A Cup half empty or half full? The Meaning of Coffee for Guatemalan Producers and North American Consumers.
by Karina Gonzalez Soto

Every morning millions of people get up to a fresh brewed cup of coffee . Thesecoffee lovers know that their favourite beverage will help them wake up, stay up, and remain alert. They do not know however, about the long and tortorous path coffee must take in order to reach their cups.

Coffee is one of the most important traded commodities in the world, ranking second, after oil. For the Western world, coffee is a beverage that is enjoyed because of its taste, which varies in intensity, as well as its relatively low price. Since the early 1970’s, the growing consumption of coffee has brought about a global “coffee culture” which varies depending on whether it is approached from the angle of a coffee consuming society, or a coffee producing society. Coffee culture in the Western world is about enjoying the experience of consuming or drinking coffee. This is evidenced by the number of coffee houses we now find in most major North American cities. These coffee houses specialize in creating contexts for the “experience” of drinking a particular blend or flavour of coffee. The décor found in these coffee houses invites the drinker to sit down and take the time to enjoy a cup of coffee, and maybe even buy some ground coffee to go, as well as other accessories, such as, cups or coffee pots, so that the same coffee experience may be enjoyed at home. In the end, the experience becomes the product (Fine and Leopold, 1993;198).

Most coffee consumers in the Western world are unaware of the long and arduous labour intensive process, growing coffee entails. In coffee producing countries, this labour intensive process is what defines their “coffee culture”.

Last year, I travelled to Guatemala, during the month of September, in order to learn about the long route coffee must travel before it reaches the Western world, well as the different kind of coffee culture in its native land. Guatemala ranks third as a producer of Arabica beans worldwide, behind Colombia and Mexico. Coffee in Guatemala is more than a beverage, it is the country’s number one export, followed by sugar and cotton, and it produces the country’s highest return. But in the countryside, coffee farmers or “caficultores”, do not think of these economic issues and how coffee affects Guatemala’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). On the contrary, coffee farmers grow coffee because it is a way of living, surviving and because it is what their ancestors have left them. Growing coffee is a long painstaking job that allows most farmers to reap the benefits of their harvests no earlier than two years after the original planting of a coffee tree; and only if the right climatic conditions have been available during this long process.Once the coffee berries are picked, they embark on a series of steps that prepare them forexport to the Western world.

The conventional route of coffee from tree to cup, starts with the farmer selling to the local middleman, who sells to the processor, and soon through the exporter, the broker, the importer, the roaster, the retailer; and finally reaches the consumer. In the case where the farmer is not a small-scale producer, but rather a large-scale producers, also known as a plantation owner, it is the poor peasants or “indigenous” people who do the picking and receive only a pittance for the sacks of red coffee berries they pick.In addition, small-scale coffee farmers are only able to obtain a small fraction of what their harvests will generate abroad, because their production is relatively small when compared to a plantation owner. There are however, fair-trade movements that have tried to adjust the price small scale farmers obtain for their coffee , to a more “just” fraction. This “just” price is based on a minimum which is paid to the coffee farmers, even when the international market dictates a lower price. In addition, the price of coffee on the international market fluctuates and in cases where the price has been above the set minimum, fair-trade movements will match the higher price. The reasoning behind such movements is that small-scale farmers have far less access to fertilizers, machinery and even capital, to invest in their crops, thereby rendering the process of growing coffee a more arduous process, than it is for the plantation owner. Such fair-trade movements include: Equiterre, Equal Exchange and Global Exchange to name a few.

These movements are designed to work in a cooperative structure, which enables their members to obtain a higher price for their harvests, through bypassing many intermediary traders. The route of coffee from tree to cup through a fair-trade organization starts with the farmer selling to the cooperative, then on to the importer, the roaster, the retailer; and finally the consumer. Still, both small scale farmers and plantation owners, are aware of everything that affects their product on the world market, and the fierce competition other producers generate.

