Tracking the Maya Kapeel

Farmers in a coffee nursery.

How did your morning coffee get to you? I’m not asking this to prove a point about industrial agriculture — no matter how hard you try, you can’t grow coffee in your backyard. I’m really asking this because it’s fascinating. Knowing the history, farming and roasting journey that led to my morning cup gives the experience a new and humbling depth.

Coffee is one of the most highly traded commodities in the world, and every cup has a unique story to tell. This week’s Brewponent follows Maya Kapeel  beans from a small co-op in Guatemala to a cup of espresso in Bozeman.

Guatemala

Chajul, Quiche, Guatemala.

Before there were blood diamonds, there was blood coffee. Guatemala is representative of the larger history of coffee in Central and South America that includes forced labor, share cropping, massacres and civil war. Now there is less violence, but the lingering effects of that history remain expressed through high poverty rates and debt.

The Quiche (KEY-chay) region of Guatemala suffered greatly during the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War, which didn’t end until 1996. “Over half the population of the area disappeared,” said Scott Brant, co-founder of Montana Coffee Traders (MCT). Brant began working with the Chajulense Coffee Cooperative two years ago, after noticing that a nearby farm had distinguished itself in the international Cup of Excellence (CoE) coffee competition.

The CoE competition establishes higher prices for coffee farmers by keeping high quality beans from being lumped in with surrounding farms. Typically green beans sell for about $2 per pound. CoE farmers on average fetch about $8 per pound at auction, and winners regularly sell for above $20 per pound. This brings more money into a region for a product it already makes.

The same is true of the Chajulense Co-op, where Brant and many others have helped to bring in more money to support community programs. So far these efforts are focused on creating more local food production through school programs, but there is much room to grow.

Whitefish

Scott Brant taking out freshly roasted beans. Photo by Niklaas Dumroese.

After the coffee beans have travelled through Oakland, Calif., they arrive at the century-old farmhouse in Whitefish, Mont. that serves as the MCT headquarters and roasterie. Montana Coffee Traders started in 1981, well before the specialty coffee boom, and has since sprouted sister companies in Texas and Moscow, Russia. They roast their beans with an air bed roaster, at 30 pounds per batch for organic coffees.

The Maya Kapeel beans are roasted to 457 F. MCT named the Guatemalan coffee after the Mayan heritage of the farmers and the Ixil word for coffee, “Kapeel.” After roasting, beans that won’t stay in the Flathead Valley are shipped on the same day using UPS.

Bozeman

One of those shipping destinations is Zocalo Coffee House, which opened on Main St. in the heart of downtown Bozeman late last summer. They serve and sell Montana Coffee Traders beans in both espresso and drip form. Brick walls and tasteful art give Zocalo a west-coast hip feel, but the back room and loft provide cozy places for an extended homework session or conversation. The two times I had their espresso, which uses the Maya Kapeel, I was pleased but not amazed. For a young coffee shop, Zocalo is excelling, and certainly outstrips some of the local favorites.

Zocalo offers a warm and welcoming environment. Photo by Matthew Weigand.

MCT also roasts all the coffee served at MSU and The Leaf and Bean’s coffee. If you’re lucky enough to spend time in the Flathead Valley, stop by the Whitefish roasterie Monday through Saturday for a free tour at 10 a.m.

Whether you’re an instant coffee gulper or artesian Kopi Luwak roaster, Matt wants to hear from you. Email thoughts and questions to letters@exponent.montana.edu.