It was the density of coffee shops that surprised us most when we slipped out of our second-story apartment and onto the Saturday-morning streets of Antigua, Guatemala. Cafés of every caliber and style lined the streets in a concentration rarely rivaled in the world. From any spot within the ten-street-by-ten-street city center, you are likely to see a long line of patrons of a refined coffee chain, a local roaster proudly claiming to serve 100 percent Guatemalan coffee, and a mom-and-pop shop with bags from American coffee roasters displayed like precious artifacts—all without turning your head.
That was a surprise, but we expected surprises because the two of us—Lance Neffendorf, the owner of Yellow House Coffee in Lubbock, Texas, and me, his faithful employee—were unsure what the day would contain. We knew we had been invited by Finca Bella Vista to stay in an apartment for a week in Antigua at their expense. We knew we would be working in the farm’s café in the city. We knew we would get to visit the farm one of the days of our trip.
That was about it.
The Bella Vista café was about a fifteen-minute walk from our apartment. Lance and I walked oddly close. The sidewalks were barely thick enough for a single file line. Windowsills poked into the walking space, and my shoulder got intimate with one when I dared to look across the street instead of straight forward. The close weaving of impatient cars and pedestrians left us unsure who possessed the right-of-way. Despite only twenty-three thousand permanent residents, Antigua is a city of hustle and bustle.
We arrived at Bella Vista Café and meekly entered, feeling very much like new employees. The barista saw us, smiled, pointed, and said in English, “Barista? Coffee barista?”
“Yes. Si. Uh, no hablo Español.”
Her smile widened, as if she had anticipated what we would say, and she waved us behind the bar. It took us a few minutes, but we eventually learned each other’s names. Hers was Karina. I queued Google Translate on my phone.
Of the three baristas on the Bella Vista café team, only Marleny knew any English. She is twenty-two years old, the mother of two, and works mornings and evenings. Hilda also raises two children and has the unfailing smile of a close friend. Karina is the lead barista, business-minded and clever.
Lance and I alternated shifts after that first day. One of us would work six hours in the morning, and the other would work six hours in the evening. The morning brought a mood of excitement and hurry as under-caffeinated travelers and workers came in for their regular coffee. The afternoon saw fewer sales, and the occasional rain caused us all to take slower, deeper breaths.
Alongside the baristas, Lance and I served customers, talked about coffee cultures of Texas and Guatemala, and delved into the mysteries of espresso extraction as much as our language barrier would allow. Before the end of my first shift, a pattern became clear: few Guatemalans came in for coffee each day. For the most part, the native Guatemalans were behind the counters of the multi-retail space that Bella Vista Café occupied. The baristas of the café, the cashier of the liquor store, and the computer saleswoman were the only locals we saw regularly.
After a few days of talking about drink recipes, Spanish verb tenses, and daily commutes to the café, I finally asked the question that had been bugging me since earlier that morning: why aren’t there more Guatemalans drinking our coffee?
Karina confirmed my suspicions that very few of the patrons were Antiguan. “We have some local clients,” Karina told me, “but most are foreigners, especially during high-season.”
Antigua’s cobblestone streets shook and swayed me as I rode toward Finca Bella Vista in the back of an old red truck. It was only nine in the morning, but beads of sweat trickled down my neck. Volcán Fuego released a heart-shaped cloud of ash far in the distance. I tried to take in the sheet metal homes of the villages, but my attention was seized away as tall estate walls gave way to the farms around Antigua and forests of coffee trees.
Arabica coffee trees often look thin and scrawny compared to their robusta cousins. Fewer stalks and leaves condition them to invest more in their seeds and cherries for the sake of generational preservation. This approach to species survival is largely responsible for the compelling flavors found in arabica beans. Though the harvest had ended and few cherries remained, the shrubs were unmistakable.
Pictures don’t give justice to the hues of green coffee plants swaying in the breeze beneath tall trees that offer the understory and forest floor a gentle shade. Workers in the fields stumped and pruned the plants. Stacks of firewood lined the trails. Shirtless teenagers hauled large bags of coffee beans to and from the warehouse. Sweat covered their skin. Tattered shoes held loosely to their feet.
Volcán Fuego released a heart-shaped cloud of ash far in the distance. I tried to take in the sheet metal homes of the villages, but my attention was seized away as tall estate walls gave way to the farms around Antigua and forests of coffee trees.
Melanie Herrera, a newer administrator of Finca Bella Vista and the organizer of our journey to Guatemala, halted the truck to greet each worker we passed. Her generous smile and whimsical laugh were inspiring. As we walked through tall aisles of green coffee bags, a worker stopped us to ask her about her day and meet us. Then another, and another.
In the old office building Melanie had arranged a cupping for us that featured coffees from a variety of farms and micro-lots in the area. Some were sweet and sugary; others were bright with citrus. All of them were good.
“I didn’t know coffee could taste so wonderful until I came to Finca Bella Vista,” she told us as we strolled down a path in the coffee forest. “Before I got to cup our coffee for the first time, I only drank instant coffee like everyone else in Guatemala. Most Guatemalans cannot afford to buy good coffee, and the ones that can don’t know about it or are satisfied with the usual.”