Coffee culture in the producing societies has been affected by the recent arrival of Vietnam as a coffee producing country. In the year 2000, Vietnam dramatically increased its production of Robusta beans, which it to become the world’s number one producer of Robusta beans by the year 2001, surpassing Brazil. Vietnam’s over production of Robusta beans has created a crisis within the coffee industry, bringing the price of coffee to an all time record low, thereby affecting every single coffee producer world wide. Due to this crisis, many countries are looking to new ways to save their coffee crops, or have begun to replace their coffee crops with other crops, such as fruits or vegetables to export. However, in other countries, such as in Guatemala, farmers have decided to try to find new ways to survive in the coffee industry, and to find an advantage in order to maintain their competitiveness in the market.

While in Guatemala, I was able to meet with different coffee farmers from different regions of the country, and was able to obtain information about the meaning coffee has in their lives, as well as what kind of role they feel they play in the coffee industry worldwide, especially during the crisis. As mentioned earlier, Guatemalan coffee farmers grow coffee because it is a way of surviving; it is what they do, and it is what their ancestors have left them.

From the different groups I interviewed, no one characterized growing coffee as an entrepreneurial venture, or as something that was relatively new to them. These coffee farmers had inherited their land from their parents, and growing coffee had been a way of life for their parents and grandparents as well. Today, however, Guatemalan coffee farmers do not grow coffee with the same way of thinking as their ancestors did. They now think of the different methods of intervention and care that can increase the likelihood of producing a high quality coffee bean. Guatemalan coffee farmers are aware of the different altitudes where coffee can be grown in Guatemala, and what types of quality beans are produced accordingly therefore. Coffee farmers are now paying close attention at the particular demands the Western world is placing on their product as well. As mentioned before, the coffee culture of the West is now looking to enjoy different types of coffee blends that may “transport” the consumer experientially. Most of these blends are made of Arabica and Robusta beans combined together, and so it is almost impossible to obtain a particular blend that may only contain Arabica beans. The process of creating blends takes place under the direction of a roaster, and so it has become a priority for Guatemalan coffee farmers to produce some of the best quality Arabica beans available in the market, in order to ensure a sale for their crops.

Most coffee farmers in Guatemala either belong to a foreign fair-trade organization, local cooperative or association that looks out for their interests in the same way fair-trade does. These cooperatives or associations receive knowledge and training through workshops set up by the Guatemalan National Coffee Association (ANACAFÉ), whose main purpose is to oversee the welfare of Guatemala’s most important export.These workshops provide knowledge concerning the improvement of current methods of caring for coffee trees, which are based on hearsay that has been passed from generation to generation; and introducing more scientific and organic methods of tending trees.During my stay in Guatemala, I was fortunate to participate in one of these workshops given by ANACAFÉ. During the workshop I was able to test my knowledge concerning the different altitude levels that produce different quality beans, as well as the different smells of different diseases that may attack coffee trees, and are in fact discernible in the final product, unless eradicated. These are a few examples of the type of sophisticated knowledge that Guatemalan coffee farmers are willing to learn to improve their crops, with the help of ANACAFÉ. However, one of the most interesting statements was brought forth by the main speaker at the beginning of the workshop; he stated: “…si el café no sale bueno, no le hechen la culpa a Dios. Es uno el culpable, por malos habitos debidos al tradicionalismo, y al costumbrismo. Eso se puede arreglar. No olviden que Dios camina contigo” (…do not blame God if your crops do not produce good quality beans. It is your own fault, for relying on traditions and bad habits. But these can be fixed and corrected. Do not forget that God is always with you).

ANACAFÉ’s purpose during the crisis is to improve the quality of coffee Guatemala produces. It stresses that in order to be a key player in the international coffee market, quality must be number one in order to obtain the best price available. ANACAFÉ adds that, today there is a lot of coffee and not enough demand, and so buyers become very picky and selective, and it is for these reasons that coffee farmers must also become very picky and selective in the methods they use, in order to obtain the best quality coffee beans.

