The Best Part of Waking Up

Good God, these beans can’t be beat. I love my Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, but the beans roasted in El Salvador and Guatemala are purely addicting. It’s like thinking that a Hershey’s bar is the best chocolate you’ve tasted, until one day you try a Ghirardelli truffle dusted with 80% cocoa powder. You’ll never go back.

The volcanoes that dot El Salvador and Guatemala mean that the soil in the highlands is rich in nutrients and minerals. The mangoes taste sweeter, the coffee is richer, and the tomatoes are juicier. Let’s focus just on the coffee, though: It’s not just the dark soils that make the coffee beans here the best in the world; coffee cherries are hand-selected by farmers who oversee their crops with a discerning eye and an invested pride in what they bring to factories.

In El Salvador, I was invited to visit a coffee factory. Well, OK – I requested it and then was promptly granted my wish! I was escorted by the village policemen to a bare-bones factory in Nahuizalco’s high-altitude hills; what a great peek into an arduous process that I take for granted each morning! From the initial step of coffee beans brought by farmers to this factory, to the second husking, the workers here take pride in the coffee that’s enjoyed world-wide.
More than once, it was mentioned with a beaming smile that one of the beans harvested in the very hills of Nahuizalco won an international coffee competition in the States last year. I was shown 50-lb bags of coffee beans that cost more than $80 per pound when exported and sold in Europe and the States!

So here’s what happens behind the scenes: first, coffee beans are brought to the factory by farmers. They are weighed and graded based on this scale:

And then given a certificate:

The beans are then washed and soaked so that the husking process is easier.

The beans pass through this machine for the first husking:

I was surprised by the quality control at this factory. The workers here take genuine pride in producing the world’s finest coffee, and when I asked about cross-contamination (mixing beans from one quality grade with beans of another grade), they said it never happens. Each quality level has its own washing kennel and husking machine; almost like a kosher kitchen.

After the first husking, the beans are dried. The factory had a very organized system of separating the beans according to quality level on the huge cement platform.

You can see that the beans are separated according to grade. Each step of the coffee bean process at this factory was as strict as a Korean army’s regimen – but not merely because it was mandated. The workers here each spoke fondly of coffee beans, proud that they were a part of creating the finest coffee beans in the world.

After drying, the beans are taken to this massive machine that husks them a second time.

They’re then bagged into massive sacks and taken to another factory to be roasted. So this is only half of the process!

When I left El Salvador and crossed over to Guatemala, the coffee got even better. I know, I know – impossible, huh? After all, according to the coffee factory workers I met, Salvadoran beans had won an international competition and were renowned as the best in the world! But Guatemalan beans just made you feel like dancing and becoming a coffee cupper (professional coffee taster and connoisseur).
Maybe it’s because the coffee plantations in Guatemala are at a higher altitude? Maybe I was biased because I loved the culture and the people of Guatemala more than El Salvador? Or maybe it’s because I discovered a tiny café by my hostel run by a 3-toothed Guatemalan abuelita who charged less than 4 Quetzales each hit of caffeine? Whatever the reason, I wound up sipping café con leche at 6 am and at 9 pm. I couldn’t get enough!

So now, as I’m cramming coffee beans bought at the markets into my red backpack, I’m almost dreading going back to Starbuck’s coffee. And in the back of my mind, I’m seriously wondering how to export the volcanic soils here in Guatemala can be exported to the States.

By the way, these professional coffee cuppers are amazing, and not at all different from French sommeliers who describe the subtle undertone of a wine based on the region, the year, the aging process...I better stop talking like I know my wines. Coffee connoisseurs can distinguish the differences in altitude of the coffee fields, the hand selection of the best beans, and the sun-drying and fermentation processes. Another reason to buy Guatemalan beans? The coffee sector is the largest creator of jobs for both genders here in Guatemala!

Click here to view photos from my trip to El Salvador and Guatemala!
And here to read other stories from my adventures in Central America!

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