If you would like more than 8 samples, please contact a trader directly.
Ahead of the 2023 harvest, we published our Mexico Pre-Harvest Plan, outlining our strategy for the coming import season and reflecting on lessons learned from previous imports.
Central to our strategy is a new program for 2023—Good Coffee Program (GCP)—a new quality-incentive and transparent pricing program built to provide:
While the coffee trade in Mexico operates with a lack of national structure and a high level of opacity due to difficulty accessing communities of producers directly, GCP aims to create an environment where smallholders are incentivized to participate in specialty export. Through GCP, producers are able to receive feedback on their coffee; receive a transparent, progressive pricing offer higher than the local market with premiums paid for quality; and get paid quickly.
We believe that this program will be transformational: producers whose access to specialty markets was previously restricted due to geography or finances can now compete for the business of long-term, relationship-motivated buyers who pay far above local prices. We aspire to impact entire communities and build a sustainable mechanism for discovery and aggregation of specialty coffees from lesser-explored producing regions within Mexico.
Based on its proximity, it would be easy to assume that of everywhere we work, Mexico should be the easiest. Yet, despite sharing a border and deep connections to the U.S., Mexico remains one of the most complex places we work. Our work there dates back to 2013—but the history of coffee in Mexico goes back centuries.
A straight line connects colonialism to modern coffee production in Mexico, and the legacy of that history creates challenges unique to Mexico.
First introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 18th century, coffee in Mexico initially grew on large plantations owned by Europeans and worked by Mexican laborers. Following Mexican independence, wealthy landowners wielded “modernization” as a rationale to abolish communal and corporate land rights, stripping indigenous communities of their lands to form large estates. Agrarian land reforms following the Mexican Revolution began a process of redistribution of land from those larger private estates back to smallholders through the ejido system, which established communal land areas dedicated to agricultural production.
In 1973, to promote coffee production on these newly created lands, the Mexican government established The Mexican Coffee Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Café, or INMECAFE), providing technical assistance, equipment, transportation and credit so that coffee producers could deliver their coffee to the international market. By the end of INMECAFE’s first decade, coffee was the largest agricultural export in Mexico, accounting for 35% of all agricultural exports.
As part of his neoliberal policies, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari abolished INMECAFE in 1989, the same year that the International Coffee Agreement collapsed—exposing smallholders to price volatility and leaving them without access to credit or government assistance—and in 1991 ended ejido land reform policies, again forcing smallholders to abandon lands they’d farmed, dispersing many into remote or mountainous areas.
After the ICA collapsed, so too did prices for coffee; the Coordination of Coffee Grower Organizations estimates that as a result of the ensuing coffee crisis, Mexican coffee growers would have lost 65% of their potential revenues since the start of the crisis. As a result, 71% of coffee growers stopped using fertilizers, 40% reduced pruning, and 75% stopped investing in control of pests, leading to lower qualities, yields and resiliency ahead of the coffee leaf rust outbreak in Latin America in 2012.
In response, many of the coffee growers in Mexico—who today number more than 500,000, 85% of whom are indigenous and with 95% growing coffee on fewer than 3 hectares of land—organized into informal cooperatives or otherwise collaborated to mitigate their risk and attempt to access the best price for their coffee.
Mexico offers unique opportunities for quality with many of its farms planted with decades-old root stock of lower-yielding traditional varieties like Bourbon and Typica and an increased interest domestically in specialty coffee, leading to experimentation and innovation in coffee processing. Today, Mexico is the seventh largest coffee exporter in the world—and the largest exporter of organic coffee.
But we’re not coffee hunters or coyotes just buying the best lots from blinded tables in Oaxaca City. To overcome our greatest challenges working in Mexico—aggregation of coffee into lots of exportable size and qualities—Crop to Cup is committed to working through communities, allowing us to build mutual relationships and networks of trust.
Crop to Cup’s ‘Good Coffee Program’ publishes a price to be paid for coffees by their cup quality, drawing a direct and consistent line between quality and price for all involved.
