Exploring Guatemala with Max Quirin

An Interview by Lily Kubota

How did you end up working in coffee?

I started pushing the big wooden forks for turning over the thin coffee layer on the patio at the coffee mill by the family house in Coban ever since I can remember, maybe being three years old.  I always spent most of my vacations – when not attending school —working at the coffee mill or the coffee farm. Then assisting my father in running the business, I started to export coffee in 1992. Orlando was the first SCAA annual convention that I attended.  Since then I have tried to learn as much as possible about coffee, starting with cupping and then some training in brewing and roasting, but I am not an expert on either of those. Serving on coffee association boards like ANACAFE and then SCAA has been very rewarding, and it is a way to try to give back a little of what I have received from this wonderful product, coffee.

What do you do besides coffee? 

As part of my job of running the family business, I love to fly to the ranch where we breed beef cattle. Flying the plane and riding a horse supervising this activity is something I have done since I turned 18, just a few years ago, (laughs).  I was elected for several years by the private sector to the Board of the Central Bank of Guatemala and for the last two years to the Board of the Social Security Institute. But any free time I have available, I try to spend with my sons playing tennis, climbing volcanoes, attending air shows, and participating in an annual air race (where you really get the adrenaline pumping). When we can we go scuba diving – my two sons and my daughter are certified divers –  it is such a different, beautiful world.  Doing outdoor activities is what I have found the best and most exciting way to spend time together, which is in line with another hobby, photography. I also like to ride a motorcycle and to dance, and very much enjoy the theater. When traveling, I try to get tickets to see any play, as well as concerts or baseball, football, or soccer games in other cities or countries.

Life is beautiful, and the more different things you do, the more you like it. It happened to me several times that I spent most of the day at the ranch, riding for four or five hours, jumping from the horse directly to the plane, flying on a beautiful or stormy afternoon back to Guatemala City, then I took a quick shower, dressed up in a suit and raced to a Central Bank meeting that could last three to four hours. After one of those days, I have felt blessed to have such an entertaining way of living.

What is your very favorite place to visit and why?

Tikal is the Mayan city you should not miss, but if you have a little more time, Semuc Champey, located about 60 km to the east of Coban, is an incredible place where you will find at the bottom of a narrow canyon a set of natural pools with crystal clear water over a natural cave that serves like a tunnel for the strong current of the Cahabon river to flow. The Rio Dulce is another exhilarating place in the northeast of Guatemala where this slow moving wide river flows into Caribbean sea through a rainforest covered canyon.

What are some of your favorite places to eat in Guatemala? What is your favorite dish?

I do not have a favorite dish, I love beef, of course, a culotte steak tastes so juicy and tender, but seafood is incredible, especially crab, oysters and halibut. My favorite place to eat is standing by a grill, selecting the best cuts directly from the grill and eating them with a tortilla and a beer in my hand, having good friends around.

What is the coolest thing that has happened to you while traveling around the country?

One of the coolest experiences happened at dusk flying south back to Guatemala City after visiting Tikal. I was climbing through a cloud layer and when we broke out of the clouds, this layer extended for several miles, so that the feeling was like being on another planet. We could see to the right (the West) an incredible sunset at its final moment, the sun being just above the cloud layer. Then I turned my head to my left and a bright shining beautiful full moon was rising out of the cloud layer to the East.

I travel around the country mainly flying the plane, so after 30 years of flying there are some stories to tell, but one unforgettable story was on a rainy afternoon flying the IFR approach to La Aurora airport. I had to fly through a storm where the turbulence was so strong that I could not read the numbers on the instruments, not even the small needles, and since I was descending to the airport I had to count the turns of the big needle on the altimeter (that shows only hundreds) to know at what altitude I was to avoid descending below the MDA (minimum decision altitude), which is only like 400 feet above the ground.  Right at MDA I flew out of the storm and I could see the runway and land. Flying to me has meant learning to appreciate and enjoy life with a balance of freedom, excitement, and responsibility.

What is the most exciting thing about specialty coffee or what are you most excited by in the industry today?

When I see so many kids, mainly teenagers and young students visiting coffee shops, asking for different coffee drinks and also getting together there to talk or work, this is something that I have not seen before.  It is happening all around the world, and you can also see business meetings at cafés. Coffee has become a new way for society to socialize, and this phenomenon will certainly mean thousands of new consumers for the future. These are consumers that we need to engage with more creatively to convey the exciting information about our coffees so that they fall more deeply in love with them.

What factor do you feel has the biggest impact on coffee quality?

Coffee is such a delicate product, the quality of coffee is at risk from the moment cherries are picked from the tree. All of the players or actors in this complex and long production chain have a huge responsibility to deliver a high quality product to the consumer. We should bet on quality to make this a stronger industry.

What’s your favorite coffee origin to visit besides Guatemala?

There is such a contrast when you visit an African country like Ethiopia that makes it very interesting.  I have been there only once, but I was definitely impressed because of the huge cultural, structural and institutional differences. But all coffee origins have something unique, attractive and seductive that is fundamental to our industry, offering specialty coffees from all around the world to the coffee loving consumer.

Max Quirin is the President of the SCAA Board of Directors. To view his biography on the SCAA website, please click here