Ricardo Zelaya produces beautiful coffee at his Santa Clara farm, where coffee is grown on the fertile southern slopes of the Volcán de Agua in Guatemala's Antigua Valley.
We have been buying and serving coffee from Ricardo and his team since we opened our doors in 2009. We love that Ricardo has created a business that focuses on both the quality of his product and the positive development of his local community. Here is a Q&A we did with him:
Market Lane Coffee: How did you come to own Santa Clara?
Ricardo Zelaya: My great-grandfather bought the farm in 1947. My grandfather started working the farm in 1949 until 1959. My dad then took over until 1972 when he died. My uncle worked the farm until August of 1988, when my grandmother gave it to me to take over.
After college, I started working in coffee, and it’s really what I’ve been doing since then. When I took over, the farm had 25 hectares planted, just the area near the house. We started planting all the mountains, creating the roads, putting in the irrigation system, and building the mill and the office. I’ve been lucky to be able to do a lot of things on the farm.
MLC: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What gets you excited and motivated?
RZ: I love coffee: the production, the milling, the selling, as well as all the challenges that you have every year, because in the coffee business no year is the same as any other, there is always change.
Market Lane owner & director, Jason Scheltus in front of Volcán de Agua
during his visit to Santa Clara in 2017.
MLC: What’s a typical day like for you?
RZ: I wake up early and do some spinning, jajajaja (Ricardo laughing). Then I drive to the farm, and I go around all the works that we’re doing with the foreman and other members of the supervision team. We have to be very careful with every detail, because labor is involved in every part of the process. During the harvest time, I have to spend a lot of time in the mill, checking the processing, the fermentation, the washing and drying, planning shipments and buyers’ visits, and very, very, very importantly, overseeing the picking of the cherries.
Quality comes directly from the plantation, so the right cherries are the most important thing. I drive back to my home around 7 to 8 pm. During harvest, I spend a lot of nights at the farm.
MLC: What do you think the secret is to Santa Clara’s quality and consistency?
RZ: I think what helps us to be consistent and have very good quality every year is that we work as a team. Every worker performs their responsibilities and is very involved with the farm. I am always there, and I support them to do their work right. We also take care that the nutrition, irrigation, shade regulation, plague control, etc., is always the best possible for the coffee plants. And we maintain and invest in the mill to help improve its processing.
MLC: How do you drink your coffee at home?
RZ: I drink coffee from a Cuisinart dripping machine that grinds the coffee right before the brewing. That is the old way to drink coffee in Guatemala. Since my trip to Melbourne, I’ve been using Pour Over and the Aeropress. I love both.
MLC: You have three daughters. Are any of them interested in coffee?
RZ: Two of my girls are in college, and this summer they came to work with me during their vacation. They did exactly what I did in a day; they walked plantations, got wet in the rain, checked works, and learned a lot of what I do. They love the farm, they liked the coffee business and they are going to continue with the farm in the future. My other daughter is just 15 and still in school.
Ricardo's daughter Katia at Santa Clara in 2017.
MLC: What exciting plans do you have for Santa Clara in the future?
RZ: I am planning to plant one hectare of Gesha variety and one hectare of Pacamara variety during the rainy season of 2014. They will be in harvest in 2016. A month ago, I planted two hectares of a varietal called Venecia; it’s the brother of the Caturra, with a better cup [taste] profile. We will cup it in a couple of years. I am building another greenhouse this year, so I will have more capacity.
When we walk through the plantations, we are always thinking and planning what works we are going to do, what type of pruning, the amount of shade, if we need irrigation, if we need to change to another varietal, etc.
We are always talking and thinking of what can we do better to produce more, and better quality. For me it’s a pleasure to be in the middle of a plantation. It keeps me thinking of the future, because coffee is long term.