Coffee Origin Trip - Day 1: Chiapas, Mexico
What is a coffee origin trip?
Traveling to a coffee producing country is what the coffee industry refers to as an ‘origin trip.’ Due to the fact that the climate and elevation in the continental United States is not conducive to coffee growth, this travel is often necessary in understanding where our coffee comes from and is an important experience from the largest importers down to the smallest micro-roasters.
As a coffee roaster traveling to origin, we can expand our perspective in terms of not just production but of an entire region’s growing process from fertilizer to labor to the fully milled, exportable bean. It allows for a closer relationship with both producers and importers as well as a much more transparent connection with the coffee itself. At Water Street, we understand that our roaster is part of a larger global coffee community and the education we receive at origin is invaluable to being a responsible, contributing member of that community from knowing the issues that threaten the crops to seeing first hand the care and quality control that goes into each bag of coffee. So please, join us as we share how we tasted, hiked, and learned our way through some incredible coffee co-ops in Chiapas, Mexico.
Day 1 - April 3, 2017
Our first full day in Jaltenango, a municipality in the State of Chiapas, was filled with firsts for both myself and Liz, Water Street Coffee’s Director of Operations.
Breakfast was at a place just around the corner from our hotel, where a nice woman offered to cook us breakfast and make us coffee. The food was delightful, authentic, and filling, and the coffee a bit (and by a bit, I mean a LOT) heavy on the sugar. I don’t think any one of us had more than a sip. Bellies full, albeit sans coffee, we made our way to CESMACH, 1 of the 3 co-ops we would be visiting on our trip. This particular co-op has been working with Café Imports, one of our main importers, for 10 years.
Each co-op provides coffee growers in the area with the resources and knowledge they need to be a successful member of that co-op. Assistance is provided in the form of fertilizer, coffee plants, financial support, and an infrastructure that includes storage warehouses, facilities, meeting rooms, and roasters. All of these opportunities guarantee higher premiums for coffee when it is sold to the co-op as well as providing integral support for the international purchasing process.
To begin, we were given a tour of the warehouse that receives coffee from producers in the area.
|Jeremias milling a sample of coffee||Producer waits for his coffee to be received|
CESMACH receives coffee from 4 municipalities, and is made up of 666 members. Since we arrived in Mexico toward the end of the harvest, we were able to witness coffee being received at the cooperative from one of the local growers. Jeremias, head of quality control and physical analysis at CESMACH, walked us through exactly what happens when the coffee is received.
First, Jeremias ensures that the producer is actually a member of CESMACH as they cannot purchase coffee from non-members. Producers can either transport the coffee to the co-op themselves or they can rent a truck from the co-op to bring in the coffee. Jeremias also verifies if the producer is certified organic. Each and every bag received is labelled and stored in the warehouse properly and not mixed with coffees not yet certified.
Upon arrival, Jeremias has the producer place his coffee on a scale to see how much coffee he is delivering. At this point, the coffee is still in parchment, or pergamino in Spanish. He then pulls a 350 gram sample from the bags, mills the coffee to remove the parchment, and then weighs it again. This will give him a yield factor from which he can extrapolate how much actual green coffee will come from the coffee received. A typical yield for washed coffee is 83–84%, and 50–52% for a natural processed coffee. During this process Jeremias also checks the moisture content of the bean both with his teeth and a machine. He is looking for a percentage between 10–12%.
After the warehouse tour we attended a presentation given by CESMACH. The co-op has been operating for the past 22 years near the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, and is aimed at protecting the flora, some of which is dinosaur-age, fauna, birds, forests, and animals of the central portion of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Overall it encompasses 35 communities, and covers in total 2,535 hectares of land. This is a place in Mexico with wonderful biodiversity and it is utterly important to farm and produce responsibly in this area - and that’s exactly what CESMACH does.
During the presentation it was made clear that the biggest struggle producers have been facing in recent years is coffee rust.
|Coffee Leaves: On the Left, a Leaf with Rust (Roya), on the Right, a Healthy Leaf||Leaf with Rust and Coffee Cherries|
Coffee rust is a fungus that attacks the coffee plant and creates rust-colored spots on the leaves of susceptible plants. The fungus will eventually kill the coffee plant, resulting in no coffee production from that plant. In 2011, Mexico took a devastating blow from this fungus with the darkest of days for producers between 2013–2014 when coffee rust had a presence in 95% of the coffee plantations and created a decrease in production of 40%. Some producers even abandoned coffee altogether and resorted to other means of income. This crop year, however, the region is seeing a rebound as the co-op has been learning more about rust, seeking out rust-resistant varietals, and improving soil fertility. Yields per hectare are double that of last year - up from 600 to 1,200.
A great example of CESMACH’s rust mitigation effort was the discovery of a local Bourbon hybrid varietal named Rancho Bonito and a Geisha varietal that has been in the area for over 30 years, both of which are promising as rust resistant varietals. CESMACH also uses a bio-fertilizer to aid in sustaining a healthier plant and is in the process of certifying their own locally made fertilizer as organic which will then be distributed to producers moving forward. Due to these practices, and help from outside universities in identifying rust-resistant varietals, CESMACH estimates that they will export 30 containers of coffee this year (each container holds 275,152 pound bags). In total this means CESMACH is on track to export around 1.25 million pounds of coffee.
Another significant part of this trip and presentation was the discussion on women producers. In the past, women would tend to vegetable gardens or chickens and their children while the men owned and worked on the coffee farm. Due to cultural factors, it has historically been difficult for women to go to workshops and acquire the education and means necessary to produce coffee. However, women’s integration into the coffee industry has recently become more prevalent often due to the fact that many of the women’s husbands have migrated to the US.