Because quality is not always assessed transparently, Denso Coffee Services was engaged as a Mexico-based impartial quality lab charged with the extra responsibility of providing context on cupping and suggestions on practices which could improve quality over an iterative six round, twelve week harvest-spanning period.
The State of Puebla organized producing communities through on-the-ground agronomists into working groups called ‘escuelas de campo’. Through this structure, feedback is put into practice; these organizations enable coffees to be mobilized for sampling and collection and communities to collaborate on storage and transportation to get their coffees the final kilometers to the mill.
Crop to Cup brought on staff two local agents, Israel Paz and his wife Joz Cortes—both of whom are skilled, calibrated cuppers with deep connections to producer communities in Mexico—to oversee GCP.
Israel and Joz worked together not only to evaluate quality and turn around feedback more rapidly at their own Arc roaster outfitted lab in Puebla, but also helped with discovery of new producer relationships through their networks. As producers submitted samples and completed an information-gathering survey, the coffees were milled, graded and cupped by Israel and Joz; cupping feedback was delivered to producers; contract offers were made for those coffees that met the requirements of the program; and an invitation to participate in further rounds was extended to all.
We leveraged contacts throughout Mexico and long-standing relationships with parchment collectors to solicit participation in the program and, as in years past, used radio broadcasts to promote the GCP and communicate daily prices to smallholders living in difficult-to-reach and remote regions.
Producers from relationships central to Crop to Cup’s work in Mexico—like Coro/Red 5 de Diciembre and smallholders from the informal cooperative led by Joaquin Santana in Lachao—as well as new relationships emerging from our participation as the only international buyer in last year’s Pride of Puebla competition contributed coffee to GCP. Through GCP, we also expanded our work with one of our newer supply-chains in Oaxaca—Terra Coffeas—with whom we worked in 2022. Rather than relying on conventional cooperatives, Terra Coffeas operates by organizing smallholder coffee producers into informal cooperatives of 25-30 families to aggregate lots into exportable volumes, create market access, cultivate quality, and deliver premiums based on that quality.
Through the harvest, we saw producer participants from early rounds deliver parchment in subsequent rounds as they took advantage of the feedback they received through GCP to refine their practices, improve the cup quality, and receive premiums upon delivery of their higher-quality coffees.
The topography and diversity of languages and cultural traditions in Mexico can create obstacles for communication. Access to specialty markets often passes through intermediaries—for example, coyotes who purchase coffee from communities of smallholders, offering immediate payment though perhaps lower prices than a grower might receive in a more competitive environment. Quick payment is crucial for the financial security of coffee producers; since coffee offers only one harvest per year with a long tail of expenditure that extends beyond the timeline of harvest, with a producer making necessary investments in equipment, inputs, labor and transportation to ensure success the following year. Without rapid payment, a producer may—if it is available at all—rely on expensive financing, but with costs rising in an inflationary economy and the traditional commodity index price on the C-market stagnating for much of 2022-2023, this would expose smallholders to risk.
With GCP, we introduced a transparent pricing model with premiums over a base price calculated based on cup quality and payment turned around within two weeks of delivery of a representative sample. We updated the base price every two weeks based on local market pricing to ensure that the prices paid through GCP were always higher than prices offered by coyotes or coyote Qs. Using radio, we broadcast pricing weekly to overcome topographical and geographic challenges quickly and maximize distribution of pricing communications.
For coffees scoring higher than 86 points at our lab in Puebla, we offered progressively increasing premiums, beginning 10% above and capping out at 150% above base price for coffees scoring 89+. This progressive premium model was designed to ensure that coffees were kept separated to maximize their value as export coffee as well as to incentivize smallholders to deliver samples to us rather than testing the price offer elsewhere. Because we communicated the price expectations transparently, offered quality feedback, and paid quickly, we hoped to receive coffee from the smallholders returning over multiple rounds of submissions.
We use a relationship and impact model of purchasing. This means we aim to: work as closely and directly with suppliers as possible; buy from those same producers each year; and provide support, financing or other resources to those partners based on the year’s commitments, toward improving both financial security and coffee quality. Like everywhere Crop to Cup operates, in Mexico we work to build transparent and traceable supply chains formed around relationships and community impact. Across Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, Veracruz and Puebla, we collaborate with teams of skilled cuppers, agronomists and logistics professionals who have the local knowledge, relationships, and experience to guide us toward impactful, scalable and sustainable projects designed to create more equitable economic conditions for coffee growers and their communities.
Over our last few years of imports, we’ve collected physical data from each coffee to best understand how to mitigate the risk of coffee fading prior to arrival. Based on that data, we now require coffees to have a moisture content of 10.0-11.0% (measured on a calibrated Draminsky moisture meter) and water activity of less than 0.55 (measured using an Extech). This way, when coffees arrive—even if they do arrive late—they will still taste fresh and vibrant.
At the beginning of harvest, we communicated this drying standard to our suppliers and partners. In order to give our partners the best possible opportunity for success, we:
All of the samples in our 2023 import from Mexico GCP met this standard.
Every coffee purchased through GCP has been evaluated at least twice—first by our team in Puebla led by Israel Paz and Joz Cortes—and then by our quality team in Brooklyn. We calibrated with the Puebla lab at the start of and throughout the harvest—as well as prior to final contracting.
In total, Israel spent nearly a month—27.5 full days—in the field in support of GCP over the three months of harvest. Joz led the cupping process in Puebla, evaluating 11 rounds of samples. Through the five periods of submissions to GCP, we cupped 193 samples from producers in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla, ultimately contracting coffees from 137 producers. Of those, 43 came from existing relationships in Lachao; only 4 coffees submitted did not meet moisture content requirements.
The highest scoring lot scored an average score of 87.88 between the two evaluating labs and came from Puebla, a region not well-known or established internationally for specialty coffee. The average score of submissions was 85.91 and median was 85.88; standard deviation for score was 0.90 with a variance of 0.82. Compared with the base price—calculated weekly against the internal market reference price—Crop to Cup paid an average premium of 15 pesos per kg above local specialty reference prices through GCP. Expressed in USD per pound of green coffee, this average premium translates to $0.51 per pound over local market prices, or a difference of 20%.
Our import will be separated into collections of community lots—scoring 84-85.5 points—as well as single-farmer microlots scoring 86-87.5 points separated based on their performance in GCP cuppings and lot size.
If you’d like to book any of these coffees, reach out to your trader at Crop to Cup
Red de Huitzmaloc Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Fortino Olivares is one of the many producers who has, despite declines in production and prices, carried on the legacy of coffee farming inherited from his ancestors since he was 10 years old. His home of Huitzmaloc, a small town belonging to the Nahuatl ethnic group in the mountains of Sierra Negra, decades ago was recognized for having the best coffees in the region, with varieties such as Typica, Bourbon and Caturra brought from Veracruz.
When others lost hope during the pricing crisis of the 1990s and abandoned their farms as coffee prices plummeted below $1.00 per kg, Don Fortino’s father persisted; he expanded his plantations to teach his son Fortino the love and dedication to coffee. Now, at the age of 63, Don Fortino has 5 children to whom he has passed on his love for coffee and the dream that this profession will be passed down to his grandchildren.
Ricardo Cayetano and Fabian Cayetano
Born in a small town in the highest mountains of the Sierra Negra, Ricardo Cayetano is the son of coffee farmers. He spent his youth learning about coffee production, helping his parents with harvest and the maintenance of their farm. Unaware that Huitzmaloc was regarded as producing the best coffee in Puebla, his family sold their coffee to coyotes, receiving low prices—which Ricardo would ride 20km with a mule to exchange for groceries for his family to sell in their community to generate income.
When he got married in 1991, Ricardo moved to Mexico City, returning to his birthplace in 2000 to dedicate himself to the family’s farm. It was the midst of the coffee price crisis; to support their family while coffee prices were low, he and his wife opened a small diner. Ricardo was part of organizational movements among producers to move toward quality-driven production and in 2012 pursued organic certification to obtain a better price from export but struggled to find market access and tools to improve coffee quality and continued to sell to the local market.
In 2020, Ricardo, with his sister, brother-in-law and son Fabian—who graduated as an agronomist engineer a year earlier—formed a business called Mixtla Coffee to resume coffee cultivation as well as sell roasted coffee. With training provided by the Rural Development Secretariat, Don Ricardo participated in the first edition of the Pride of Puebla quality contest in 2020, with his coffee scoring among the best coffees in the state. In 2022, the family reinvested in their production and washing station by adding two drying tunnels.
Red de la Cumbre Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Ipanteptl is an organization of 15 smallholders of Nahuatl and Mazateco indigenous background in the communities of La Cumbre, Ojo de Agua and La Guacamaya in the Sierra Negra of Puebla who organized more than 20 years ago to improve their quality and income in the wake of the price crisis and losing over 80% of their production to coffee leaf rust. Until 2017, the organization grew rapidly to 80 producer families by delivering higher prices to producers through its focus on producing and marketing certified organic and fair trade coffees.
Administrative faults jeopardize the income of the group’s members and after the cooperative lost the confidence of the community it was dissolved. In 2018, the group, whose members had returned to commercializing their coffee on the local market, reintegrated with the support of older and younger generations as a small cooperative with the aim of resuming production for the export market. With many of the group having renovated their farms with the Gesha variety and receiving the training provided by the Secretariat of Rural Development, Ipanteptl is positioned well to produce exceptional coffee; in 2021, members of the group participated in the Pride of Puebla contest.
Red de Ojo de Agua Mazatec y Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Originally from a Nahuatl community located in the Sierra Negra of Puebla, Felix Arce has been a coffee producer for more than 20 years—a trade he inherited from his grandfather and parents, who were early members of the Ipantepetl cooperative. When he was young, Felix Arce and his brothers helped their parents in the maintenance of their plot, carrying out activities related to cutting, pruning, nutrition and harvesting.
Later, Felix chose coffee growing as his main trade to support his family and established himself as one of the best producers in the area for both quality and volume. Like his parents, he was part of the Ipantpetl organization and participated in the renovation of roya-stricken coffee plantations with newer, higher-quality and resistant cultivars. Because of his previous knowledge of good practices in organic production, Felix was part of the field schools of the Secretary of Rural Development, and in 2020 was a beneficiary of drying equipment. In 2021, he participated in the Pride of Puebla cup quality contest, positioning himself among the best coffees in the region. In the 2023 contest, his Gesha honey process was among the 30 best coffees from the State of Puebla with an SCA score of 87.85.
Red de San Miguel Eloxochitlan Nahuatl, Puebla, Sierra Negra
Miguel Alva Hernández
In 2017, a group of young producers of the Nahuatl community decided to form a small group with the aim of improving their income through the renovation of coffee plantations. Before coffee, to support their families, members would migrate each year to the border to work in agriculture—staying for months at a time to work in the fields, often receiving less pay than they were owed.
By investing their savings to renovate 50-year old coffee plantations they inherited from their parents and grandparents with the rust-resistant Costa Rica 95 cultivar, these young people hoped to generate enough income to improve their quality of life and support their families without having to migrate north each year.
In 2020, the group joined the equipment program by the Rural Development Secretariat, where they were able to obtain mowers, pulpers, and drying tunnels as well as participate in the field school, where they received processing training. In 2021, they participated in the Puebla of Pride quality competition for the first time. In 2022, their coffees scored among the 30 best in the competition.
By 2023, this small group of young people who years ago had no knowledge of coffee production occupied 6 of the 10 best lots in the competition with coffees scoring as high as 90.25 points. Today, as a result of their investment in their coffee production, these young people no longer separate from their families to migrate for income.
Fermin Temoxtle Rodriguez
Fermin Temoxtle Rodriguez began growing coffee at the age of 34 as a way to create opportunity and greater income for himself and his family. Before coffee, Fermin—born to indigenous parents in San Miguel Eloxochitlan, the municipality with the highest concentration of poverty in Puebla and one of the twelve poorest in Mexico—worked in the asparagus fields of Baja California as a migrant worker, leaving home for 3-5 months each year during the harvest.
The work was grueling; most of his days were spent crouching in the fields while temperatures routinelya exceeded 110ºF. Some years, he wasn’t able to make much—but what he did earn, he saved.