The coffee plants were just as incredible as I imagined they would be, but it was the workers—the heat, their shoes, the labor—that I couldn’t get out of my mind on the drive back.
The gentle flow of foreigners looking for a glass of cold-brew and relief from the hovering sun brought life to the Bella Vista café. A New York couple asked for wine recommendations. A woman’s dog barked at the liquor store attendant as they walked to the third floor patio. A bearded man inquired about the mocha latte ingredients. The regulars would ask how Guatemala was treating us that particular day. Every day the response was the same: the sun is hot, but the coffee is delicious.
I loaded the portafilter into the Aurelia II espresso machine. Droplets of espresso fell into the white ceramic cup; then a steady stream of brown and gold formed. Marleny poured the steamed milk into the cup and a symmetrical Christmas tree appeared. She looked up with wide eyes and a smile, and she proudly passed the cappuccino over to the customer. Our practice together was paying off.
During the time between customers, sometimes a gap of hours, we talked about latte art and coffee flavor notes. Lance wrote up a cleaning schedule for the espresso machine during one of his shifts, and our Chemex technique was somehow fascinating to the other baristas. Though learning about each other’s culture was insightful and the coffee talk entertaining, relying so heavily on Google Translate to communicate was dispiriting at times. Despite this, our relationships grew amid the poor translations and embarrassed laughs.
“What did you feel,” I asked Karina one day, “when you heard you would be working with baristas from other nations?” After a few Spanish words I couldn’t understand, she asked Marleny to translate.
“In the beginning I was nervous because I did not know much about coffee,” she said. “Now I have learned quite a bit. We learn a lot from the visiting baristas, and we feel at home when meeting them now.”
“What’s Finca Bella Vista’s goal for this café in Antigua?” I asked.
Karina spoke to Marleny, who said,“The idea is to introduce great coffee from Finca Bella Vista to Guatemalans who wouldn’t get to taste it normally. The Guatemalan market will come to appreciate this level of quality.”
The road to the next farm we visited cut a winding route, but was paved. Tall trees swayed in the wind and framed the arch and gate that opened onto Finca Retana. The wide double door opened and a thick forest appeared. Coffee plants stood in neat rows. The individual plants were thin and meek, but the foliage of the collective forest laced together, dense. Towering above the coffee shrubs stood thin, tall trees that formed a swaying canopy. The cool air was a welcomed change as we walked down endless rows of shrubbery while Herrera pointed out the differences between varieties of coffee plants.
An unexpected odor resembling sour wine filled the air as we walked around the mill. The closer to the vegetable gardens we walked, the fouler the stench became. We rounded a corner and the source of our nasal misery was revealed: a fermenting pile of coffee cherries.
“We reuse everything that we can,” Herrera explained. “Composting the cherries is a great way to grow red worms. Together, they make a great fertilizer.” She picked one of the worms off the pile and poked at it. “This is origin,” she said. “Dirt and low wages. This is origin.”
I asked, “If there was one thing about origin that most people don’t understand, what would it be?”
There was no hesitation from Herrera. “Most people don’t understand the role of the people at origin. When you see pictures of coffee plants and farms and cuppings, what you miss is the human side.”
Two men down the road piled large stacks of firewood into the bed of a truck. The farm manager guiding us through the mill wiped at his forehead with a handkerchief.
“The baristas that visit are all surprised at the working and living conditions of laborers, even at the farms that are known to take better care of them,” Herrera said. “Many of the laborer’s kids that grow up on the farm will be laborers here when they grow up. Many of them won’t get to go to school for as long as they could in the city.”
We rounded a corner and saw a large concrete patio dedicated to drying the coffee beans. Though it was barren, it was grand.
“That’s why we created the Bella Vista café and the guest barista program, because we ultimately want to be able to provide our workers with a better life,” she said. “I would like, one day, to be able to open schools on all the farms in the region for the local kids. With more educated workers, I think we could produce better coffee and be able to provide higher wages.
Most people don’t understand the role of the people at origin. When you see pictures of coffee plants and farms and cuppings, what you miss is the human side.
“To do all of this, we need to convince Guatemalans that they should be drinking better coffee, and bringing in baristas from other countries and cultures gives our baristas a unique chance to learn and grow. It all boils down to this: consumption creates labor and higher wages for people to have a living.”
The trail back to the estate house and the truck was wide, but the wide cover of the shade-tree canopy defended us from a gentle rain.
“I know everybody complains that coffee is so expensive around the world, but when you travel to origin and see the human side of things, you realize why the price needs to be higher,” Herrera said.
The rain intensified, so we took our final pictures and said goodbye to the Finca Retana staff. As we left the shelter of the trees, the rain hit heavy and loud on the windshield.
We passed more homes made of metal sheets and kids splashing in puddles, and Herrera’s humbling words replayed in my head: “Most people miss the human side.”
Friendships are difficult to cultivate when you only know only twenty of the same words, but there’s something about coffee that enables relationships to blossom when they are unlikely. I searched for meaningful ways to say, “We will miss you,” and, “It was nice to get to know you.” But when we were dropped off in front of the café to say goodnight to our friends for the final time, all the translations left me.
—Garret Oden is a barista at Yellow House Coffee in Lubbock, Texas.