Changes in land inheritance laws have helped as well, and if a woman becomes a widow she may choose to run the farm. Also some men have begun to let their wives administer part of the farm. Women producers sell their coffee as Café Femenino with proceeds going to health programs for women and other projects aimed at empowering women. Membership has grown from 6 members during its formation to 224 today. There is also 1 woman on the board of CESMACH for the first time which is a huge step in a country like Mexico. Women are seeing progress, and their daughters now have more opportunity for education as a result of this shift. Many health clinics have been established as well as social programs to benefit women and the community as a whole. The women in these communities are in charge of all processes of the coffee, from tree to dry-mill, and are held to the same standards as other producers. They have also noticed that the money is better managed as in many cases the husband may drink all the money made.
|From Left to Right, Elizabeth Comrie (Water Street Coffee Director of Operations), Silvia (a board member for CESMACH), Magdalena (a fellow roaster).|
Our last peek into CESMACH was a visit to the nursery. The nursery is critical in propagating new coffee plants to be distributed to producers, especially in times of recovery from rust. Manuel manages the nursery at CESMACH and offered much insight into selecting proper “soldiers” or “matchsticks” as the young coffee plants are referred to (see image below).
|Each One of These Beds Contains 20,000 Soldiers, All of Which Have to Later Be Hand-Picked One-by-One and Transplanted|
|The Coffee Bean is also the Seed of the Plant, known as Soldiers||Young Coffee Plants at the CESMACH Nursery||Fertilizer Produced by the co-op, shown by nursery manager, Manuel Gomez Santiz.|
A very special fertilizer, and point of pride for CESMACH, is used in the nursery that is composed of manure, California red worm, compost, and worm urine. Other fertilizers are used by collecting soil from the mountains and reproducing organisms that would naturally occur. This helps the plant absorb nutrients and is applied to the foliage and given to producers.
All in all, CESMACH was very impressive in terms of organization care, passion, and attention to detail. Their determination to push through the outbreak of rust has shown through the smiles on their faces and the hope and positive outlook towards the future was very heartwarming. They seemed the most family-oriented of the co-ops and were extremely hospitable to all of us during our visit.
The next stop on our first day was the co-op of Triunfo Verde where Calixto Guillen, head of quality control, physical analysis, and cupping, led us through their process in receiving coffee.
|Triunfo Verde Co-op|
The process is much like that of CESMACH with some similarities but a few noticeable differences in the way they do things. For example, much care is taken to ensure the trucks bringing in the coffee are free of contaminants and are clean; they also monitor the coffee during every stage of processing including the dry-milling.
Also, since producers in the past used to fill coffee bags with foreign material intentionally to receive more money, Triunfo Verde empties each bag it receives into their own bags to check for foreign material at the point of arrival. One interesting thing I learned from Calixto is that it takes 3 years of organic farming practice to earn the organic certificate. For this reason, just like Jeremias at CESMACH, Calixto has a list to separate organic coffee from ‘coffee in transition.’
|Calixto Guillen displaying his log of Organic Coffees vs. Coffees in transition||Stacks of green coffee bags in the co-op|
Triunfo Verde is made up of 513 members and estimates that they will process 22 containers this year (that’s a little over 900,000 pounds of green coffee). The co-op was formed in the late 1990’s from small groups in the area looking for resources and financing as prices were bad for producers due to a lot of competition from multinationals. Triunfo Verde shows producers best practices in pruning, pest control, harvesting, and more, all to help increase coffee quality and earn a higher premium.
Triunfo Verde’s producers were also hit hard not only by rust, but by a hurricane and low coffee prices all at the same time. They referred to it as “the perfect storm”. Coffee production dropped from 684kg per hectare to just 285kg per hectare with cup quality decreasing as well. In response to this devastating blow, the co-op developed a strategy to combat the rust which includes renewing and replanting, soil analysis, a brand new nursery, production of their own fertilizer, a new cupping lab, and workshops to teach producers.
What really struck me at Triunfo Verde was how thorough Calixto is, pulling and saving samples from every single bag, and cupping each and every sample. It makes everything incredibly traceable. And because of this emphasis on cupping and continued effort towards experimentation and micro-lots, these coffees will fetch an even higher premium. Higher premiums in turn result in faster progress towards growing methods, equipment replacement and upkeep, faster recovery in case of disaster, improved quality of life for members of the co-op, and finally improved quality of the coffee that eventually makes it’s way to our own shops. To maintain this traceability, every bag is labelled with a tag detailing everything about that coffee including the producer, lot number, and organic certification and is then stacked in the warehouse in stacks of 275 bags, the amount for a single container. While stacking, a sample is pulled from each bag and put into a separate bag which will represent what that lot will taste like since all of that coffee will eventually be blended together. If there is an issue during cupping of that coffee, it can easily be traced back to the individual bag.
|The new cupping lab at Triunfo Verde|
The co-op also has a few nurseries which we toured. One of the nurseries alone could hold up to 500,000 plants which are given to producers. Like CESMACH, they have discovered other rust resistant varietals such as Pache Colin and a Dwarf Typica.
|Here are roughly 500,000 Coffee Plants|
As a final note on our first day in Mexico, I think it’s important to mention how smart and wonderful it is that each co-op is not only concerned with coffee and preserving the environment but also experimenting with other methods of income and sustainability. My favorite example of this is CESMACH’s new beekeeping project. Honey is being produced with the bees using the nectar from the coffee plant, producing a coffee blossom honey. The honey is only available locally in Mexico but all of us were lucky enough to have a taste of the honeycomb.