Small Batch on the road
Mexico - 2017
Coffee may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mexico but we believe it has long been undervalued as a specialty coffee origin and, as my most recent trip there showed, there is a huge amount of amazing work going on and some fantastic coffees to be had if you know where to look.
I travelled to Veracruz in south east Mexico back in April to take part in the Aromas del Pico event run by one of our import partners Caravela. The premise is very similar to the Cup of Excellence: producers from all over Mexico are invited to submit their very best micro lots and special preparation coffees. These lots are then cupped by a jury of international coffee tasters (including yours truly) and at the end of the week the top 20 finalists are auctioned off to the highest bidder at a big ceremonial lunch with all the buyers and producers present.
We have been working in Mexico with Finca Muxbal in Chiapas for many years but this event proved a great way for us to expand our buying and discover more of the great diversity Mexican coffee now has to offer. The country produces a lot of coffee, in 2009 they were the eighth biggest producing country in the world with around 250,000 metric tons of coffee.
While most production is focused around the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, coffee is grown in nine other states across the country including as far north as Nayarit and San Luis Potosi, some of the most northerly grown coffees in the world. Because of the high volumes and preponderance of small holder producers working in co-operatives the general reputation of Mexican coffee has been a little one dimensional, a good solid blender but without the quality and complexity for great, specialty grade coffee.
Likewise, due the countries proximity to the United States, much of Mexico’s coffee is sold to the USA making it something of a rarity in Europe. This scarcity alongside its middling reputation means you don’t see much Mexican coffee on specialty coffee menus here in the UK. We are glad to be playing a small role in changing this.
Like many coffee producing countries over the last decade, Mexican producers have started to respond to the demands of the growing specialty market and many are now focusing on producing interesting cultivars, experimental process lots and improving quality across all stages of the production chain.
The lush, verdant regions of southern Mexico are perfect climatically for growing high quality coffee. There are plenty of volcanoes to provide mineral rich soil and altitude, the Pacific and Caribbean coasts keep the climate cool in the growing areas and provide easy access to ports to ship coffee quickly all over the globe. Organic production is popular in Mexico and this inherently promotes good farming practice and agronomy. These conditions combined with a new approach to specialty production is paying dividends especially in Oaxaca and Veracruz where the majority of the very best coffees are coming from.
Our cupping lab for the week, bio-dynamic pineapples and geisha seedlings all at Equimite
Our base for the week during the Aromas event is a great example of this. The event was hosted by El Equimite a Bio-dynamic certified farm just outside the colonial town of Coatepec in Veracruz. The farm is run by Gibran Cervantes and a collective of like-minded agronomists and professionals who are committed to a bio-dynamic approach to coffee farming. The ideas and practices of bio-dynamic farming, not just of coffee but many crops, are fascinating, divisive and well worth an in depth look if you are interested, but in short they focus on growing crops organically and in harmony with the local biosphere, the movements of the moon and the tides.
Each bio-dynamic farm must survive off its own eco-system, compost must be made from plant life from the farm, seedlings must be nurtured at the farm in the same soils, livestock and animals must be present to balance the eco system and specially prepared compost preparations must be administered at certain times of the lunar cycle.
Equimite have been Bio-dynamic for a few years now and are in the process of re-planting the entire coffee farm with bio-dynamic seedlings. Alongside coffee they grow many other crops at the farm and our lunches everyday were provided 100% from the farm with salads and vegetables grown in the garden, meat reared on the farm and even amazing cheeses from Gibran’s herd of goats.
As the farm is only a year or two into this re-planting, the coffee crop is not yet large or mature enough to properly judge its quality but I am really excited to watch developments at Equimite and hope to offer their coffee in the future. The passion and dedication of Gibran and his team is infectious and we couldn’t of asked for a better base for a week of tasting and selecting delicious coffees.
This was my first time on a cupping jury and purely from a professional development standpoint it was hugely rewarding. Spending a week tasting more than one hundred coffees with other cuppers from all over the world and many of Caravela’s origin experts from across Latin America was a great experience and definitely improved my tasting skills.
After whittling down the coffees from more than 100 to the top 20, we were able to take part in the auction at the end of the week when the coffees were sold to the highest bidder with many of the producers present and I was able to purchase some great coffees for Small Batch and for some of our wholesale partners.
Coffees bought like this at auction are always expensive, the competitive nature of the auction and the quality of the lots always drives the price up but with small lots like these (the biggest we bought was 180kg of green coffee, the smallest just over 30kg) buyers are able to loosen the purse strings a bit and producers are rewarded for all their hard work and extra effort. One of the main motivations of these events is to bring producer and buyer together and oftentimes these relationships will blossom into ongoing trade and much bigger purchases.
