One of the extraordinary things that happens when you drive from Guatemala City to Antigua Guatemala (to visit friends at Finca El Valle, for example), aside from surviving sketchy lane changes made by local buses, is something invisible. You cross a line, unknown to most people but well defined in the minds of that regions coffee farmers who belong to the Antigua Coffee Producer's Association (APCA) Any of the growers who joined together to form APCA fifteen years ago can run her finger along a boundary on a map of the valley to show you where genuine Antigua is grown. Beyond the invisible line the soil changes, the climate might be different and the plants produce a less distinct bean. Over there is over there. Over here, it is Antigua.
In the year 2000 I stood in the dining room of a farmhouse in the heart of Antigua, staring at a large 50-year-old aerial photograph of the valley. I placed my finger not more than half an inch beyond the boundary that had just been traced for me by a coffee farmer, one of the founders of APCA. What about here? I asked. No, he said, explaining that the good name of Antigua was under attack and that they had to be aggressive in their mission to maintain recognition of the regions coffee, guaranteeing the origin and quality. At the time over 50 million pounds of coffee labeled as Antigua was being sold throughout the world when Antigua wasnt producing more than six million pounds annually.
If quality is the heart of what differentiates the specialty coffee business from the just coffee business then it is only half of the heart. The other half is the story. Who grew this coffee? What variety of plant did it come from? When was it picked? Where was it grown? How was it processed? In the wine industry, these questions and their answers are the foundation of various appellation systems around the world. Despite efforts by coffee farming organizations around the world, like the APCA, the promise of true coffee appellations has been slow to materialize.
Regional designations of all kinds have been a part of the coffee trade since the beginning. Mocha coffees from Yemen and Java were for generations considered the best coffees in the world. But like Antigua today, there was vastly more coffee sold throughout the world as Mocha and Java than was ever shipped from that famed port. For specialty coffees, appellation of origin and truth in labeling go beyond issues of price. Single-origin specialty coffees are stories in a cup. Exceptional single-origin coffees create a connection to far-away locationsplaces unknown to most people in any tangible sense except through the cup. Specialty coffee is about coffee that could not have come from just anywhere. This is what the foothills around Mt. Kenya taste like.
But a formal appellations system requires oversight and enforcement in both producing and consuming countries. There is no lasting benefit to the growers in Antigua if they ensure that only Genuine Antigua is shipped as "Genuine," but roasters can still mislabel any coffee as Antigua. There has not been enough demand for certainty among consumers to give rise to wide spread formal appellations systems with enforcement components. For now and the foreseeable future, knowing for certain the who, what, when, where and how of your coffee comes down to knowing and trusting your coffee roaster.