ANACAFÉ has also undertaken an even larger task, that of extending the meaning of the term “caficultura” or “coffee culture” for Guatemala. For many years the term caficultura has referred to the process of growing, harvesting and producing coffee.Nowadays, ANACAFE is trying to extend the meaning of caficultura to include the elements which define coffee culture for the West, that is the symbolism of drinking coffee as an aesthetic experience in itself. At the ANACAFÉ workshop I attended, the speaker was quick to point out that no one was drinking coffee, but rather soft drinks. He added that in order for coffee to survive coffee farmers themselves should drink more coffee. It is with this idea in mind that ANACAFÉ has launched an entire campaign aimed at Guatemalan society to encourage them to drink more coffee, and to take pride in its own home based production. This campaign consists of different advertisements placed in bus stops or inside the pages of some local magazines, depicting a couple or a group of people enjoying a cup of coffee at a coffee house, or while studying at home. At the same time, these advertisements remind us to “drink pure Guatemalan coffee , the best coffee in the world”. In addition, ANACAFÉ has come up with a logo that will help consumers recognize Guatemalan coffee anywhere in the world, in the same way that
Colombia utilized the “Juan Valdez” logo for its national coffee . This logo consists of a
coffee bean circled by the phrase “100% Pure Guatemalan Coffee.” This particular logo is also recognized as “the symbol of purity”, due to the fact that it will be used only by those roasters in Guatemala who pass regular inspections.

ANACAFÉ’s advertisement depicting the coffee bean logo,
encouraging people to: “Drink pure Guatemalan coffee, the
best coffee in the world”.
In: “El Cafetal: La Revista del Caficultor”. 2001.


Also, ANACAFE’s idea of a Guatemalan coffee logo was created in order to increase local coffee consumption. This idea was based on a similar program introduced in Brazil a short while ago, which led that country to become its own second largest coffee consumer, following the United States. ANACAFÉ is urging the Guatemalan population to “…drink the best coffee in the world. Drink it with milk, as a cappuccino, espresso, Irish, brulé, or Russian. It is not so important which way you drink it; as long as you drink 100% pure Guatemalan coffee”. ANACAFÉ has also invited restaurants, and any other place that serves coffee to take part in this campaign, because everybody stands to gain. One the biggest responses has come from McDonald’s restaurants in Guatemala, which have supported the campaign to drink 100% pure Guatemala coffee. Mc Donald’s has also introduced a frozen coffee beverage in a variety of flavours, it is advertised in TV commercials, as well as street billboards, and inside McDonald’s restaurants with banners and with swinging cardboard coffee beans from the ceiling. Thus this wide ranging campaign urges all Guatemalans, regardless of their economic background, to drink more coffee, and to let drinking coffee become an experience in itself, one which will allow Guatemalans to take pride in their own national product. ANACAFÉ is also trying to get Guatemalans to view drinking coffee as a social activity, rather than as an element which is part of daily nutritional values.

For years, if not centuries, Guatemalans have been drinking coffee at all times of the day. This consumption has been particularly associated, however with breakfast, “refaccion” or a snack (In countries such as Chile, “refaccion” is referred to as “tomar once” or “take eleven” ), and supper. Coffee is also given to babies to drink in their bottles, and sometimes sweet bread is dunked in it, and given to infants when they are teething. While in Guatemala I was able to ask a few coffee farmers questions pertaining to their coffee drinking habits, and most answers were similar, even though the people I interviewed came from different parts of the country, and their level of education was also different. All farmers interviewed stated that coffee was a very important part of their lives, because it is their livelihood, and because there is a market for it, a market much wider than that for vegetables, fruits and corn. Some also acknowledged growing small crops of corn and fruits and vegetables, but this was for personal consumption only.Most farmers also stated that they drink coffee at all times of day, especially in the morning and at night. In addition, most of them stated their wives being in charge of preparing coffee, of roasting it, grinding it, and boiling it. A group of farmers from a remote place called “La Esperanza” explained to me that they, the men, sometimes make the coffee, since their wives work very hard side by side with them, due to the lack of machinery, adequate electricity, and passable roads. Therefore, their wives need all the help they can get from their husbands in all the chores around the house. This same group also pointed their wives out to me, as they were walking along side of the dirt road where we were standing. Singling them out, as “their hard working wives” carrying 100 lbs sacks of coffee beans, on their way to the local benefice, or processing mill.

