Let's Drink: Chapin Coffee's Luz De Vida and Lago Azul
Someone once said that Guatemalan coffee is the “crown jewel” of Central America. The country’s well-drained soil, temperate climate, and high altitude combine to yield the highest quality beans. During coffee’s heyday, low-grade commercial coffee production swept over the Pacific Lowlands, the grassy farmland along Guatemala’s western coast. It was flat, easy to access, and suitable for oversized European plantations. As palates developed and specialty coffee rose into existence, tasters realized that the best coffee grows not on the flat, sea level plains but at high altitudes and in rich, volcanic soil. Currently, the most notable specialty coffee regions exist in sequence with a string of volcanoes that border the lowlands on the east. The region you most likely might have heard of (thanks to Starbucks) is Antigua, one of the oldest and most established regions in the highlands. Just a couple dozen miles west of Antigua is a water-filled basin, Lake Atitlán, from which Chapín sources their beans for their aptly named Lago Azul.
When I first started reading about Lake Atitlán for this article, the recent fatality of my computer led me to a musty reading of the 1965 Encyclopedia Britannica. The author describes the lake as “scenic grandeur,” an “elevated mountain lake of spectacular beauty” and “tremendous depth.” The crater lake, the author continues, is “formed between a precipitous, curving mountain wall and three volcanoes…which at that point form the escarpment of the highlands on the Pacific side.” I’m in awe; the place sounds at once brooding and magnificent. Even the black and white, grainy, poorly composed photo captures the character of the lake: ripply water and the serene dot of a swimmer at the base of three volcanoes which rose from the water to a dignified and daunting height. It’s no wonder Aldous Huxley once called Lake Atitlán “too much of a good thing.”
The volcanic soil, protective winds, and abundant rainfall around Lake Atitlán produce dense, flavorful, and nuanced beans. Chapin describes their coffee sourced from Atitlán, Lago Azul, as having notes of “white grape and sweet peach.” During our tasting of this coffee, where I reluctantly pulled myself out of the photos of mountain lake paradise and forced myself back into my, what seemed now, dingy and drab kitchen, my tasters and I looked for “white grape” and “sweet peach.” These light, fruity notes were detectable in scent mostly. Then the Lago Azul experience shifted from one of bright fruit to a smoky sweetness resembling campfire s’mores. A subtle chocolate became burnt marshmallow which became brown sugar and as quickly as the fruit notes left the first time, they came back in the form of citrus rind on a lingering finish. Though this is a light roast, the body and depth of flavor felt like it was on its way to medium and the play between brightness and depth left one of us wanting, very specifically, “extra crispy toast with raspberry jam.” I think, however, we were all happy enough with just the coffee and the company.
Tracing the chain of some thirty-three volcanoes northwest from Lake Atitlán, you reach the southern border of los altos, the highlands. Comprised of intimidating triangular peaks in the west and the majestic ridges of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes in the east, the highlands surround the city of Huehuetanango and reach up to the border of Mexico. The highest peaks are treeless high plains, or altiplano, populated by not much more than the occasional sheep or goat. Below the tree line, you will pass evergreen forests of cedar and pine before reaching the dense subtropical forests in which coffee thrives. Chapín sources their coffee for their Luz de Vida blend from these mountains surrounding
Huehuetanango which is also, conveniently, where the non-profit Pueblo a Pueblo is based and it is the children in these communities who receive the meals Chapín donates for every pound of coffee they sell.
A typical cup of Guatemalan coffee is generally distinguished by its chocolate and orange-citrus notes, its full body, and its round and easy to drink profile. It is befitting, therefore, that Luz de Vida, Chapín’s signature blend, matches this description. The aromas of mixed berry (or cooked berry, maybe berry compote, if you will) are followed by notes of butter and apricot, and unmistakable, very Guatemalan notes of chocolate and orange blossom. The coffee held in an impressive balance both the nutty, chocolaty depth and bright, citrus buoyancy. This complexity led to a silky mouthfeel and a smooth, exotic, yet mellow finish. I was left, by the lingering, clean aftertaste, lacking nothing except a real-life view of coffee forests from the top of a granite peak, and feeling thankful for the generosity of businesses like Chapín who care to the utmost degree about both amazing coffee and the well being of humankind.