When I first arrived in Mexico almost three years ago, I was expecting a flat country with many cacti but not much more than that. My expectations about Mexican coffee were similar. I could not imagine to what extent my idea about Mexico and its landscapes was going to change as I spent a considerable amount of time traveling and living in different parts of the country. Now I can say that I have never been as impressed by a country as I have been by Mexico. Indeed I did come across many cacti but beyond that I found an astonishing diversity: beaches with breezes from the Pacific, the Gulf or the Caribbean; jungles, lagoons, waterfalls and coffee regions with incomparable biodiversity; pulsating metropolises and volcanoes with some of North America’s highest peaks just to mention a few of the endless contrasts that make up the country’s beauty which I can hardly put into words. México es Máxico! So let’s find out what was going to happen to my idea of Mexican coffees.
The AROMAS event
In 2015 Caravela organized the first Aromas de la Sierra Madre as a competition and auction for coffees from the state of Oaxaca. The event took place at Hotel Santa Fe in Puerto Escondido. Because the event was a tremendous success, Caravela organized the second ASM at the same location during the second week of March this year. Similar to last year we were lucky to be able to count on the essential support of Sylvia Gutierrez, Gustavo Boltjes from Finca Las Nieves, Hotel Santa Fe and UNTAO (Unión De Trabajadores Nacionales Agrícolas Oaxaqueños), a dry mill on the outskirts of Oaxaca City.
The event was basically going to consist of three essential steps:
I. February 22-29: Making a pre-selection based on the received samples
II. February 24- March 5: Accepting, analyzing and purchasing the lots
III. March 7-10: Cuppings with buyers and auctioning off the best scoring lots
Whereas the final cuppings and the auction were going to take place at Hotel Santa Fe in Puerto Escondido, UNTAO let us use their nice and professionally equipped lab in order to conduct the pre-selection and to receive the lots.
But first of all let us start with a couple of interesting facts. Mexico is the seventh largest coffee producer worldwide with 99% of its production being Arabica varieties. Oaxaca, though one of the most relevant, represents only one out of 12 coffee exporting states within the county. The name of the Aromas de la Sierra Madre event was inspired by the fact that Oaxaca’s coffee regions are part of the mountain range called Sierra Madre del Sur.
Among Mexico’s remaining coffee producing states, some represent Latin America’s coffee regions with the farthest distance to the equator. Due to this fact and the colder climate that goes along with it, there have even been remarkable coffees produced at an incredible altitude of only 400 meters above sea level (Arabicas!). At the same time some of the producing regions in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Colima and Jalisco (Sierra Madre del Sur), as well as the state of Nayarit (Sierra Madre Occidental), are characterized by a relatively mild climate, as they are within a stone’s throw of the Pacific coast. The same applies for the state of Veracruz (Sierra Madre Oriental) and the Gulf Coast. Apart from that, the Soconusco region in Chiapas, for example, is characterized by conditions that are similar to the ones in Guatemala. Thus, Mexico offers incredibly diverse climates and landscapes to produce high quality specialty coffees. Still there is one thing that all of these regions have in common: most of their production is organic.
In order to include some of that diversity in the event, Caravela expanded this year’s ASM to accept samples from the whole country. Producers were able to hand in samples at different places from where they were bundled and sent to UNTAO in Oaxaca.
Together with Alvaro, coordinator of quality for the region of Tolima in Colombia, I was going to receive, analyze, roast and cup the delivered samples as steps of the pre- and final selection. We were looking for lots with scores of 85 points or higher, and the objective was to conduct a quality analysis as detailed as possible. Thus, we would not only be able to obtain reliable estimations concerning the quality and quantity for the buyers and ourselves but also be able to give a constructive feedback to all of the participating producers.
Last year we received 50 samples of which 26 made it to the international jury. The 10 best scoring lots were sold in an auction. As, on the one hand, we had expanded the potentially participating regions and, on the other hand, publicized the event with a considerable amount of announcements to arouse producers’ attention, we were expecting to receive around 200 samples this year. The deadline for sending samples was February 21.
When Alvaro and I arrived at UNTAO on February 22 we found that unfortunately there were not quite 200 samples waiting for us. There were actually just 4 (right, four!). Fortunately we were able to extend the time that we were going to accept samples for a few more days. Just about 10 minutes after we arrived, another 6 samples were delivered, followed by another 15 over the next couple of days. In the beginning we still had plenty of time to have a cup of coffee or to enjoy the delicious food of Oaxaca during extended lunch breaks. As more and more samples arrived, the only way to satisfy my need for coffee was to lay the cuspidor aside for some of the samples while cupping. Luckily making a choice on which samples these would be wasn’t hard at all. In fact it didn’t take long until we realized that there were some brilliant coffees participating.
Soon the samples would no longer fit into the box that we had initially chosen for storing. I remember telling Badi that we might receive a total of 50 samples if we were lucky. In the end we were happy to complete 80. As the bunch of samples next to the box grew, our hours of sleep declined. Once a sample was approved, we contacted the producers so they could deliver the respective lot. When receiving the lots, we took a new sample from all bags of each lot in order to make sure that the quality of the complete lots was equivalent to the approved samples. If it was, we could confirm the purchase and arrange the first payment to the producers.
Of the initially 31 pre-selected samples, we were able to ultimately accept 21. The remaining ones either did not make it to UNTAO in time or arrived but didn’t match their respective samples. Apart from the 21 purchased samples that met our requirements and scored 85 points or more, we decided to take 12 further samples to Puerto Escondido. These, although cupped with the buyers during the first day in Puerto Escondido, were not going to be part of the auction. We offered them as lots that could be purchased outside of the auction.
I shouldn’t forget to mention the significance of UNTAO, as their cooperativeness and willingness to help, is definitely exemplary and makes up an irreplaceable part of the whole event. Also, the working atmosphere was great and there was always someone with whom we could laugh and be entertained. Apart from that the guys from UNTAO always gave their best at letting the stored parchment and green coffees rest surrounded by Mexican Banda and Cumbia music at considerable volume.
At the Hotel Santa Fe (Puerto Escondido)
Somehow Alvaro and I managed to fit all our equipment, luggage and the 33 selected samples of parchment into my car. Well, of course we did, it’s a Beetle! Thus, in authentic Mexican manner, we left UNTAO heading towards Puerto Escondido.
On our way we were going to pass by Finca Chelín, one of just a few certified carbon neutral coffee farms worldwide. The enthusiastic owner Enrique Lopez had invited us for a cup of coffee so we obviously couldn’t say no and stopped for a short visit. Apart from cultivating exotic varieties, Enrique Lopez has a very profound knowledge about the different kinds of processes. Many of his extraordinary experiments with washed, honey-processed and natural coffees have led to considerable success.
After an inspiring conversation and several exceptional cups of coffee, Alvaro and I left and headed towards Puerto Escondido. By the time we arrived at the Hotel Santa Fe, all the participants (representatives of 6 roasters from Sweden and the U.S., Alejandro and Badi from Caravela as well as Gustavo Boltjes and Robin Cleaver from Finca Las Nieves and Hotel Santa Fe) had already met at the hotel’s excellent restaurant. While having dinner together, everyone got to know each other.
Not only the restaurant but also the hotel with its fantastic rooms, astonishing ocean view and winding pools was quite impressive. To quote one of Caravela’s representatives from last year, Fred Lullfitz, “It was going to be a terrible week”.
As some samples had been directly sent to the Hotel Santa Fe, we spent Monday morning analyzing these samples accompanied by the roasters, of whom a few turned out to be instrumental in analyzing the yield. In the afternoon Alvaro and I started to prepare and roast all the samples we brought so they would be ready to be cupped on Tuesday. I can now say that roasting 33 samples on a single drum roaster takes quite some time.
On Tuesday morning all the samples were cupped. In the evening we had the option of stimulating our senses by visiting the Manialtepec coastal lagoon, where we dove into a sea of stars, creating astral patterns under a starry night. This was an incredible experience created by the presence of bioluminescent phytoplankton.
