In this post, we hear from Olympia Coffee's very own roaster and green coffee buyer Jake Donaghy, who recently traveled to Mexico to visit several of its coffee farms, meet the farmers, and eat all the mole he could find. Thanks for sharing with us, Jake!
The sound of blaring trumpets and banda, the smell of hot coals, the crowing of roosters at hours so early it’s late; handmade tortillas, warm hospitality, and slang so wonderful and impossibly ridiculous it could only be from one place. I was back. I was in Mexico.
Despite having a rich coffee heritage, historically, Mexico isn’t known for exporting massive amounts of world-class specialty coffee like such Mesoamerican counterparts as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. In fact, coffee makes up less than 0.1% of the value of Mexican exports. However, there has been a shift in recent years with national programs introducing higher quality/more disease resistant varieties. As a result, many farmers have been fetching higher prices, increasing the number of trees on their farms, and experimenting with and improving post-harvest processing and fermentation. All very promising improvements, suggesting the likely possibility of finding more offerings from Mexico in years to come.
My previous experience in Mexico was in a more northern state, with a dryer climate and lower elevation. This trip, however, was different. Traveling to the southernmost states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, I found myself in the Sierra Madres, meeting and visiting producers at elevations of 1400-1800 meters whose farms overlooked dense rainforests and the tops of clouds. At similar elevations and equilateral with Huehuetenango, Guatemala— one of the most championed specialty coffee growing regions in the world— both Oaxaca and Chiapas show immense promise for producing world-class coffees.
While traveling and visiting producers, I must say the highlight of my trip was a conversation I had in the indigenous Mazateca community of San Isidro, Oaxaca. While sharing a homemade lunch of beef, cactus, and handmade tortillas, father and son Hermenegildo and Wilfredo Marin (both legacied coffee producers) stressed how much opportunities for farmers in their community have changed in recent years. With shrinking commodity market prices, they claimed that over the last couple decades many members in their community were unable to make ends meet working in agriculture, making it an unappealing line of work for any of the youth to pursue.
Effortlessly transitioning between Spanish and Mazateco between sips of horchata, Hermenegildo explained how difficult the situation is for younger generations coming from rural farming communities. “Many of us want to continue farming. It’s part of our culture,” he said, “but it doesn’t pay enough and with low earnings from agriculture, the option to pursue higher education or trades isn’t possible either.” As a result, many youth have left the community for the city, looking for work but without any of the necessary resources to gain employment, forcing many into poverty and living on the street.
Over the last several years, though, the community has been working with Caravela and their agronomist on improving pre- and post-harvest practices They have since transitioned into the specialty coffee market and have been receiving significant increases in prices. These increases have generated some optimism about making farming a viable option once again for future generations. “It’s not that I only want my son to be a coffee farmer,” Hermenegildo said, “I want him to have the option to choose to be a farmer, and if he doesn’t want to, I want him to have the resources to pursue something else.” His son, Wilfredo, had recently enrolled in some business management classes in a nearby town, and plans to further organize and lead the community of coffee growers in San Isidro.
Aside from feasting on two lunches a day, sampling the mole, trying regional mezcals, eating tlayudas the size of my torso, and gaining six glorious pounds, I also had the opportunity to try some stellar coffees. The contrast in flavors between Oaxaca and Chiapas reminded me of the differing flavor profiles of coffees from opposite sides of the rift valley in Ethiopia: coffees from Chiapas came across as bright, effervescent, and yellow fruit forward, while those from Oaxaca were deep, rich, and heavy-bodied with strong notes of red fruits.
As my first buying trip for Olympia Coffee Roasting, I would say it was a success! And as a new country of origin for us, I am incredibly optimistic for our future offerings from Mexico— and quite honestly, for the coffee industry in Mexico as a whole.