In Depth

Guatemala coffee atlas to fight fake gourmet beans

ACATENANGO, Guatemala (Reuters) - Farmers from this lush valley between two Guatemalan volcanoes have made extra cash for years by pretending their coffee is from Antigua, a neighboring region famous for its chocolaty tasting beans.

“The intermediaries sell ripe coffee from Acatenango as if it is from Antigua. It’s a problem all along the chain,” said Luis Pedro Zelaya, president of the Genuine Antigua Coffee Growers Association (APCA).

Some 100,000 60-kg bags of coffee were sold as Antigua last year -- about double the 50,000 bags produced in the area around the famous Spanish colonial tourist town, APCA said.

Anacafe, Guatemala’s grower association, is battling impostors, using satellite mapping, soil analysis and weather records to produce a “coffee atlas.”

The atlas will define eight distinct coffee regions. Modeled on “appellations” used to distinguish fine wines, it would register each region to satisfy a gourmet market that wants to know exactly where and how coffee is grown.

Similar projects that have sprung up around Central America include the Tarrazu region in Costa Rica and the Selva Negra estate in Honduras. Guatemala’s is the first program to divide an entire country according to coffee growing regions.

“If a buyer is interested in coffee from a specific region, we can say this farm exists, it produces this much and you can’t sell more coffee than this area produces,” said Anacafe president Jose Angel Lopez.

Antigua’s valley floor between three volcanoes is 5,000 feet above sea level. The coffee growing region is one of Guatemala’s oldest.

Its volcanic soil, low year-round humidity, shallow water table, sunny days and cool nights, help produce a coffee that cuppers say has a balanced body with pronounced acidity, a rich aroma and overtones of spice and chocolate.

Acatenango producers say their coffee, grown at similar altitudes in rich volcanic soil, can hold its own against beans grown in Antigua. Last week Anacafe inaugurated the Acatenango region to allow them to promote their beans separately.

“If you can create a demand for coffee from Acatenango, a market with higher prices, then maybe there will be less temptation to sell it as Antigua coffee,” said Zelaya.

The goal is to market specialty coffee that can be sold at a premium. Antigua coffee sells at several cents per pound above the C-market price in New York.

Some wonder if buyer interest is sufficient to justify the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the project.

“The majority of roasters are not too concerned with these types of initiatives,” said one Guatemalan exporter. “They are looking more at price. I don’t think it will be that easy to sell the coffee. Only a few producers will benefit.”


Regions with well-defined flavor characteristics can become powerful marketing tools, and producer nations want more control over how their coffee is sold abroad.

Ethiopia recently clashed with the U.S. National Coffee Association (NCA), after the U.S. Patent Office blocked efforts to trademark the Sidamo and Harar growing regions.

The U.S. group opposed Ethiopia’s bid, claiming on its Web site “that trademarking a geographical indicator is contrary to United States law.”

British charity Oxfam says Starbucks Corp. was behind the NCA’s move because the coffee giant wanted to patent its own variety called Shirkina Sun-Dried Sidamo. Starbucks rejected the allegations and the NCA denies the cafe chain influenced their position.

Oxfam claims the move kept African farmers from potential income of over $90 million.

Five Central American countries are discussing possible standards to set up and enforce appellations. Still, many Guatemalan farmers in Acatenango remain skeptical about the scheme, and it remains to be seen whether growers stop putting beans in bags labeled Antigua.

“They say our coffee will get higher prices now, but so far we haven’t seen anything,” said Domingo del Pilar Marroquin, vice president of a farmer cooperative in the valley. “Most of the time there are a lot of promises and few results.”