Weak, Sweet Coffee

In the 1870s, Guatemala experienced an economic boom owing largely (okay, entirely) to the production of coffee. Between 1870 and 1900, a series of (mainly) German immigrants set up fincas (plantations) in the highlands and tropical regions, stealing indigenous peoples’ land and employing forced labor (also indigenous). The government established banks, a railroad, and developed port towns for foreign trade. Exports, according to my guidebook, increased by 20 times with coffee accounting for more than half of all foreign trade.

Despite all of this (or perhaps, because of all of this) coffee as we in the US and Europe know it is few and far between in Guatemala. It’s the same reason why the “Guatemalan Cardamom” in the cupboard at the Foundation offices is from Whole Foods.

People always exclaim to me “oh! They have great coffee in Guatemala, don’t they?” and, knowing I’m an addict, “You’ll love it there!”

You see, Guatemalan coffee that we buy in the US… is just that. Bought in the US. Therefore, exported from Guatemala, and no longer available in Guatemala. Why? Because the finca-owners will make more money if they sell it in the United States.

Coffee in Guate is generally found in the form of water-soluable granules, which you boil with sugar or panela (a solid sweetener that comes from some sort of plant). The result is a translucent, vaguely coffee-esq liquid that is very, very sweet. I have to say, I like the taste better than Nescafé (ni-es-café, it’s not even coffee!), which is the higher-priced alternative.

Café is served with almost every meal, if you eat in a comedor (street-side restaurant) and is cheaper than soda-pop by about 2Q.

On the other hand, in places like Antigua and even Huehue, European-style coffee shops are springing up everywhere, in response mostly to increased tourism. Feeling slightly homesick from traveling alone (I really don’t like traveling alone and wish I could find someone like-minded to travel with!!) I stopped in “La Cabaña del Café” in Huehue and had a delicious Americano flavored with chocolate. They had quite the variety of coffee drinks! Whew.

I always feel a kind of moral dilemma in places like that. I mean, no one I know has worked on a coffee plantation… but does that really make it okay? (No.) In some places here (mostly in Antigua where there are lots of yuppie- gringos that ask for this sort of thing) coffee shops are catching on and offering fair-trade coffee (or at least locally and cooperatively grown coffee, which is usually fair-trade).

I made this comparison with smoking the other day, having encountered a group of gringos in Todos Santos who were all trying to quit smoking. Big tobacco vs. killing small children and other innocent people in Africa and Latin America. Which drug is worse?

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2 Responses to “Weak, Sweet Coffee”


  1. 1 Katherine September 28, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    PS. I’m reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” right now by Barbara Kingsolver. She brings up the interesting perspective of growing up in a small US-town that depended on tobacco farming… yet another strike against my addiction, and one point for small-town America? Not that I’m advocating smoking at all, since clearly the bulk of that profit goes to corporate big-wigs. But a small portion of it also allowed an entire generation to work on their family farm, build a community, and send their kids to college. Hmmm.


  1. 1 Off- Roading in a School Bus « Kati en Bici Trackback on May 19, 2008 at 1:44 pm

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