All coffee farmers stated having started drinking coffee when they were “very little”, and that they drink coffee at home, at any get together, in any activity, at home or anywhere else. Some also stated drinking coffee with a little sugar if they can afford the sugar, otherwise they skip the sugar, but not the coffee . And none stated drinking it with milk or any other such additive. I also asked the farmers if they believed coffee to have any medicinal qualities; one farmer in particular stated that since he lives up in the mountains, sometimes when he and his family work during the harvest season in the warmer areas of the country, his family stops drinking coffee because the heat and the hot coffee together may make them sick. Another farmer stated that people who are moreeducated tend to drink coffee to alleviate stomach aches, while another said that coffee can help alleviate nervousness and head aches. Another farmer said that “coffee can alleviate sleepiness and stop diarrhoea, but if one drinks too much it may make one sick.” Another group said that “coffee can help with the common cold, but if it’s drunk too strong it can render you sick, so much so that an operation may be needed”. Another farmer, who once travelled to Colombia, stated having read much controversy about coffee . He stated having read that “coffee can harm blood pressure and the stomach; while others claim that coffee holds many benefits. However, no one has been able to prove either side wrong, or coffee wrong”.

I was also able to ask the coffee farmers a few questions about their perceptionof Guatemala’s coffee in terms of quality, since it involves their own work, which in turn is related to the quality of Guatemalan coffee beans. I asked the farmers: “How does Guatemalan coffee compare to other coffees in the world?” Some farmers told me that they believed Guatemalan coffee to be of very good quality, and that it is able to compete with others in the world. Other farmers vehemently stated that Guatemalan coffee is the very best in the world, while comparing it to Brazil’s coffee, which they said is picked and processed using a lot of machinery, which can decrease the quality of coffee beans being picked. They further stated that Guatemalan coffee is hand picked and that a lot of hard manual labour goes into making the number one coffee in the world. Hence their belief : the less machinery involved, the better the quality of coffee produced.

I also asked them if they thought it possible to buy coffee from other countries in Guatemala. My reasoning for this particular question, was to see how much Guatemala would protect its own national product, as well as the perception farmers would have of the national industry protecting their coffee . Most farmers said it was impossible, with one claiming that it was hard to sell coffee within Guatemala, for domestic consumption, much less imported coffee .Another farmer said that he had heard of people smuggling coffee from El Salvador into Guatemala, to sell it as Guatemala coffee. A few weeks after recording the farmers’ answers to this particular question, I was not surprised to find the wide selection of coffee, available at a local mega-supermarket in Guatemala city, to be 100% Guatemalan coffee, except for Nescafe instant coffee, made in El Salvador.

Nescafe instant coffee label, indicates this product
is made in El Salvador.

I also asked the farmers whether they knew who Juan Valdez was in order to find out whether they were aware of Colombia’s extensive campaign to promote Colombian coffee worldwide. Very surprisingly, none of the farmers I spoke to knew “Juan Valdez”. One of the farmers, the same person who had traveled to Colombia, stated having heard about him, and knowing that he was a very hard worker, but could not specify in which domain. This was also an indication of the scarce availability of imported coffee in Guatemala, which the farmers had previously mentioned. I then asked the farmers, if there was a symbol that represented Guatemalan coffee; most responded with ambiguity, referring to the coffee plant or coffee bean as the symbol representing their coffee worldwide. One of the farmers stated that perhaps ANACAFÉ knew of such a logo, but that it had not yet been revealed to them.

So far, the farmers’ answers revealed that their coffee culture was about growing coffee; their competing place in the competitive coffee world market; and the harshness of being a coffee farmer in a third world country. This was reflected in their everyday living habits; such as drinking coffee without sugar when they can not afford it; entire families including children, working a plot of coffee trees together; lack of roads and access to roads; transportation; and lack of basic utilities such as phone lines and reliable electricity lines. It seems then, that the reality of coffee culture for Guatemalan coffee farmers involves their everyday life experiences, and that coffee is the product of their hard labour, and does not provide a sense of escape, as it does in the North or the West. For now, coffee does not provide an aesthetic experience for the farmers. Coffee is a constant reminder of their hard work; competition; and of the low prices affecting the market . Coffee is their livelihood, and in turn the farmers are what coffee is.

