Teas from Guatemala Make their US Debut

COBÁN, Guatemala

German settlers introduced tea to Guatemala more than a century ago and two estates supply the domestic market, but a modern co-operative near Cobán is now offering Fair Trade Certified organic black tea to an export market eager to experience these whole leaf specialty teas.

Linda Villano, founder of SerendipiTea in Manhasset, NY says the unique leaf has been grown at 4,300 feet since the late 19th Century and processed by the Chirrepec Tea Co-operative.

“While sipping the medium-bodied, smooth cup, one might contemplate the sacred caves located close to the tea gardens where Mayan rituals still take place,” she says.

“Black tea in Guatemala is produced and processed in two estates,” says W. Paul Brose of Agriselva Guatemala, a Guatemala-City based exporter.

The Chirrepec plantation in northern Guatemala is near the picturesque Mayan village of San Juan Chamelco, close to Cobán. “It belongs to the well-organized and well-run Chirrepec Co-operative,” says Brose.

Until recently all their production has been sold in local markets and to a number of supermarkets in Guatemala under the brand name Chirrepec Maya Organic Plantation Tea, he says. Exports are currently limited to 45,000 lbs. or about 200 lbs. a week, but international financing will enable the growers to expand their capacity in the next three years, according to Brose.

Shipments to SerendipiTea and to a distributor near Venice, Italy are the first outside Guatemala.

“The co-operative will definitely expand into international markets during the coming years,” predicts Brose. “We are happy to count on Linda Villano`s expertise and enthusiasm to introduce the tea into the U.S. market.”

Quantities are small at this time, but Chirrepec intends to be able to “eventually export 20 metric tons of organic black tea. You could also see more plantings over the next 10 years,” he says.

In the southern part of the country lies "Los Andes a beautiful tea and coffee garden situated on the slopes of the Atitlan Volcano on the coast. It is at the same time a famous Nature Reserve where you can still find the Quetzal bird, the National Bird of Guatemala,” says Brose.

The estate produces 90 metric tons of black tea, of which 46 metric tons are certified organic, he says. This garden exports about 18 metric tons of tea to the United States and England. The remaining 72 are sold for teabags under a contract with Lipton (Unilever). Los Andes produces coffee, rubber and quinine as well as tea.

U.S. import statistics show an increase in the value of Guatemalan tea imports during the past five years. In 2006 imports were valued at $124,000. Last year imports increased to $309,000 but little of that is specialty tea.

“It is difficult to define a trend from this limited production in Guatemala,” says Brose but he is optimistic. There is a long tradition of quality dating to the end of the nineteenth century when a family of Germans purchased a farm near a cave: Te Chirrepeco in the Queckchi language means “beside the cave.”

The Chirrepec plantings are done by a number of small farmers, under technical supervision of the co-operative, but the tea is grown within the same area and can be considered as coming from a single plantation, he says.

In marketing literature growers say they “learned how to cultivate the tea by taking the advice and teachings from the Germans and the wisdom passed from our Queckchi ancestors. Our parents and grandparents took care of every detail, from plantation to cutting and drying, so the product was the best it could be.”

Dan Bolton

About Dan Bolton

Dan Bolton edits STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International. He was formerly editor and publisher of World Tea News and former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine and former editor-in-chief of Specialty Coffee Retailer. He is a beverage retail consultant and frequent speaker at industry seminars and conferences. His work has appeared in many beverage publications. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years prior to his career in magazines. Dan is the founding editor of Natural Food magazine and has led six publishing ventures since 1995. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada.