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In the service of coffee

Oaxaca, Mexico. Winter 2018

Gildo inspecting coffee

Hermangildo, Gildo of Yucuhiti Unidos

’Coffee is a noble crop’, Gildo translated from Mixteca to Spanish. We were in Southern Mexico, Oaxaca State, near a Puebla called Guadalupe Mirimar, an indigenous Mixteca town smaller than my graduating class in high school.

Being from the area Gildo (pronounced Hildo) showed us all that his community had to offer the world of specialty coffee. We were above the cloud-line, something that always makes sunrises special, and walking back from a plot where one farmer had worked – alone – and with love– to replant all 2000 trees.

Gildo was explaining the pride people take in cultivating coffee, something more than all other crops. “Coffee is a noble crop” – a simple phrase, yet the answer to two of my more complicated questions.

The first question was ‘why’? I always ask this when shown best practices in places that only have access to commodity markets. Why put in the extra effort for a crop that kicks your ass by the kilogram? When the weather, currency and the board of trade all have a bigger impact on your income than that extra hour you’re adding to every task. More, every hour you spend reduces your hourly income – so, just, why?

I am touring one of the most model farms I have seen. Yet you can still see signs of recent devastation, and not from the earthquake that hit a week before. This a region (country, hemisphere) rocked by La Roya (a fungal plague). For those unfamiliar, La Roya is the zombie apocalypse for coffee trees. Also known as Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) or Hemileia Vastatrix, this fungus is parasitical in nature. One spore can infect an entire tree within 48 hours, creating rust-like lesions which, starve the plant and, in the end, release up to 400,000 more spores. This epidemic wiped out Indonesia’s coffee production at the turn of the century (the 19th century that is), resulting in rust-resistant hybrids we taste today as part of Sumatra’s singular profile. La Roya didn’t get it’s Spanish name until it spread to Latin America until the 1970s.

1865 1890 1920 1950 1970 1980s 1990s
South Africa Indonesia Central & East Africa West Africa Brazil Latin America Worldwide

While it’s caused havoc before, the most recent roya epidemic has been particularly devastating – imagine if 70% of your annual income was knocked out, for three or more years. That’s what’s happened in Mexico, and across Latin America, in a wave that’s rolled from south to north since 2012. In 2014 it hit Mexico.

When La Roya hits your community it’s endemic, meaning that it’s not just your crop that fails, but everyone you know. In areas where coffee is the cash economy, this causes a depression unlike which we have ever known from Wall Street. Restaurants, schools, hospitals, public services – you name it – La Roya is a curse word to everyone who comes from coffee country.

Some farmers have called it quits, opting instead for crops such as maize, khat or cotton. Or to get out of farming altogether, by sharecropping or selling straight out. Yet most farmers are still going to the fields. Replanting, reinvesting, and reaping less than half the fruit of a full day’s labor.

And what is more, throughout Mexico, farmers are choosing to replant with more than yield in mind.

Farmers in Mexico have the ‘benefit’ of getting hit with La Roya later than neighbors to the South in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia and Brazil – all of whom have developed different varieties of rust-resistant trees. But the benefit ends there; varieties are customized to a specific climate, and no farmer we spoke with knows which are the most appropriate to their farm. More, no one seems to know of any research done to compare cup qualities of these new varietals.

So while farmers are replanting, they are doing so without clear direction. Many are trying to maintain Bourbon or Typica, but those varietals are what feeds the fungus right now. Rather, they are planting newer, more rust-resistant varietals. Varietals that are unproven in the cup. And this will invariably lead to a shift in the flavor profile for coffees out of Mexico. Veracruz was the first to replant, so we can expect to taste the direction that this is going in coffees from there starting basically now, this 2018 harvest.

But in the communities where we work, in Colima first and now up in La Mixteca (Oaxaca), farmers were planting something different. Geisha. Smaller farms have been slower to react, and in this case that just may give them some benefit.

