When we learned South Pasadena innkeeper Pat Wright was traveling to Guatemala with coffee maven Mireya Jones, we asked her to brew up a travelog on her return.
BY: Pat Wright
PHOTOS: Benjamin James and Merrilee Fellows
Mireya Jones was born in Guatemala but emigrated to the United States as a child. The proprietress of Jones Coffee Roasters, Mireya is a smart cosmopolitan businesswoman with a charitable heart. Several times a year, along with her husband Larry, Jones leads a group of around 12 people on a tour of the country, beginning and ending in Guatemala City. Jones remains deeply connected to her roots, and is involved in a number of charities that help the people of her home country. This authentic connection, along with an extensive family and coffee importing network, allows Mireya and Larry Jones to provide a unique insiders view of an often unconsidered area of the globe, for those lucky enough to accompany them. This year, I was one of those who had that pleasure.
Guatemala is a small country of 52,000 square miles, roughly the size of Tennessee, with nearly three times the population of that state. More than one quarter of Guatemala’s people, 4.5 million of them, live in the capital, Guatemala City—where our adventure began and ended 10 days later. But not before we received some invaluable lessons in the local history and architecture from Larry, delivered in his own inimitable style, while Mireya (and the amazing people she introduced us to) graced us with a priceless lifetime of their coffee expertise. And the fabrics! Guatemala is known for the quality of its hand loomed fabrics, a well-earned reputation as we discovered. As with the fabrics themselves, all along the route, stories of coffee growing, fabric making and Guatemalan history were woven into our travels. We learned a lot in those 10 days, soaking up the rich culture and learning about the care that goes into growing our daily caffeine fix.
When it comes to coffee, you should know there are two basic types, Arabica and Robusta. Robusta grows on trees, is much easier to grow and has a much higher yield. It has a strong root system and produces a denser, generally less desirable flavor. It is mostly used for instant coffee or cost reduction in blends. Arabica is generally grown on bushes. It is a more delicate plant and more sensitive to pests and disease. Robusta is higher in caffeine but Arabica has 60 percent more lipids and twice as much sugar as Robusta, which may explain Arabica’s popularity.
Even today, cultivation remains an unmechanized process. The plants require careful tending, and when the beans are ripe they are picked by hand. Once picked, the beans are allowed to dry in the sun for days and raked regularly to circulate the air and promote dehydration, before being bagged in those burlap sacks that ultimately end up hanging as props in nearly every trendy mall shop that sells denim.
But this vibrant place wasn’t all coffee, we got a taste of the rest of the country as well. We crossed Lake Atitlán, the second largest in Guatemala, in a small boat, to visit the towns of Santiago, Maximón and San Juan La Laguna. We saw beautiful fabrics being made against the backdrop of the lake and volcanic mountains, one of which was going off! A few days later, we set off for Chichicastenango, Antigua and finally, Finca Pastores, a classically beautiful hacienda now owned by a German family in the coffee business, where we were treated like royalty.
Along the way, I learned that Guatemala’s coffee is deeply influenced by the large variety of microclimates, much as grapes are similarly affected in North America’s premier wine regions. Altitude affects taste, specifically, acidity, mouth feel or tingle. Soil affects the aroma of the coffee while climate affects the body (the texture and physical “mouth feel”). Since Guatemala has a range of growing locations with different elevations, soils, rainfall, humidity and amounts of sun versus shade, a multitude of different styles of coffees are produced.
Mireya’s family coffee comes from the volcanic slopes of the San Marcos region. The farm, known as “Dos Mireyas,” produces a coffee known for its sweet, floral notes. For the true aficionado, with an appreciation for nuance, the range of coffee available across Guatemala is truly stunning. As is the range of eye-opening experiences the country offers for those seeking an educational thrill.
For those unable to travel thousands of miles to experience the country’s wondrous culture and fine coffee, Pasadenans can get a small taste of Guatemala for themselves at Jones Coffee on Raymond Avenue.