Perfect Cup (Perseus Books). He may be reached at: (1)(310) 479-7370 or via E-mail at: qahwah@aol.com

Tea & Coffee - March 2000
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