Farmers have been told that Geisha is roya-resistant, and know of the prices this name can commanded on auction. While this particular coffee lover would love to see a return to Bourbon, with roya that is unreasonable to even dream. And, of the rust-resistant alternatives, Geisha isn’t the worst. Perhaps. This decision does put a lot of emphasis on the cup, however, on that I’m more skeptical. Geisha is a strain known for flavors such as ‘soft jasmine’ and ‘earl grey tea’. In my experience this is just about the opposite of the bright tropicals and juicy mouthfeels that make coffees stand up on a cupping table to take a bow. This is more important because Geisha was not the ideal choice from a yield point of view. While gene stock alone will not make it a great tasting coffee, I’m still encouraged by the general choice to plug Geisha over Catimor, for example. It’s a sign that these farmers are growing for a specialty audience.

But the audience left long ago, so are farmers still playing their part? Why am I seeing raised beds, new shade nets and mini-terraces dug around each and every tree? Why are farmers making home-made worm juice, using Brix to understand ripeness and taking time to learn about more than yield? Quality is within a farmers control, but without the right buyer, pricing is not.

“Coffee is a noble crop” … was one part answer to this question. Farmers who take pride in their coffee can’t just turn it off. Perhaps it’s routine – just how they were taught by their grandparents, as we oftentimes see across Africa. Or maybe it’s a matter of reputation. And not just your own reputation, but that of your region and your country as you put your name on a bag and send it off to compete against farmers from around the world.

Pride and reputation…the segue to my second question, which was one of checks and balances, of trust and verification.

I had learned that farmers were holding on to coffee in their homes, waiting for the third and final cutting to come in; waiting for market to improve. For purposes of sampling this means I would have to rely on every household providing a representative sample from each bag in their bedroom. That’s three samples per bag (top, middle and bottom) times the number of bags per household to equal one sample. Never mind that there are different qualities being mixed together within each household; next year we will be separating 1st, 2nd and 3rd cuttings so that we can taste the impact on quality and separate by time of season. For now, the question is that of risk – the risk of qualities shifting between their initial sampling and the mill.

When I first pointed this out, Gildo had responded that every farmer was used to getting their coffee Q-graded every year, and trusted the numbers that came back. “Every family is accountable to their number”. While I was calibrated with the Q-cupper we agreed on using (Manuela from export mill Galguera Gomez), this just didn’t seem right to me. And even if true, this ‘system’ still leaves too much room for error.

Future conversations proved out that families did, in fact, know their number. If it was low they owned it and were asking for ways to improve. If high they boasted, calling their coffee ‘café chignon’, for example.

You have to know what you are looking for in order to see grace and dignity through the sweat, mud and swearing involved in coffee production. The nobility of coffee is found in the unwritten rules that govern the social side of coffee, and is especially visible in small proud communities with more than just coffee in common…making it straight up ostentatious here in Mirimar.

It’s been my experience that the more a place has formal rules (speeding, for example, enforced by radar guns and cameras), the less likely they are to enforce informal rules (speaking too loud in public, for example). By contrast the more remote a farm, the more likely they are to be guided by a complex web of social mores and expectations. These informal rules take the form approval and disapproval, of hierarchy and respect. They can be tricky to navigate, but can also the best way to navigate problems as they come up.

Quality, for example, can come from a checklist of best practices, or it can be a matter of pride. It just depends on how it is framed. When pride is in play there is power in numbers, in making everything as visible as possible. To everyone.

Here, the proof was going to be in the cup, made visible by a score and backed up by a contract. This could be reinforced by hosting a ‘café’ for farmers where they get their coffee served back to them, and driven home by bringing Manuela up to the farm to judge a competition that recognizes the very best lots by varietal, household and community. But before getting there, I would need to trust enough to contract, because a contract was the only way to get coffee out of farmers’ homes and into a cupping form.

With a contract they would open up their six community bodegas and start aggregating bags for their trip down-mountain to the mill outside Oaxaca City. But there was no way to verify that the samples they send would be like the coffee we receive. We believe that it’s important to trust AND verify, but here we were left with one-hand tied.