I also asked farmers some questions about their perception of the coffee consuming world abroad, to see if they believed consumers abroad had anything in common with them as coffee consumers, and in their everyday lives. I first asked if they knew the way people like to drink coffee abroad. It was very surprising that every single farmer gave a different answer. Their answers ranged from; “North Americans enjoy coffee with lots of flavour”; “dark and strong, unlike us, who drink it light with a little bit of sugar”; another said that North Americans enjoy the richest coffee in the world, because in the producing countries, it is the rejected beans which are kept for domestic consumption.

One farmer indicated that consumers abroad drink and buy their coffee the same way people do in Guatemala, that is; they buy it packed in a bag or canned, and drink it perhaps with sugar or not; emphasizing that they need to taste the coffee flavour.Another farmer indicated not knowing the way consumers abroad prepare their coffee, but he was very sure of consumers abroad adding some additional ingredient, unlike Guatemalans, who add milk to their coffee only once in a while. With the farmers’ perceptions of cross-cultural consumption in mind, I asked them if they knew why people abroad drink coffee ? “In Guatemala people drink coffee because it is part of our livelihood, but in the North, maybe they drink it because they don’t grow it there, they don’t drink it constantly, and when they drink it, they like it. That’s why it is delicious for them”, one farmer answered. Others said that people abroad drink coffee because their weather is cool, and because in countries abroad, people consume more liquids. Others added that coffee is relaxing for them, and thus helps them calm down. And a few others stated that people abroad love the taste of coffee, and are fascinated by it, and that’s why they buy it and drink it a lot. One farmer explained to me that in the U.S. people drink coffee because it is cheap, nutritious, it is considered special, and they are used to it. He also stated that in the U.S. coffee consumption is associated with social gatherings.

I also wanted to know if the farmers thought consumers abroad ever think of them, as coffee farmers. Only two farmers had a positive answer to this question. One farmer emphasized that all the work they do cannot go unnoticed by the very same people who consume coffee . Another farmer explained that when people from fair-trade organizations come to their region to buy coffee , they must bring images of the farmers back to their countries, and communicate them to those consumers abroad. But the majority of the farmers explained that most people in the world do not have an idea of the sacrifice that goes into growing coffee, the hard labour and the little resources available for their crops. These farmers also said that if consumers abroad thought of coffee farmers, their reality and their livelihood would have already improved. In addition, they explained that when people think of coffee production, they think of large processing plants, like something out of the industrial revolution, and therefore not much thought is given to the small-scale coffee farmer, when in reality much of the world’s coffee is produced by small-scale coffee farmers.

With respect to consumers abroad and their thoughts about coffee farmers, I also asked the coffee farmers if they had an idea of the kinds of lives that people live abroad.Most of their answers were similar, except one person referring to life abroad as “super”. Most farmers believe people abroad to be more educated, and experienced in their jobs, as well as being a part of the industrialized world. Others mentioned life being a lot easier economically, though busier than in Guatemala. A few farmers referred to people who live abroad as happier than Guatemalans, because Guatemalans lack economic resources and are therefore poor.