Wednesday morning we focused on only the accepted coffee lots, before arranging an optional visit of Finca Las Nieves, the winner of AROMAS 2015. It’s an impressive and astonishingly beautiful farm owned by Robin Cleaver (also the owner of the Hotel Santa Fe) and co-run by environmental scientist Gustavo Boltjes. The farm is unique not only because of its coffees with world-class recognition and success as a Cup of Excellence finalist, but also because of its endless dedication to creating agro-forestal systems with polycultures. There coffee grows under bio-diverse shade and represents a key environmental, social and cultural cornerstone, conserving the so called “cafeticultura”, the culture of coffee. Gustavo emphasizes:
“It’s impresssive to see how a small coffee seed can have the power to conserve high altitude perennifolio jungles, creating sustainable nutrient cycles that will conserve livelihoods and the lush Eden’s of the Sierra Madre, where food is not a problem but the bi-product of creating delicious coffee.”
Thursday was clearly one of the most outstanding days of the event. First of all, the 10 finalist lots were cupped. As on Tuesday and Wednesday, the cupping was still going to be blind. The results were going to determine the order of the winning lots. We had already made an internal estimation on which ones could be among the most successful ones on Tuesday and advised the respective producers. We were happy that some of them decided to come to Puerto Escondido and join the event. Thus, they could also receive their certificates and prices during a small ceremony and observe their own coffees being sold in the auction. For us, it always makes up a very special part to have producers and roasters together. We were pleased to have an interesting exchange of information between the two parts. Also it was good for the producers to get to know Caravela’s concept first hand.
So what about the coffees?
As we had expected, there were some very high scoring and interesting AAA coffees among the participating lots. Whereas the ones that made the 4th until the 10th place were all washed coffees, the three winners were surprisingly different types of honeys characterized by very individual and extraordinary profiles. The highest scoring lot was a yellow honey from Finca Cañada Fria (Veracruz) that reached an average of 89.10 points. Second place was a white honey with an average score of 87.60 and was also produced by Daniel Cobilt from Finca Cañada Fria. Third place, scoring 87.14, was a black honey and obtained by Enrique Lopez (Finca Chelín) who actually had a total of 4 lots among the top 10. While these honeys definitely represented a highlight of the event, the washed coffees also had a lot to offer, scoring between 85 and 87 points. Proofs of the remarkable qualities are also the prices the lots reached in the auction, ranging from 5.10 to 13.70 USD FOB per pound of exportable green coffee.
For Mexican producers this year has been a year characterized by extremely tough conditions. Coffee leaf rust has decreased the harvest dramatically, leading to a precarious scarcity in many states. Also last October’s hurricane Patricia, although eventually trivialized by the global media due to lack of loss of human life, has impacted this year’s harvest as it destroyed large parts of the farms in the states of Colima and Jalisco. Apart from that we realized that we would have had a lot more participation if the event had been about a month later. Especially in the northern states some of the best qualities are just about to be harvested.
Nevertheless, we certainly can conclude that the ASM 2016 turned out to be a great success and a significant step for Caravela in Mexico. Special thanks go to Gustavo, Liliana from UNTAO, Robin and Sylvia and, last but not least, all of the participating producers and roasters; not only did they enable us to realize the event but they also helped us have a great and unforgettable time during the whole ASM 2016! We appreciate that we could substantiate our collaboration over the last year and are really looking forward to continue working together!
An outlook into the future?
I almost forgot to return to my initial question: What happened to my idea of Mexican coffees? With the simple fact that we cupped AAA washed, honey processed and natural coffees, there should be no need to say much more. México es Máxico.
Apparently I am not the only one with a completely changed idea of what Mexican coffees have to offer. Although we didn’t receive as many samples as we expected we definitely leave Puerto Escondido with a good feeling. With a savory aftertaste we are now looking forward to what lies ahead for us in Mexico and can’t wait to be slurping what’s going to be on our cupping tables next year!
Last year there were only coffees of the Sierra Madre del Sur, this year also the Sierra Madre Oriental was very successful. Are we going to be cupping some coffees of the Sierra Madre Occidental at ASM 2017?
One thing is for sure: Our goal will still be to receive at least 200 samples and we leave Mexico being quite confident that we are going to make it!
See you next year in Puerto!