In Colima, for example, we have a longer relationship (five versus two years). Much of that relationship has been built around the integrity of one person, Martin Vaca Gordillo.

But even here, with the of the highest integrity, we built in a system for verifying that progress would continue after we leave. Before leaving we hired a young barista, a 23 year-old man interested in coffee and hungry to learn more. His job – come up with one Instagram-ready story per week. Interview farmers, mill workers and ask what they think of all the changes.

In part this will result in some nice insta-ready stories for customers of this coffee. In part it will lead young Jonathan down the path of more exposure and experience in coffee.  And in part getting photos will help us to establish a cadence of communication that makes ceremony out of more formal audits, for we will be getting verification little by little each and every week.

But back here in La Mixteca there is no cell service, and even if there was, verification was not being presented as an option. Sure, I was seeing best practices everywhere I looked (everywhere I was shown). But when I asked for more I was asked in return – ‘why do you care, the proof will be in the cup’.

My counterpoints were no match. ‘If options are given to me by cup score instead of community, how will I be able to buy from the same community every year’, I asked, for example. To which they replied, quickly and dismissively, ‘we will separate by household and cup score, only sending you the scores that you want to see’. True – we were not bulking coffees by cup score, only sampling from each household. And true – we do want samples separated by quality. It would be up to me to combine households together to at least meet the five-bag minimum run-size allowed by our export mill. When it came to lot separation, these farmers were not going to be a bottleneck.

‘Okay then’, I tried next. ‘But how will we encourage best practices to spread from those receiving the reward this year, to include others over time’. It’s pretty common practice in other areas we work to form exclusive ‘premium parchment’ or ‘lead farmer’ groups based on best practices; growing this group (and the farmers who receive their premium) is one way of both encouraging and policing the spread of best practices.

Their response to this example was a repeat – not-necessary. Families take pride in their cup score, and would look to improve if they saw their neighbors doing better. But while that may be true in this community, it generally how Mexicans view themselves.

There is a Mexican parable on the topic that I’ve heard told two ways to the same effect. A man is walking down the beach with two buckets of crabs. One has a lid on it, the other does not. A passer-byer asks why this is.

In one story the man explains “you see, this bucket with the lid has Japanese crabs, which will help one another get up and out if don’t stop them…while the other is filled with Mexican crabs who can’t do more than climb on the backs of one another”. In the other telling, the pail with the lid contains Mexico crabs, because ‘these crabs would rather crawl all over one another to get out than to work together in the place they’re in”. In general, throughout Oaxaca, farmers are independent, no matter how small they are they do not generally belong to a coop. Rather, they align with local politics and sell to coyotes who, in turn, sell down mountain to larger buyers.

But this is a cooperative, built on top of a tight community. And I’m being told that seeing a neighbor succeed would only encourage others to succeed as well. Okay. You seem like nice people, I can trust since I have to, but where is my verify?

They take us for breakfast on a model farm. Cooking on the traditional three hearth stove is an indigenous woman, maybe in her late 50’s but going on 85. I wasn’t sure if she spoke Spanish, or her role in the group – other than making us breakfast. When engaged, however, she spoke up quickly, and with clear leadership. Sophia, as was her name, was a force to be reckoned with.

Proud of her coffee, her farm, her family and her community – Sophia was also skeptical. They had seen many buyers come through over the years yet fall short on their promises. She had been inviting to Boston once, for her weaving, and even contributed to a fantastic photo-journal on the topic…but once published, her partners disappeared and she never saw anything come from it. Speaking with her I realized that trust and verify goes both ways, and that we were only in year two of this relationship.

In the end didn’t get my ‘verify’. I got an excellent breakfast, and I did get them to mark samples from farmers who should be recognized for ‘best practices’. So it was still a win. And you can be on the look-out for ‘premium farmers group’ out of Mixteca, a small micro-lot this year that we hope to grow as we spread the example of best practices.

