Foreigners in Guatemala often confuse coffee fruit for cranberries. I did. With its bright red color and grape size, the fruit looks like, well, fruit. Though the bean has become a staple of many Americans' lives -- it's one of the most traded products in the world -- few realize where their daily black drink comes from.

In the highlands of Guatemala, shade-grown coffee is cultivated, and has become one of the more sought-after in the world. San Lucas, a small town resting on Lake Atitlan, has an economy that revolves around the coffee harvest.

For three months, the small red fruit floods the streets of San Lucas as locals begin their picking. Ripe coffee fruit can be sold on the streets, where it will then begin a journey that will take weeks. Passing through many hands and machines, coffee truly requires a labor-intensive process, one that farmers in San Lucas perform with love and care.

Fresh coffee is the size of a small grape, and once picked, oozes a sweet, sticky juice. After it's bought, the red husk is stripped off the fruit as it is run through a machine. Mayans often put what they do not use back into the earth, using only what they need. The red husks are later used as compost and put back into the fields.

Once out of their husks, coffee beans remain sticky and wet and must be washed and dried before storing. Just as coffee farmers have done for centuries, the beans are dried on large patios under the sun, frequently turned so they don't burn.

After nearly two weeks of sun, the beans can be stored. Burlap bags filled with beans, weighing more than 100 pounds each, are stored until coffee can be toasted.

An ancient drink

Although Guatemala has some of the world's most coveted coffee, the fruit is originally from Ethiopia, dating to the 11th century. The highlands are home to some of the world's best climates for growing coffee and the fruit has become one of Guatemala's main exports along with bananas, cotton and sugar.

Once ready to be toasted, coffee must pass through another machine, which strips it of a thin, flaky yellow shell. Once cleaned, coffee has reached the "green bean" stage, the last, and freshest, stage before it is toasted. Now the coffee must be toasted very soon to maintain its freshness.

With the cool mornings and hot afternoons, Guatemalans toast coffee at 4 a.m. to keep heat down. The toasting rooms fill up with a sweet, thick smoke from the open flames. On a cold morning, eyes struggled to focus through a coffee fog drifting back and fourth through the room.

As I wiped tears from my eyes and asked Daniel Xep Xobin what type of coffee he was toasting, he replied quemado, which translates to burnt, otherwise known to coffee drinkers as dark roast.

Small, smoking beans are poured onto a rack to cool as the roasters turn them over repeatedly to make sure they are done. The beans have come a long way from the little red fruit they were three weeks ago. They are ready to be ground, bagged and shipped to another country, where consumers, many unaware of the work that went into the beans for their mocha, will devour this Guatemalan specialty.

Alexander Zoltai spent eight months in Guatemala after graduating from the University of St. Thomas. He can be reached at alexander@