Pensativo - The Thoughtful Coffee
Guatemala is known for its beautiful coffee and its dramatic volcanoes. Many of them are dormant or extinct but of the 37 or so, there are three active volc...
Pensativo - The Thoughtful Coffee
Guatemala is known for its beautiful coffee and its dramatic volcanoes. Many of them are dormant or extinct but of the 37 or so, there are three active volcanoes. The most active is the aptly named Fuego.
Blooms of Smoke & Blossom
I first saw Fuego on a beautiful spring morning as the sun came up over a coffee farm in Pacaya. It was gently blowing smoke rings into the sunrise. Its sister volcano, Agua, slept on into the glorious morning. We set off early to walk the farm, well before breakfast. As the day quickly warmed up we picked up the heavy scent of coffee blossom and the gentle murmur of bees. They were busily pollinating next season’s crop for us. In amongst the coffee trees the humming of the bees drowned out the occasional rumble of Fuego. It was shaking off the dandruff of ash from its sloping shoulders.
Coffee Farming Families
Amongst the bushes we first heard, then saw, occasional troupes of workers emerging out of the woods. They were steadily going about the constant job of pruning and mulching. Later that morning we visited the classroom on the farm and the kids saw the opportunity for distraction. This cohort could be amongst the last generation of coffee farmers. The teacher was seeing dwindling classes, as more families leave their mountain home for the city.
The silhouette of the twin volcanos were ever present on the skyline wherever we went. It was familiar to us from the stencils on our sacks of coffee back home but now endowed with greater meaning. We nervously checked the horizon to see if Fuego was still awake. Back on the road again we left the coffee highlands on tracks that saw little traffic. We made our way through lowland settlements on smooth highways before climbing again into patches of organically farmed rainforest.
Echoes of the Mayans
We drove past the faded splendour of an old coffee haçienda and on to see the elegant sun-drying patios in the flat spaces between the hills. The lowland farmers were practising the dubious art of slash and burn. Through the smoking sugar cane stubble we could glimpse the occasional giant frame of the sacred Saiba tree. Even today it can never be felled. This is a legacy of the ancient Mayan civilisation, now enshrined in modern Guatemalan law. Such is the lasting sense of respect commanded by these leviathans of the forest.
Selecting the Best
At the cupping lab in the Fedecocagua warehouse, Gustavo, surely the loudest whistler in the world of coffee, had prepared our cupping table for us. Belying his auditory flamboyance lies a deep expertise of these coffees.
He’s been cupping here for 30 years. So when Gustavo highlights certain farms, they're likely to be the best of the best. His is a palate so finely tuned to his terroir that we trust its veracity and wouldn't presume to question it. These are farms that had been singled out for us. Segregated from the basket of coffees that usually go through this huge mill. They are the ones deserving of special treatment, higher prices and value added for a job well done. I was drawn to one in particular, with the beguiling name of ‘Pensativo’ - meaning: Thoughtful…
A Volcanic History
We stopped overnight in Antigua, Old Guatemala City, itself the victim of volcanic destruction in colonial times. They moved the capital out of the so-called ring of fire to build Nueva Guatemala. The next morning we set off for another large wet mill, heading ever closer to Acetenango and even closer to Fuego.
And so, we arrived at Pensativo, a place of grazing cattle, ordered patios and thoughtful farmers. The question hanging in the air, like the smoke venting way above us, was: "What’s it like living under the shadow of an active volcano?"
Business as Usual
One farmer, closest to Fuego, had already replaced the majority of his crop just recently, when the wind changed direction, dropping ash on his farm. The received wisdom was that as long as it kept on puffing on a regular basis, it was business as usual. It was when it stopped that the worrying starts…
Later that same year at 12.00pm on 4th June 2018 when we were visiting coffee farms in Rwanda we heard the devastating news. After a pause in activity, the pent up fury of the Volcàn de Fuego violently erupted. It sent a destructive pyroclastic flow 40km from the crater.
1.7 million people were affected by toxic clouds of sulphurous micro pumice.
12,823 homes were evacuated.
3,613 were left homeless.
5,098 coffee families were displaced.
110 people were killed.
200 are still missing.
9,420 hectares of land were devastated.
The cavernous Acetenango warehouse that we visited, now housed huge supplies of relief aid. Enough supplies to cater for over 300 of the worse affected local families for 6 months. The many tragic personal stories behind these stark statistics are those of people we have met working on the farms and mills that supply us.
We joined in the coffee industry's relief effort over the summer and contributed a generous sum from sales of this coffee. We thank all our loyal customers for supporting us in this. Our modest efforts contribute to a bigger picture that can have a real impact.
Now, with Pensativo in our own warehouse, we have the actual coffee from the immediate vicinity affected by the Fuego eruption. So, as you enjoy the soft nectarine fruit notes of your morning coffee and the lovely custard-creme biscuit mouthfeel, the pleasant low acidity and the joyous toffee apple finish, spare a moment to think of those stoic communities around Pensativo. Those who are even now picking themselves up and literally dusting themselves off, to start all over again.