Coffee from Guatemala
In Guatemala coffee grows in the heart of what was once the center of the Great Mayan Civilization. The Maya ruled this region of Central America from around 2500 B.C. until the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in mid 1500 A.D.
Coffee arrived in Central America from the Caribbean around 1700 and local cultivation began shortly after. Commercial export of coffee from Guatemala did not begin until the mid 1800's as the square-rigged sailing ships of the day could only travel downwind. The trade winds blew the ships across the Atlantic toward the coast of Central America, but there was no easy way to sail back east. The advent of clipper ships around 1850, which could point higher into the wind, made commercial exports possible.
In order to export Guatemalan coffee the small growers expanded into full-scale production. This led to a land war of sorts and the larger plantations took over the smaller ones, sometimes by buying them out and sometimes by force. In Guatemala coffee growing land is in small supply, being that the country is about the size of a small U.S. state.
The larger plantations, or fincas, were owned mostly by wealthy descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors who viewed the native Maya people as inferior. They quickly enslaved large populations of Mayans to work on the Guatemala coffee farms. As you may expect they did not submit voluntarily and a bloody resistance ensued.
In 1877 the Guatemala government passed a law that made it easier for foreigners to get land, granting exemptions for taxes and import duties on machinery and tools. Many Germans fleeing the political unrest in their country took advantage of the opportunity and set up operations to grow, process and export coffee from Guatemala. The German influence had a very positive effect on the coffee industry in Guatemala. The Germans brought capital and modernization to a poor and under developed country. They financed the construction of a railroad from the mountainous interior to the sea to transport coffee. They built sea ports for the ships and processing plants that were previously unavailable to smaller growing operations.
The Germans also treated the Mayan workers better, paying them for their labor, not as much as they would pay non-Mayan workers but it was definitely an improvement. This however, caused dissent among the Spanish plantation owners who were used to getting their labor for free. The Spanish tried to lobby the government to pass laws that made paying the Mayan illegal but they were unsuccessful.
Today, coffee from Guatemala is highly respected among aficionados and is prized for its smooth character, balanced acidity and full flavor.
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