Almond praline, raspberries and white flowers.
Elevation: 1,600-1,830 masl
Variety: Bourbon, Caturra
Producer: Ricardo Zelaya
Awards: Cup of Excellence 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014
Sourced By: Melbourne Coffee Merchants
The Zelaya family has been growing coffee for four generations and more than 100 years. This renowned family owns farms throughout Guatemala and grows some of only a handful of genuine ‘Antigua’ coffees (coffees grown in the Antigua valley area, bounded by three volcanoes: Agua, Acatenango and Fuego).
Finca Santa Clara is ninety hectares in size and is located on the fertile southern slopes of the Volcán de Agua, in the Antigua Valley, at 1,600–1,830 metres above sea level. The farm has been managed since 1988 by Ricardo Zelaya, the fourth generation of the Zelaya family to have produced coffee at Santa Clara.
Ricardo is a meticulous and incredibly professional farmer who is focused on producing the very best coffee he can. He manages four coffee farms in Antigua; Santa Clara, Puerta Verde, San Agustin and Juaja and also owns and manages a farm called Carrizal in New Oriente. His farms are scrupulously well-managed—from the careful selection of varietals planted, attention given to plant nutrition and pruning, to the close supervision of the wet and dry mills. Both mills are located at Santa Clara Estate and owned by Ricardo, giving him complete control over quality from picking through to export.
Ricardo is passionate about sustainability. Coffee on his farms is shade grown, which protects the plants from direct sunlight, maintains soil health, and provides an important habitat for birds and insect life. The family’s mills are also eco-friendly and feature sedimentation tanks that prevent pollution of the local river systems. All of the pulp from the mills is composted and used as an organic fertiliser for the farm. In addition, parchment from the dry mill is used for fuel to reduce the reliance on wood.
Ricardo has a loyal and dedicated team, and many of his staff have worked on the farm and with the family for generations. For instance, the Farm Administrator, Marcos Rompiche, has worked for the Zelayas for over two decades and is the third generation in his family to work the land. The Production Manager, Israel Yool, has over fifteen years experience working for the family and is the second generation to do so. Including Marcos and Israel, the farm provides work for sixty permanent employees year-round, all of whom help Ricardo manage the processing and production of his farms. The family hires an additional 250–400 individuals during the harvest to help pick and process the coffee.
Ricardo recognises that his people are his most valuable asset “Because 80% of the cost of coffee is labour—you need to depend on a lot of people. I think that if your people are earning a good salary, if they have good conditions and if they’re happy, then they’ll do a better job, and with more will.”
Every cherry at Santa Clara is selectively hand-picked and sorted before being inspected and approved by the foreman at the wet mill. The farm also hires around fifty ‘special pickers’ who have demonstrated particular dexterity and are selected to hand-harvest some of the farm’s micro-lots using their impressive attention to detail. These employees can receive more than double the minimum daily wage through picking coffee at the farm. According to Ricardo, although they are very demanding about picking practices, the majority of the seasonal workers come back year after year, which is a testament to the fair conditions and pay they receive.
On the same day that they were picked, the fully ripe cherries were washed thoroughly in the receiving tanks, and additional water was passed over them to remove any traces of dirt. They were then left in this tank overnight. Additionally, the cherries were taken through the washing channels to ensure there were no floaters, and then transferred directly to the African beds inside the greenhouse where they were turned every thirty minutes initially, and then as the beans dried out this was increased to every fifteen minutes to ensure uniform drying. Drying took around twenty-one days to reach the desired moisture level. This method of drying allows Ricardo more control over the process, enabling him to ensure the coffee is dried slowly and evenly. Once dry, the coffee is stored in parchment until it is ready for export. It is then milled at Ricardo’s dry mill which is located on the farm. The management of this meticulously run mill is overseen by a talented team who carefully monitor every stage of milling to ensure high quality expectations are met. Throughout the process, Ricardo also ensures that all organic by-products are recycled and reused.
Ricardo has a dedicated lab located on his property and a QC team focused on analysing every single lot produced on the farm. Balmer Aragón heads up the QC program and is charge of all of the roasting and cupping. He works closely with Edgar Deleon who is the assistant farm administrator, and has worked for Santa Clara for fourteen years.
In recent years, Ricardo and his daughters, Bel and Katia, have implemented several social initiatives to benefit all their employees, with the objective of supporting them and their families to improve quality of life, and gain higher job satisfaction.
Some initiatives have focused on health, with workshops for employees on basic hygiene and education around the importance of drinking filtered water. On the back of this, the Zelayas created a Ecofilter finance program, where a worker would pay for half of the filter and farm would pay out the the other half.
Another initiative focused on female empowerment. All female employees, or female family members were welcomed to workshops where they learnt new skills like sewing, cooking, traditional candy making and jewellery making. These skills provided the women with the opportunity to create an important source of income in the coffee off-season, and also helped to build a sense of community and purpose.
There are also some long-term initiatives focused on education that have been implemented. In 2011, Bel, who has a degree in Special Education, founded the Santa Clara Scholarship Fund, with the help of her sister Katia. This fund provides financial support for some of the children of the farm’s employees. Many children in Guatemala are forced to stop going to school early because the school fees, and associated costs like school uniforms, are not affordable for their families. Currently there are thirty student recipients of the Santa Clara Scholarship fund. These students receive money for tuition fees, uniforms and schoolbooks, as well as the opportunity to participate in weekly workshops that focus on important educational and leadership skills.
In addition, Ricardo set up a ‘Coffee High School’ in 2019, for people interested in pursuing a career in coffee. The two-year course (which is run on the weekends so students can maintain their full-time jobs) requires students to have completed studies up to the equivalent of Year 10 in Australia, however there is no age limit for the students. In 2019 the first cohort to commence their studies was made up of eighteen students (two of whom are from Santa Clara); this number will double to thirty-six in 2020 when the next cohort begins their first year of the course. Topics covered in the course cover everything from pruning and picking, through to wet and dry processing, and cupping. “This program is aimed at ensuring we are training the next generation of coffee professionals.” Ricardo explained.
The workers’ happiness and respect at Santa Clara was very clearly demonstrated at the Christmas party (an annual event to which all of Santa Clara’s workers and families are invited to dance and eat lots of yummy food). To show their gratitude to Ricardo and his family, the workers surprised them with a video one year, which you can watch below (we can’t encourage you to watch this enough—it will make you smile!).