Volcan Fuego eruption during sunrise from the town of San Pedro de Yepocapa

A Recap of the 2020 Coffee Quality Summit in Yepocapa 

Photographs provided by Devon Barker 

When you wake up to in San Pedro de Yepocapa, you’re confronted by the looming, awe-inspiring presence of the notorious Volcán de Fuego. It is still active, and it reminds everyone daily. Booming rumbles and small, benign eruptions are commonplace here. To combat this pervasive threat to their livelihood, locals give out small cheers and snickers. It is what one has to do when living next to Fuego: make it work, and find some joy in a challenging situation.

Two people sitting by freshly picked coffee at the wet-mill

The coffee farmers in and around San Pedro de Yepocapa are no strangers to unforeseen challenges. They have faced set-backs their entire life, and the nature of their upbringing has trained them to be extraordinarily resilient and upbeat people. This being the case, it came as no surprise that they possessed a strong desire to host and partake in the Quality Summit. Needless to say, there was no lack of enthusiasm on the sunny morning of Saturday March 7th.

Dr. Taya Brown being interviewed by the local news at the 2019 CQS

With nearly 150 people in attendance, which included coffee producers and their families, the Second CQS was another groundbreaking step for the region and its journey towards the production of higher-priced coffee through improved cup quality. The topics of the summit were focused on equipping producers with knowledge that would allow them to improve their farm management, processing, and decision making regarding the growing and sale of specialty coffee, a market which is new for nearly all of them. In the words of Dr. Taya Brown, the CQS organizer, “These farmers have just never had access to the kinds of markets that require them to know about issues related to [coffee] cup quality to this level. Because of this, they have a long learning curve in order to discuss coffee in the way specialty buyers will expect and they need to better understand how their own activities in the field, during picking, and post-harvest affect the final quality and value of their coffee.”

Attendees wait in line to check in for the CQS

The event was broken up into two parts, a morning of demonstrations/cuppings and an afternoon of presentations. The morning demonstrations were centered around teaching the basics of cupping. We focused on multiple varieties, defects, and coffees of different qualities from around the world. We hoped this would aid in their decision making regarding what to target with their in-field, time-of-harvest, and post-harvest management. The afternoon sessions aimed to deliver a more in depth understanding of field management and post-harvest processing methods that are known to help support smallholders achieving high cup quality. These talks also included information on economics, pricing, export and import logistics, and green buying specific to the specialty supply chain between Guatemala and the United States. By equipping farmers with this knowledge, the event intended to build their capacity to make informed decisions about the management of their product and to open up new value streams for their product.

Matt and Amanda Mitchell of C3 Coffee Co., and Flavio, a local researcher and aid working with Del Fuego, helping prep the cuppings

To begin the day, the first demonstration and discussion was “Cupping 101”, led by Erik Stanek (Balzac Brothers) and Shaun Mace (Red Beetle Coffee Lab). A well-known challenge for smallholder coffee farmers is their inexperience with cupping, brewing, and roasting their coffees. When unable to analyze one’s own coffee, or even have it analyzed nearby, it is challenging to form a clear understanding of how management practices influence the qualities sought by specialty buyers. True to its name, the Coffee Quality Summit spent a significant amount of time on demonstrations and discussions designed to improve farmers’ understanding of the analysis that typically takes place. For some farmers, this demonstration was the first time they were able to cup coffees under specific cupping parameters and discuss with coffee professionals and Q arabica graders. This demonstration helped to lay the foundation for further discussions on coffee quality, and its analysis during the rest of the day.

Attendees standing in line waiting to cup various defects

Following the Cupping 101, there was a short break during which the attendees could go and try specialty coffees from Yepocapa prepared as cortados by the one and only team at Fat Cat Coffeehouse, a popular specialty coffee roastery and cafe in Antigua. One thing that should be celebrated is the fact that the Fat Cat team moved through a line of 100+ farmers in under an hour, and how this was done, the world may never know.

The founders of Fat Cat Coffee Hose Gerson “Gato Gordo” and Tito Otzoy are assisted by Frosty (middle), in making espresso drinks for a long line of CQS attendees

Attendees wait in line to be served espresso drinks from Fat Cat Coffee House

In a natural progression, the Cupping 101 was followed by a cupping of five common defects found in coffee, which was led by Erik Stanek and Shaun Mace. Similarly mentioned above, it is essential for farmers to know the influence of their management and processing on the final cup quality, as that is linked to the prices they can get paid. For this, the defects that were selected were chosen because they are either very common, easily fixed, or considered a primary defect and are disastrous on the final cup quality. The defects that were discussed and cupped were insect damage, immature/quakers, full sours, full blacks, and chipped/broken/cut beans. The defects tasted as bad in the cups as one may imagine, and the farmers’ faces resonated that (to a hilarious extent for some).

Erik Stanek talking with an attendee about cupping standards

To finish off the morning, there was a brief additional cupping of coffees provided by Merit Coffee (San Antonio, TX) and C3 Coffee Co. (Conway, SC). Here, the attendees tasted coffees from Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Ecuador, which are all producing regions that are almost entirely inaccessible to people living in and around Yepocapa, and even Guatemala as a whole. This was followed by lunch, and a break, to prepare for the afternoon presentations connecting specialty coffee from the farm level to the roastery and cafe.

After lunch the CQS shifted into presentation mode where a series of coffee professionals gave talks on a variety of topics ranging from coffee agronomic practices to roasting specialty coffee. The presentations were short, 15-30min discussions on a specific topic, and then followed by questions. They were as follows:

  1. Video and Photo documentation of migrant caravans; description of new project to document effects of coffee price fluctuation on migration – Presented by Santiago Billy
  2. Methods of defect reduction, building of the morning defects cupping – Presented by Erik Stanek
  3. Description of roasting process; roasting considerations vs. coffee inconsistencies and defects – Presented by Frosty of Coffea Guatemala (Cafe and Roastery in Antigua)
  4. Coffee quality improvement through field management – Presented by Shaun Mace of Red Beetle Coffee Lab (specialty coffee quality agronomy consultants and exporters in Mexico and Peru)
  5. Overview of supply chains and steps in coffee transportation; perspectives from a US green buyer on what smallholders can do to enter and maintain substantive specialty market relationships – Presented by Jamie Isetts of Merit Coffee (San Antonio, TX)
  6. Overview of coffee economics; differences between C- and Specialty markets; how to target specialty markets – Presented by Shaun Mace

Jamie Isetts of Merit Coffee presenting on the specialty coffee supply chain

Though brief, the selection of presentations was geared toward providing attendees with a concise overview of the topics each presenter was knowledgeable in. The collection of speakers included a documentarian, agronomy consultant, exporter, an importer, roastery green buyer, roaster, and cafe owner, covering every step of the supply chain. The talks provided a well-rounded view into the specialty coffee chain for the attending producers who are not readily exposed to this type of information.

In a similar fashion, the speakers were then able to learn from the producers who showed genuine interest during our-post presentation discussion. It was evident that information that was discussed in the later part of the day was only a small snapshot of the entire knowledge pool that the attendees wished to learn, and that the summit could have been expanded upon over the course of several days. The hope and goal for the future is that such workshops and events could take place throughout the year to adequately train and educate producers fully on these and other necessary topics. Despite their brevity, the discussions were able to expose the attendees to questions they should be asking, and things they should be considering in regards to their operations. Once a producer has the ability to ask the right questions and is aware of the entire supply chain in which they exist, they can better position themselves to be successful in improving their coffee’s quality and value.

Erik Stanek and Frosty presenting on remedies for common green coffee defects

The CQS stands as one step among many for the Yepocapa and surrounding regions’ coffee producers to access specialty markets, improve profitability, and attain greater autonomy in their negotiations. This is no easy process; in a world where coffee producers are facing a long list of challenges, from climate change and pest infestations to volatile markets and diminishing prices, they will undoubtedly need consistent, reliable support along the way. The education needed to switch from growing commodity-grade coffee, focused solely on volume, to coffee for the specialty market, which must focus on both yield and quality, is comparable to switching to an entirely novel crop as a farmer. The information discussed at the 2020 CQS aimed to help farmers understand this and develop their capacity to grow within the ever-changing coffee industry.

Building resiliency into the coffee chain means educating and equipping everyone in it to thrive independently. Producers who are informed about their practices, understand the markets they sell to, and know how they can achieve higher prices will undoubtedly have a greater chance of success. The farmers who attended and have been working with Dr. Taya Brown, are learning this, and the outpouring of support and strong attendance by producers at the second annual CQS shows it. The event was one more example of the importance of collaboration between all sectors of the coffee industry, and how events like this can be used to catalyze information transfer from the purchasing end of the supply chain to farmers eager to get their foot into the specialty coffee market. We are proud to have been able to support such an impactful event and are excited to see the Del Fuego Project, all the supporters of the event (such as the great folks at Brigo Coffee. Thank you to them!), and the attendees and volunteers at the event continue to move the specialty coffee industry forward.

The entire CQS volunteer team on stage being acknowledged by Dr. Taya Brown