In the foothills of these volcanoes is where the Guatemala Antigua coffee grows
Last night I was invited to the launch of Starbucks’ new origin espresso, Guatemala Antigua. It’s the first time Starbucks have launched a single origin espresso across the whole of the UK and Ireland. I was curious for several reasons. One because the blend is from Guatemala, which also has a rich chocolate history that I was fortunate to explore years ago and still haven’t blogged properly about; two, it was held in the British Museum and I love interesting venues; and finally, because their attempts at filter coffee in some flagship stores have left me somewhat underwhelmed so I wanted to sample their foray into origin blends.
Coffee tasting cues
This is a medium roast bean and, interestingly, despite being promoted as an “origin espresso” it was given to us to taste as a latte (in espresso cups) and recommended as the perfect espresso for a milky drink. Because the vast majority of Starbucks drinks are sold milk-based, it makes sense they should optimise their blend for this. I am an espresso or filter coffee drinker and I have heard many times that the beans used for great black coffee are different to the ones for milky versions. The latte was actually very impressive. No burnt notes that I could detect, a faint hint of cocoa and an ever-so-mild tint of fruitcake spices. If I drank lattes I would be pleased to know that in the absence of one of the wonderful independent coffee shops, I would be able to step in to Starbucks and pick up a decent shot of caffeine. I’ll hold back on my verdict of the new blend drunk black as there wasn’t any readily available to try. The launch is an intelligent move for Starbucks with the growth of independent coffee shops almost stellar and more and more people becoming choosy in their coffee formats and origins, which might tempt people away from the green goddess, as better quality coffee becomes more readily available. It looks like coffee is following the path of wine in Britain some twenty-odd years ago.
My favourite part of the evening was the Coffee Rum Cocktail. According to the Starbucks representative, it needs a name. I think it should be StaRUMbucks. Good, no? One shot of white rum, one shot of the Antigua espresso, a dribble of sugar syrup, milk and lime juice, it was fantastic. I know, milk and lime juice together sounds wrong but it really works (in fact, it’s pretty common in ceviche, too). If I ever have a party where I want the guests to stay all night then I’ll serve these. I had to force myself not to go back for more. My body goes into hypermode with caffeine, great at the beginning of the day, not so helpful in the evening (except if you want to write a blog post right after…).
On my visit to Guatemala in late 2008 I visited these coffee plantations and processing facilities. At the time for me it was an eye opening experience; watching these red cherries be peeled, washed, fermented, washed again and dried in the sun to leave a pale green-beige nugget that only becomes the coffee bean we recognise upon roasting. It’s actually very similar to the processing of cocoa pods towards chocolate, which largely-speaking undergo all of the same processes minus the washing, and the cocoa bean is brown before roasting, as well as after. Oh, and cocoa pods are enormous compared to coffee cherries, hosting between twenty and forty seeds, to the cocoa cherry’s duo (and they are “pits” rather than “beans”, despite their appearance and their common term).
Tasting the fruit of the cocoa tree in Guatemala – the cocoa seed that becomes the bean is inside. The fruit is refreshing, sweet enough to enjoy. It’s a little like a lychee, but less perfumed.
Nowhere in the world has mechanised cocoa harvesting because at any one time on a cocoa tree you will have ripe and unripe pods as well as the flowers that the pods grow from. Harvesting by machines at today’s level of sophistication would destroy everything that was still to blossom into fully ripe fruit. On the coffee plantations in and around Antigua the fields are harvested by hand, like cocoa, to only pick the ripest coffee cherries. Keeping this component manual is also necessary due to the topography of hills and valleys, with all the 27 plantations nestled at the base of the three volcanoes around the ancient capital. A happy coincidence that greatly improves the quality of coffee.
Cocoa tree in Guatemala
My memory of Antigua is a beautiful old colonial town – it was the Spanish capital whilst they ruled Guatemala – and you could easily feel you were walking along the streets of a slightly dilapidated Seville. Many shops sold coffee and coffee souvenirs as well as locally made chocolate. These were “cocoa sticks”, cigar-sized compressions of ground cocoa beans and sugar, usually flavoured with other spices – vanilla, cinnamon, chilli, etc. – and wrapped in brightly coloured paper. Much grittier than chocolate as we know it, the sticks could be nibbled on as is, or crumbled into hot water or milk for a hot chocolate.
Back in Guatemala City I had the good fortune to be shown around by the head of the International Cocoa Cooperation of Guatemala. Jorge took me to visit areas of the city I would never have ventured on my own, and introduced me to the chocolate maker widely-regarded as the best in town. In many buildings across the city there are rudimentary grinding machines that look decades, if not centuries, old and locals bring their maize or their cocoa beans and they are ground into cocoa powder or cornmeal. Many of the “shops” also process the beans further into slabs or cakes of the traditional chocolate. The US company, Taza, produces something that approximates this. Even though it lacks the smooth melt that can make you melt yourself with pleasure, the crunch of the sugar in these rustic versions actually becomes rather addictive. The little bodegas will also process the maize further into tortillas. The machines are also available to rent, so rather than leave the ingredients with the managers, you settle in with your helpers (usually children) to work the machines to make the core of your dinner and dessert.
Sadly the rest of my pictures from Guatemala relating to chocolate and coffee are on a computer that I no longer have the cable for. It was a stunning country to visit. My strongest recommendation would be to not pack too much in, allow yourself the opportunity to linger in every area you visit, or else go with a tour group where you can relax in their organised plans. In the meantime, you could always get yourself to Starbucks from April 3rd and see if their new espresso might escort you on a mini mind-vacation. One can hope.
Semuc Champney in Guatemala, from above
Semuc Champney in Guatemala, in the midst of the rapids