In addition, I wanted to know a little bit more about the farmers’ personal lives, more specifically, about their income and what they do or would like to do with it. Thus I asked the farmers whether the money they obtained for their coffee crops was more than enough, less, or just enough. Most farmers stated that their crops were not lucrative enough at the moment, due to the competition Vietnam had brought about. They also mentioned wanting to experiment with other crops, such as corn, and beans, but that for the most part they wanted to stick with coffee. They mentioned wanting to turn their crops into organic crops, and to join a fair-trade organization. The farmers were also quick to mention that it is very hard to save money in Guatemala, and that they usually do not have any money left once they have bought their necessities and by the end of the harvest. There was one exception in the answers given by the farmers. This exception came from a farmer who lived in a remote area, without access to major roads or transportation to his rural community. This farmer stated that from the profits he obtains, a percentage is given to the association he belongs to, in order to ensure its continued existence; and he also mentioned that he is able to save money. I then asked the farmers, what three things they would like most to buy? Their responses varied significantly, each referring to each farmer’s particular case. One respondent stated wanting to buy banana trees, and more coffee to help his own situation. Another said, that the country is going through a rough period and so, he’d like to buy everything. A group belonging to the same association stated wanting to buy a truck so that they could transport their harvest easily, and would no longer have to carry it on their backs. They also mentioned that they would like to set up a small health clinic, in their rural community. Another farmer said that he would like to set up a grain store, in his rural area, where people could buy basic grains at reasonable prices. In the string of different answers to this same question, the last two answers were just as unexpected as the ones before. The next farmer explained to me that he would buy an appliance so that he could make money with it. At first, I was a bit puzzled by his answered, and so he explained that he would like to buy a refrigerator so that he could always make money. This would take place by using the refrigerator to keep cold drinks, or by selling ice popsicles, or by selling other cold items. The reasoning behind this, is that, a lot of people who live in rural areas do not own appliances, like refrigerators, and therefore when someone owns one, they could make money by preparing something and selling it cold and ready to eat. The last farmer who answered this question, stated wanting to set up a coffee benefice; a copy centre; to buy a car; and to buy more land. He revealed to me that he lived in a rural community located on the skirts of a volcano, and that in order to get to the closest town where he could make photocopies, run important errands, or bring his coffee to a benefice, he had to walk for 5 hours; furthermore, if he wanted to take the bus, he still had to walk for three hours to get to a major road, because there were no accessible roads to get to his town.

I also asked the farmers, what it is that they prize the most? Their answers were similar, and most mentioned their families; their health, because it allows them to work hard; their fields and trees; and a few mentioned their wives being extremely valuable because they look after their children and the home; while one farmer mentioned knowledge, being able to learn many things, and being able to send his children to school.

So far, farmers’ answers to these questions have allowed me to take a peek into their personal lives, and perhaps their dreams and aspirations. Their answers have also allowed me to see how far or close their hopes or dreams are from their everyday reality.It is possible that the arduous reality of growing coffee in Guatemala, is a reality which everyone is very much aware of, and therefore coffee culture in Guatemala can only be related to growing coffee, and not an aestheticization of coffee. An aesticization of coffee or of coffee culture in Guatemala would consist of replacing the original meaning of coffee culture for Guatemalans, which is tied to labour, and sbstituting a secondary value or a sign value, usually achieved through the reworking of desires through images portrayed in advertising, the media, or other forms of display (Featherstone, 1991.67,68). This is the sort of fetishism which characterizes coffee culture in the West, where coffee is worshipped as a fetish. Coffee is associated with luxury, exotica, beauty, romance, and its original value becomes increasingly difficult to decipher (Ibid. 85).

This leaves us with the issue of the different meanings coffee possesses depending of where we find it; that is at a producing location or an exported one. Somewhere during coffee’s exportation the meaning of coffee changes, from one of hard labour to an aesthetic, exotic one which can be experienced through the consumption of coffee itself.These different extremes of meaning have nothing in common and make it very hard to pin point where one becomes the other. Advertising seems to play an important role in the meaning coffee possesses at each location where it is found. However, the desire to combine both meanings of coffee culture at all locations where coffee may be found, regardless of the extent of advertising or economic potential within each location , is one desire that seems to be growing more and more whether coffee is being produced or consumed. The difficulty of such task lies in that the realities of both coffee cultures cannot exist one without the other, and a combination of the two may be the only way in which both coffee cultures may benefit from their different meanings.

Thus, being aware of the hard labour growing coffee entails may entice people to buy coffee, not so that they can be transported to an exotic far away place, but to become interested in the lives and aspirations of those who produce it, pick it, and who carry on the burden of producing the perfect cup of coffee.