Café de México
Mexican coffee is steeped in a long history of adversity. There is no debating this. Look anywhere and you can learn about poverty, government mis-management, social revolution and more. As I was conducting research for this article I learned so much more about what it means to be an indigenous coffee farmer in Mexico. I was a little disenchanted. I wondered if there was actually a beautiful story to tell. Deep beneath the horrid reports of tribulation are celebrations of triumph. There is beauty in Mexican coffee.
Of the most recent report from the 2018/2019 crop year, Mexico exported 343 million pounds of coffee. This makes Mexico one of the largest producers of coffee in the world. In fact, they are the 8th largest coffee producer world wide. 94% of coffee produced in Mexico is coming from five states: Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla, Oaxaca and Guerrero. Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz account for the vast majority of production while Chiapas has bragging rights for some of the best coffee. Then again, it’s not just bragging rights that quality-focused coffee producers are being rewarded with, as you’ll read about later.
Mexico is also one of the biggest producers of organic coffee. In fact, indigenous Mexican coffee farmers owe much of their success, environmentally and financially, to their dedication to organic practices. In the book ‘Organic Coffee’ by Maria Elena Martinez-Torres, the author states, “In comparison to conventional approaches to rural development, the concept of sustainable development is not only more equitable and more ecologically sound—in the sense both of not damaging the external environment and of conserving or enhancing the resource base for future production—but is economically viable for the poor. […] The present dedication to organic coffee among small-farmer organizations in Chiapas can be seen as providing alternatives to poverty and to environmental degradation.” (2006, Pg. 4-5)
This genuine appreciation for organic cultivation is what draws my attention to the region. Some producers will just slap the organic stamp on their product to fetch a higher premium at auction, but Mexican farmers really seem to understand the long term value of organic production. They understand that organic crops are not just a trend, or a privilege afforded only to the most pretentious consumers, it is a necessity for future livelihood.
Mexico’s coffee production has not always been as robust as today. Despite coffee plants being brought to Mexico in the 18th century cultivation did not begin until 1790. Even after, it took almost 200 years for coffee cultivation to take root as the crop played second fiddle to Mexico’s vast natural resources, such as gold, silver and oil. Finally, in 1973, Mexican government officials saw the opportunity in coffee exports and Mexico’s National Coffee Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Café [INMECAFE]) was created. The creation of INMECAFE provided financial, technological and logistical assistance to coffee farmers. In the years following coffee exports ballooned to $882 million (USD), a 900% increase. Unfortunately, however, due to myriad macroeconomic factors, INMECAFE was dismantled. Coffee farmers lost all of the assistance they once relied upon. By 1991 exports were diminished to just $370 million (USD). After a period of exploitation by coyotes and shady opportunists, the most resilient independent coffee farmers banded together into cooperatives. Soon, coffee production would recover and the logistical arms of INMECAFE would be completely replaced by improved infrastructure.
Coffee production, and the price of coffee, ebbed and flowed until 2012 when a fungus plagued coffee plants throughout Mexico. 75% of the crop was lost to La Roya (Leaf Rust). Once again, farmers were devastated and forced to rebuild. Just like after the collapse of INMECAFE, Mexican coffee producers came back bigger and better. New fungus resistant coffee plants were cultivated and better farming practices were employed. Farmers are still grappling with a fluctuating commodity price for coffee, but for the farmers who have realized the benefits of producing high quality coffee, they are actually achieving improved financial conditions.
After recovering from the La Roya epidemic, Mexican coffee producers have made one hell of a come back. Their coffee is finally gaining some (good) attention as a ground swell in award-winning coffee is sweeping throughout Southeastern Mexico. Even the most critical coffee professionals are taking an interest in the region.
At a recent Cup of Excellence auction 28 lots scored over 87 points. A coffee from Chiapas achieved a cupping score of 93 and sold at auction for $35 per pound. How incredible! While the top scoring coffee was a delicate, natural processed Gesha variety, many of the “daily drinker” Bourbon and Typica varieties also received honorable mentions. In an industry where coffee producers barely earn enough money to cover the cost of production this is a real step forward. It is also a testament to the progress that indigenous Mexican coffee farmers have made in improving coffee quality.
Despite the negative stigma of the past, Mexican coffee is becoming known in the professional coffee community as layered, full bodied and incredibly sweet. Sophisticated coffee tasters are picking up flavors of honey, jasmine, and marshmallow in some of the better lots. Advancements in processing practices can be thanked for much of the quality improvements recently achieved. Soil, aspect, elevation, washing and fermentation processes and drying method, all make an impact on what the final cup tastes like.
Regardless of the level of attention put into coffee production, not all coffees are created equal. Nor will all coffees rise to similar levels of acclaim. You see, coffee beans are a fruit, just like apples. Each type of coffee fruit has distinct characteristics — Each type being more susceptible to quality differences than another.
Let’s unpack that just a little. When I say “type” I’m referring to the varietal. If that’s still confusing let me simplify it. Varietal is like saying Red Delicious or Granny Smith when talking about apples. These are the fruits produced by a specific type of apple tree. Just as Typica and Bourbon are the fruits produced but those specific types of coffee trees. Just as each apple varietal has unique characteristic flavors, so do coffee varietals.
Considering all outside influences on the coffee were normal, and no contamination or defects occurred to the coffee, one could expect the Bourbon (bur-Bone) variety to have deep, buttery chocolate flavors, as well as excellent sweetness and very light fruit overtones. They yield well-balanced coffees. The Cautrra varietal, a close relative to Bourbon, is characterized by a low to medium body and bright acidity. It is also slightly less sweet than Bourbon. There are many more varietals from Mexico to explore and describe.
If you want to see a video of our trip to Chiapas, Mexico, click here.