Mexico Surf and Slurp: Aromas de la Sierra Madre Event

A couple of weeks ago, Caravela Coffee and Finca Las Nieves hosted the inaugural Aromas de la Sierra Madre cupping event in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and I was lucky enough to be invited along to cup, surf and meet producers.

I had just finished the Cup of Excellence in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, so I was already pretty comfortable and calibrated with the South Mexican profiles, and looking through the codes, notes and scores of the CoE finalists on my way to Puerto, it appeared my favorite coffees were all coming from Oaxaca.

Winners of the 2015 Mexico Cup of Excellence in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico

Winners of the 2015 Mexico Cup of Excellence in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico

What did I know about Mexico so far?  2.2 million bags are consumed domestically.  More than 90% of the production is in the south, divided between:

  • Chiapas - 35%
  • Puebla - 15%
  • Oaxaca - 13%
  • Veracruz - 25%

Mexico, while being a giant when compared to Central America has the lowest yield of coffee producing countries in the region.  Annual coffee production sadly has decreased by 30% in the last 3 years.  Coffee Leaf Rust has had a huge impact in the area.  Amecafe’s goal is to plant 100 million rust resistant plants every year in the coming years.  And the most impressive out of all of this is that the majority of this coffee is currently organic.

Coming from a Colombian background, hearing about the large amount of organic coffee in Mexico was quite exciting. Most of the lots that were submitted to the Aromas event were Typica with some Pluma, Bourbon and Mundo Novo varieties as well.   I personally prefer cupping tables of Typicas, to Catimores so this trip was heaven for me. 

After a quick visit to Oaxaca to visit our friends at UNTAO, a small dry mill on the outskirts of the city and a quick catacion of Oaxaca’s Mezcals in town with a friend, I jumped on the world’s smallest commercial plane and headed to Puerto Escondido.

Flight from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido in the world's smallest commercial airplane.

Flight from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido in the world's smallest commercial airplane.

Flying into Puerto Escondido in this plane, was one of the coolest experiences of the trip. Every time we went past a mountain, the plane lifted a few meters and everyone in the plane screamed and prayed, it was a blast.

World class surfing on the Mexpipe in front of Hotel Santa Fe, on Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

World class surfing on the Mexpipe in front of Hotel Santa Fe, on Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

Landing in Puerto I met up with the jury and we headed to the Hotel Santa Fe. The hotel is across the road from Playa Zicatela, one of Mexico’s most popular surf beaches.  The rooms are in large colonial style buildings with swimming pools everywhere. It was going to be a terrible week.

View of the Pacific Ocean and Playa Zicatela from Hotel Santa Fe, Puerto Escondido, Mexico

View of the Pacific Ocean and Playa Zicatela from Hotel Santa Fe, Puerto Escondido, Mexico

The Aromas de la Sierra Madre event began as an idea in November of last year.  While visiting Finca Las Nieves, we wanted to see if we could draw some attention to western Oaxaca.  From there the idea grew and once it was apparent it could work, we started to make it happen.

Sylvia Gutierrez helped us get the word out, drum up interest for the event and connect with producers.    Given the short notice, we were happy to have 50 samples delivered and sent to our office in the USA.  These coffees were graded and pre-selected by our North American team.  Producers whose coffee made the grade were then invited to deliver these coffees to UNTAO and from those lots, samples were sent to Hotel Santa Fe for the national jury.  

Fernando Gomez, the Director of Quality from Virmax Colombia managed the coffee side of the event from the national jury through the auction. Juan Carlos de la Torre, the Mexican Brewer’s Cup Champion was the master roaster who did a great job of sample roasting. Gustavo Boltjes from Finca Las Nieves was the glue that pulled it all together (and also lent me his surfboard for the week, legend).

These folks and the other members of the national jury, roasters and cuppers from Tijuana to D.F., did a great job selecting lots. In the end, 26 lots made it to the international jury and they varied from small - 2 bags, to large - 100 bags, all from nearby producers in Oaxaca.

Fernando Gomez, Virmax Colombia Director of Quality, who was in charge of the quaity control and execution of the cupping.

Fernando Gomez, Virmax Colombia Director of Quality, who was in charge of the quaity control and execution of the cupping.

Over the course of the 3 days we carefully cupped all the coffees.  The setting of the cupping was a master suite with a majestic ocean view.  There was ample space for tables and another room for cupping preparations.  I can’t think of a better way to cup coffee.

On Wednesday, the producers had been invited to come and participate.  We cupped the Top 10 coffees in the morning.  After that, we gave a presentation to the winning producers, introducing the Virmax / Caravela model and sharing with them our values and how we work.  I was able to work on my public Spanish presentation skills which is always a joy.

Jennifer Howell from George Howell Coffee with Faustino Garcia and his son.

Jennifer Howell from George Howell Coffee with Faustino Garcia and his son.

Next was the auction of the Top 10 coffees, which took place under a palapa with the ocean’s breeze and the soundtrack of the ocean’s breaking waves.  The excitement of the auction was followed by a time for producers to meet the roasters that purchased their coffee and to get to know each other.   Everybody sat down to a fantastic meal at the hotel’s excellent vegetarian/pescatarian restaurant.  Needless to say, a great time was had by all.  After the dinner, all the producers were invited to watch “A Film About Coffee” which was projected on a screen set up along the beach, it was really quite amazing.

Winning producers of the Aromas de la Sierra Madre event in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

Winning producers of the Aromas de la Sierra Madre event in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

We had the opportunity to visit Finca Las Nieves, with Robin Cleaver, who also owns the Hotel Santa Fe. Originally from LA, Robby and his family moved down to Mexico and initially started importing goods from Asia and the middle east.  Robin bought the farm and got into coffee in the 90’s and a little later on, with Gustavo as a partner they are exploring sustainable agricultural techniques such as preparing fertilizers and organic rust preventative sprays on site.

The organic farm is a massive 300 hectares more or less, about a 2 hour drive from Puerto on the road to Oaxaca. To my surprise the majority of the farm was Typica, Bourbon and Caturra. There were parts of the farm affected by rust of course, however some plots were absolutely stunning. The farm has plenty of shade and water supply, the trees showed little sign of deficiency.

Robin Cleaver, owner of Finca Las Nieves and Hotel Santa Fe in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

Robin Cleaver, owner of Finca Las Nieves and Hotel Santa Fe in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

Farming has been a challenge in this region due to a series of hurricanes that moved in from the sea and dumped salt over the mountains. The other obstacle on the mountain is a long going feud between rival gangs.  Extortion and theft is rife, and has been for a very long time.  However, despite the salt, rust and extortion, Finca Las Nieves continues to produce amazing coffee. Their commitment to quality has landed them in the finals for the CoE  multiple times.

Sunset on the Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

Sunset on the Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

This year’s event was a great success, all of the auction lots that were presented were purchased and we left with a great feeling, and pumped for next year.  These coffees will soon be available to all the roasters that participated and a few lots are available to others who would like to.

Mexico has a lot of challenges, but in those challenges are many opportunities.  We feel that we, and the roasters we work with, have a lot of expertise that we can share with the producers of Oaxaca to help improve their coffee and with that hopefully their well being.  It’s clear that there is a demand for high quality Mexican coffee and with all of the resources and opportunities that are present in Oaxaca, we are excited to roll up our sleeves and get to work.


See you next year Puerto!
Fred Lullfitz