Opportunity presented itself when a group of friends told him about a coffee plantation renovation project in Puebla. Fermin joined 17 other people between the ages of 20 and 40 in replanting the farm with Costa Rica 95, a cultivar they were told was resistant to coffee leaf rust and would adapt to the area. In 2017, on his then- 1 hectare plot on the farm, at 1,650 meters above sea level, he planted 3,300 trees. In 2018, he planted an additional quarter hectare with 1,100 Obatã trees—making him the only producer locally with the cultivar. Each day during the harvest, Fermin leaves home at 6am to walk an hour to his plot and returns at 9pm at night, overseeing 5 men and 5 women that he employs to collect and process cherry—generating additional jobs and income for indigenous families in his community.
In 2021, he trained in anaerobic fermentation and processing practices taught by the Secretary of Rural Development and subsequently used honey processing for coffees he submitted to the Pride of Puebla competition that year. He continued training to improve his coffee fermentation, nutrition and storage techniques and again participated in 2022.
In 2023, Fermin again participated in the Pride of Puebla competition, submitting a 72-hour anaerobic dry processed coffee which earned a score of 90.25 and placement as the best coffee in the state of Puebla.
Mercedes Galvez Andrés
The daughter of parents of Nahuatl indigenous origin from Macuiltepec in the municipality of San Miguel Eloxochitlán,, Mercedes Galvez Andrés, at the age of 27, established a 1/4 hectare coffee plot with Anacafe 14 plants. Leaving behind her job as a teacher in an indigenous school with the aim of generating more income to improve her quality of life, together with her husband, Fermin Temoxtle Rodriguez, Mercedes joined a group of 17 Nahuatl people from her community in renovating a coffee plantation. A year later, she added 1,200 Obatã plants to her plot.
In pursuit of improving the quality of her production, Mercedes joined the field school of the Rural Development Secretariat of the government of Puebla in 2021, where she trained in agricultural and processing practices. That same year, she was encouraged to participate in the Pride of Puebla competition and submitted for the first time, and in 2022 competed again, with her coffee scoring in the top 10 lots.
With an enthusiasm and passion for coffee, Mercedes continues to train in fermentation, nutrition, and storage issues, and again in the 2023 participated in the Pride of Puebla competition with honey processed Anacafe 14 and Obatã lots, again placing in the top 10 of lots participating in the auction.
Joining other young people in renovating a coffee plantation, Bernabé Herrera established a half-hectare plot of Costa Rica 95 variety coffee in San Miguel Eloxochitlán in 2017 as a way to improve the quality of life for himself, his wife and their 5-year old son. Before coffee, he, like many others in his community, would migrate to the north of the country for work in agriculture, being apart from his family for 3-5 months each year. In 2022, he continued renovations of the farm with Obatã trees to obtain better cup quality. Through his farm management, Bernabé has created employment for 5 women who, with him, help with selective picking, processing, and drying.
In 2022, Bernabé participated in the Pride of Puebla cup competition for the first time, achieving a score of 85 for the coffee he submitted; in 2023, he continued training and improving his processing and resubmitted to the competition, scoring in the top 10 lots submitted and achieving a score of 87.47 for his coffee.
Red de Cafeticultores 5 de Diciembre La Cañada, Oaxaca
The Red 5 de Diciembre network is the largest organization of producers in the La Cañada, and itself made up by 13 first-level organizations to represent 1,300 small indigenous producers. They formed as an independant group on the 5th of December, 2014, after La Roya devestated crops in region and chased away international buyers. Over the past six years this group has been working to improve selective harvesting, specialty processing, and marketing of these higher value lots. They’ve succeeded in growing membership and obtaining organic certification, but it was not until 2020 that they were able to achieve and significant premiums for exporting specialty. This was the year they partnered with the cupping team at Ensembles de Café, who worked with this group to separate out their very best and set the model for years to come.
If you’d like to book any of these coffees, reach out to your trader at Crop to Cup. Availability is very limited; lots will be booked first come, first served.
’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.
|SPREAD OF COFFEE RUST
|Central & East Africa
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.
If you would like more than 8 samples, please contact a trader directly.