We agreed that other coffees will be bulked by cup score and community, leaving verification to my partners in Oaxaca and my colleagues in NY, whose efforts around the cupping table will have to step in for my failures at the farm. We also talked about going slowly in the replanting of heirloom bourbons and typicas; keeping these as 70% of the crop for now. There is a mutual desire by both farmers and – I believe – roasters – to keep these crops alive, and a very real risk towards changing too much over to unproven varietals. And so, unbeknownst to our cupping team (sorry folks), we also agreed to cup through different varietals they are planting to see if we can advise on which are better suited to specialty.

And so we left with a plan, and a date to come back. As I’m driving down mountain I realize that I have answered most questions but my very first. I am with our agent in Oaxaca, Ramon Ruiz, who doesn’t speak a lick of English. And so, in my sorry Spanish, I ask him the same question I was asking of the farmers. Why? Why coffee, when it is clearly not the easiest path to riches. Any why had he gone independent to work with us after 25 years in the industry with big multi’s? His response fascinated me, and led to a four hour discussion on his hopes for Mexico.

“There are only two ways out of this mess” he started, referring to the cartels. “Specialty coffee and revolution… but if it is to be revolution, the cartel already have the guns…So I work for specialty coffee, a revolution that’s only done by and for farmers themselves.”

To be clear, when Ramon talks about Revolution it is not quite the same as we may think of it here in the US. Ramon is drawing examples of the social and political revolutions that mark Mexico’s history, from the Cristero war to the indigenous movement.

He is also voicing a frustration heard nearly everywhere you go, a deep and angry fatigue for forgotten promises, failed systems, corruption in places of power and in the influence of the cartels. Mexico is a place of plenty, but also with plenty of gun-wielding tube-worms standing between most people and a full belly.

But unlike the hustle of the cities, high-mountains are home-base for cartels. This is where they can go to get away from the federales, growing what they want with a clear eye on the only road up and down. This puts them as neighbors to coffee farmers. More, they rely on legitimate farmers to host and hide them in their community.

So it’s not common to see cartels shaking down coffee farmers. If anything you will find them in the financing behind coyotes, the small to large middle-men that turn small coffee deliveries into truckload quantities that can then get down-mountain. But this is not necessarily common, and in any case, coyotes are usually welcome as well. In some cases there is a family, political or religious alignment that compels a farmer to sell to one coyote or another, but by and large it is a free market; coyotes only exist because they play a role in the value-chain.

“Mira”, Ramon continues, “there is a difference between coyotes and coyotitos (little coyotes). And the difference is in the receipt”. It was here that I actually reached over from the passenger seat and gave Ramon an awkward side-hug. Receipts to farmers is the cornerstone to any supply-chain that seeks to source with dignity. Proper disclosure is the first step towards empowering farmers and running your finca like a business.

Ramon believes that specialty coffee has power because it is an exception. While the business has coyotes, it also has it’s coyotitos, and in the end is the only economy left untouched by the tube-worms. More, coffee is the only cash crop in many indigenous communities, and so is a part of what powers the Puebla, which many in Oaxaca see as the heart of Mexico.  But more, specialty is an enterprise that farmers can do by themselves, without relying on others, the government or the cartel.

Coffee is a noble crop. And people who derive their livelihood from it seem to take on some of that nobility in the form of power and grace (credit to Doug Smith of Exo Coffee, who used ‘Power and Grace’ as a tasting note for mezcal).

I’m humbled to be in the service of coffee. My colleague Ben put it well; coffee talks on a special indulgence when you recognize it as liquid labor. But there can be joy in labor, the joy felt when preparing a pour-over you know will make you proud. Of delivering a delicious cup to someone who wasn’t expecting it…or who has been waiting, ‘patiently’. The joy of showing off a freshly cleaned and cropped finca, of seeing your name on a retail bag or in a hard job done well. Being in the service of coffee is a nod to the nobility found everywhere throughout the pursuit of coffee, an acknowledgement of the incredible effort and delicious personalities that go in to every sip.

Our website lists all Forward and Current Offers from Mexico if you are looking for more information on what’s happening now.