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Mexico – The rise of the underdog

Five Senses CoffeeJacob Ibarra 11 April 2016

To say I have an affinity with Mexico might be a bit of an understatement. My grandmother was born there and, growing up in Texas, it was common to cross the border to shop or to have “fun” wink, wink! I can even remember the very first time I cupped Mexican coffee. It was a standard SHB from Chiapas, but I was taken aback by how round and chocolatey sweet I found it in the cup. I assumed everyone would like this coffee. However, specialty coffee purveyors seem to struggle with this country’s coffee. Having just been in Kenya in January, the difference between buyers’ approaches to these two countries is uber apparent. Yet if you read any part of this blog, read this: this country is to be valued!

I have written this before, but it is important to understand that coffee and specialty coffee are not produced in a vacuum. Mexico once had a national organization, not that unlike the FNC in Colombia, which supported farmers and waved the flag for coffee as a significant element of the national economy. Ironically, I remember talking to Sunalini Menon, a renowned coffee professional in India, about when she first started in coffee. She told me that when she was initially trying to progress on the Indian coffee scene, she often read coffee literature which had been produced in Mexico. Sadly, the Mexican coffee organization dissolved a number of years ago and left a palpable hole in the country’s coffee industry.

Much like other countries, Mexico (and the Veracruz region specifically) is challenged by what to do with their coffee lands. Those who want to keep producing coffee often plant varieties or hybrids which are highly disease resistant and/ or high yielding. However, the decision making process about which variety to plant is just as fickle as deciding what’s trending on social media. That’s obviously an exaggeration — but from what I have been told it seems that a “popular” new hybrid comes along every few years and is planted without much insight about the results in the cup.

Other farmers have simply given up on coffee. Some have switched to different crops, particularly sugar cane which seems to have a better 4 to 5 year projection, while others have simply sold off their land. It appears that property prices around the townships are attractive and often high enough to tempt owners to leave the life of a farmer, even if it’s only for a short while.
The challenges of being a farmer or working in agriculture in general are real. This is not a sob piece, as most of my experience on this trip was phenomenal but I believe it is overwhelmingly important to hold growing and preparing specialty coffee in a correct perspective. It’s only then that we can truly appreciate what we drink.

Therefore I just want to come out and say it — I love the coffees from this region! I am not sure what you might expect from Veracruz, Mexico, but I find this profile elegant. They are not “hit you in the face” acid bombs nor will they overwhelm with some outlandish flavour. These coffees are gentle in their acidity like a pear or sweeter green apple. They are fundamentally sweet, almost sugary, and highly balanced with strong milk chocolate and cocoa flavour. This is coffee that you can sip all day, cup after cup after cup.

Clearly, I am making some generalisations here. However, these are the characteristics we are trying to build our lots around and these coffees will definitely make their way into our shipments to Australia.

In truth, Veracruz is large. It is both mountainous and coastal, dense in forest and tropically lush. Because of this, it has a variety of microclimates. So while the coffees offer the characteristic blend profile we are seeking, the region actually offers quite a bit of variability. That’s perfect for us in Australia as we love to taste unique lots which highlight the terroir and offer clear points of difference.

As with most trips, the cup led the way to those farms I visited when pursuing smaller lots. I am intentionally being a bit vague about particular names as I am still finalizing certain details, however these farms were visibly healthy and robust which was a clear indication that the farmers had a hold on what their trees needed (i.e. soil makeup, pruning and fertilization). Nonetheless, there were only a couple farms which were separating out the different varieties of coffee. Most, even if very tasty in the cup, had a mixture of Bourbon, Mundo Novo, and Costa Rica 95 scattered on their farm. This is something I made sure to question them about. Do you know what your Bourbon or Caturra tastes like? How about the Costa Rica 95? Explaining the desires of the consuming side of our industry to the farmers is important. Not only is it the start of working towards a successful specialty crop, but it potentially helps create a more diverse offering which farmers can sell at different prices based on quality. Such knowledge needs to be balanced with a healthy dose of common sense of course. Farmers cannot just start ripping out plants and give up on two or three years of income, but there are ways to move forward which are both strategic and sensible.

I’ll leave you with this. Every new relationship is a bit of a journey. Some are a bit more uncertain than others, but leaving Mexico felt good. The food rocked, the people are friendly, our partners on the ground are highly motivated, the coffee was both delicious and fulfils a clear need in our line-up — and we are only just getting started. There’s so much potential; viva Mexico!

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