Al with Adan and Samuel from El Estribo at the auction.
The first lot we are releasing is from a Farm called Finca El Estribo (the stirrup) which is located in Zongolica, just up the road from El Equimite. This meant that the owner Adan Altamirano was present at the auction and was willing myself and Mark from Caravela Australia on as we battled over his coffee during the auction.
Thankfully I was able to win the day as Adan’s coffee was my personal favourite coffee that we had cupped in the whole event and which finished 13th in the competition overall. Adan has great heritage in these competitions, El Estribo won the Mexico Cup of Excellence in 2014, finishing in first place that year and he also took eight place in this year’s Cup of Excellence just a few weeks after the Aromas event.
Sadly there wasn’t time to visit the farm on this trip but it was great to meet Adan and his son Samuel, I hope very much to visit the farm next harvest and forge an ongoing relationship that will see El Estribo on our shelves for years to come. The coffee is available now and is featuring on all our brew bars throughout August.
We were also able to buy two outstanding lots from Oaxaca, from one of Mexico’s ‘rockstar’ producers, Enrique Lopez at Finca El Chelin. Enrique is well known in the Mexican specialty scene for producing some amazing geishas and experimental lots. His coffees are frequently used in the Mexican barista championships and even at the World Barista Championships finals. In fact one of my fellow jurors at the event, David Birruete from Cucurucho Roasters in Mexico City had travelled down to Veracruz just to buy some of Enrique’s coffee to use in this year’s barista championships!
El Chelin is located in San Sebastian Tutla in Oaxaca and is a haven for progressive and experimental coffee processing. The lot we bought is a geisha variety processed by what Enrique calls ‘carbonic maceration natural’.
This process starts with the picking where cherries are only harvested when they have reached the colour of dark red grapes, a darker colour than when they are normally harvested. After picking the cherries are rested for two days in concrete fermentation tanks in a little cool water before being laid out to dry in the sun. This time in the tanks allows for a degree of anaerobic fermentation to take place. Usually in the natural process cherries are laid out to dry in the sun directly after picking which causes aerobic fermentation. By allowing them to rest in the tanks out of direct sunlight first, a degree of anaerobic fermentation takes place and increases the malic acidity in the cup (malic acidity is best described by the tartness of granny smith apples or richer, ripe fruit sweetness of braeburn or royal gala apples)
Next the coffees are moved to dry in the hot direct sunlight. This is also unusual as drying is usually done under shade to protect the cherries from drying out too quickly in the sun and damaging their embryo. Because these cherries have been rested in the tanks they are cool and moist to touch and so the direct sun does not dry them too quickly. The benefit of getting them in this direct sunlight is to increase the tartaric acidity in the cup (tartaric acidity is best know in red grapes, tamarind and cranberries). After two days in the sun the cherries are moved to raised beds under shade cover where they are dried for a further three weeks and turned constantly to ensure even drying throughout. This is an incredibly labour intensive process but the whole process is designed to add more malic, tartaric and oxalic acidity to the final cup (oxalic acidity is the tart sweetness in rhubarb) all compounds commonly found in red wine and working toward creating a complex, unique and interesting coffee.
We also purchased a small lot grown by Enrique’s wife, Victoria Vasquez and also processed at El Chelin but this time a black honey process. The initial steps are the same with the late pick and two day carbonic maceration but then the skin of the cherry is removed and the coffee bean is dried with all of the fruit flesh and mucilage left on it. This lot is a Pluma Hidalgo variety which is a Mexican strain of the Typica cultivar that was originally created in this area of Oaxaca.
We will be featuring these two lots exclusively through our friends at Home Coffee in Portsmouth across their two stores in Southsea and Cosham. Home coffee love using a seasonal range of single origin coffees and they are the perfect place to highlight these two amazing microlots. It is super cool to be able to travel to events like these, meet the producers and source coffees directly and exclusively for our wholesale customers and definitely something we hope to do more of.
All in all an awesome trip and some great coffees sourced from across Mexico’s coffee regions. It was fantastic to see the progressive work going on and to get a feel for the outstanding quality of coffees available (as well as the top 20 lots that made the auction there were many, many other outstanding lots that we cupped that just didn’t quite make it into the top 20). We hope to work with some of these producers for many years to come and hope we begin to find larger lots of coffee with equal quality that we can purchase in bigger volumes. It is through these larger purchases where truly meaningful relationships between buyer and producer can be made and are of course where the producer really benefits from investing more time and money into improving their coffee quality.