When I found out early March 2021 that I would have the opportunity to spend an entire month in Oaxaca, Mexico, I was more than thrilled. We all had been through a difficult year and the several lockdowns and Covid restrictions had really started to take a toll on everyone’s mental well-being.
The objective of the trip was to immerse myself with our team in Mexico, get a better understanding of their reality and challenges, as well as find out how the Mexican coffee market is structured and meet some of the producers behind it. Caravela’s operations are mainly based in Oaxaca and Chiapas, two southwestern states of Mexico that have risen to the forefront of non-commercial coffee production since its introduction at the end of the 1800s, over a century after coffee first arrived in the western hemisphere in what is now the eastern state of Veracruz. Caravela HQ is located in Oaxaca City, where you can find the dry mill, main office and warehouse.
Oaxaca is home to the Zapotec, a pre-Columbian civilization thought to have originated over 2,500 years ago. Despite the Spanish colonisation and its devastating effect on the native population, Oaxaqueña culture has remained very strong. Today, the state is divided into eight sub-regions with myriad indigenous communities, local cultures and traditions.
My first field visit was to the Ozoletepec region. I left Oaxaca City to meet our analyst, Carlos Romero, two hours away in Miahuatlan. After another 4-hour drive, we arrived at the San Juan community in Ozoletepec. The change in landscape was striking, having started amid extremely arid scenery only to arrive in a greener, forest-type environment. We met with our PECA coordinator, Renato, a young member of the community, and producer Lino Garcia and his son, Sixto. After a very challenging trek through the forest (one hour of steep mountain climbing in 35C heat!), we finally arrived at their parcels. The trees, mainly Typica and Pluma variety, were very tall and I was surprised to find out that they depulp and ferment the coffee on the parcel, in the middle of the forest. They explained that because of the distance between their land and the village, it would be too heavy for the donkeys to carry full cherries the whole way, back and forth. We then also met with couple producers, Israel and Rosa Martinez.
The second trip was to another area of the Ozolotepec region, closer to the Pacific: Tierra Blanca, with a community of 23 producers, and Malvarisco with 19 producers. I met with our PECA coordinator, Lazaro, who is also a member of these local communities. The main language there is Zapotec, so a few producers with whom we met didn’t speak Spanish and Lazaro was here to translate. Other growers we met included Jose Perez Juarez, who produces Pluma and Caturra, as well as Horta Santos Martinez, who produces Pluma Organic, but only two sacks of parchment a year!
With most farms here located at over 1,900 masl, the region has ideal conditions to grow high quality coffee. This beneficial altitude is not free from challenges though, as water scarcity and the extreme remoteness of the area present significant hurdles for farmers to overcome.
Because producers grow coffee following ‘ancestral methods’, most of their coffee is by default organically processed. They do not use chemicals and have little intervention on their farms. Due to limited water resources, producers ferment the cherries without it, and use hardly any water throughout the whole process. They traditionally dry their coffee on straw mats, and then sort the parchment by hand to remove foreign material, resulting in dry parchment that is always exceptionally clean. This ancestral way of producing coffee is a double-edged sword. The fact that all the coffee is, by default, Organic, caters to the growing needs of consuming markets for more organically grown products. However, the productivity and efficiency of the farms is very low. Therefore, these producers live a difficult life, with a lot of hard work for little output. The work of the Caravela PECA team is now to help them increase productivity and quality, while respecting their traditional way of growing coffee.
I am confident that the hand-in-hand work between these Oaxaqueño producers and the Caravela team will prove successful, and I am looking forward to seeing what great coffees it will bring in the future.
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