Mexico is a country dear to me for several reasons, and over the years I’ve been following with interest and anticipation as the coffee industry there has taken great steps towards approaching the speciality side of production and finding their place in the market. In 2012 I judged their inaugural Cup of Excellence competition, and it was clear that while there were some truly excellent coffees around, the structures, logistics and way of trading that has dominated the culture for a long time was not going to be an easy thing to change. It has not been an easy journey but we think it’s really started to gather momentum and we’re really happy to have delved back into buying some coffee from there after having missed them for a few years.
The perfect opportunity to jump in the deep end again with Mexico came when I attended another producer competition, Aromas, in May earlier this year. Aromas was created to showcase the great potential that Mexico has as a speciality coffee origin, highlight the highest quality coffees that Mexico produces and develop relationships with the people behind those exceptional tasting coffees. It sees a group of international coffee buyers gather to taste the coffee from farmers around Mexico, narrow them down to the very best lots, then hold a live auction where we bid against each other for the ones we loved the most. I fell in love with both of the two natural processed lots that made it to auction this year, and I managed to secure them both in a couple of tense and exciting rounds of bidding.
This is the story of these two lots coffees, each different to each other in their farming practices, varieties farmed and indeed the farmers themselves.
And even more exciting was that one of them was from Enrique Lopez that I’d already met back in 2012 at the Cup of Excellence where he and his nephew won second place with one of their Chiapas farms, and then again when he visited in London the following year. So fast forward to a few years later and we’re happy to finally be able to share another of his coffees with you, from Finca Chelin in Oaxaca, his award-winning lot from the Aromas competition in May. The lot placed 10th overall, and in my mind it’s not only a great example of Mexican coffee, but a wonderful showcase for the skill and adventurous nature of Enrique and his approach to coffee and farming.
In Mexico we sometimes come across names for varieties that aren’t used anywhere else, and the Pluma that makes up part of this lot is one of those. Pluma, or Pluma Hidalgo, is rooted in Typica and was first developed in Mexico and introduced to the areas around Southern Oaxaca in 1845. It gets its name from a local village of the same name, and it has since spread across many regions of Oaxaca, north to La Costa and east to Sierra Sur, adapting to new microclimates as it spread. There has been a movement to establish Denomination of Origin status for Pluma Hidalgo, but its wide-ranging use has made that more difficult.
The other bean in this lot is Mundo Novo, which is a common variety throughout South America but perhaps less well known in Central and North America. It also has roots in Typica, Sumatra and Bourbon. It was discovered in Brazil in the 40’s and has characteristics that make it work really well in windy, disease-prone areas. It is tall, has good productivity and a fine cup, but ripens slightly later than other trees, so producers have to take this into account when planning their harvest cycle.
Mundo Novo is a natural hybrid of Typica sub-varieties, Sumatra and Bourbon. Originally discovered in Brazil in the 1940s by the Instituto Agronômico de Campinase, the plant is strong, tall, and resistant to diseases and strong wind. Due to these features and its good cup quality, Mundo Novo is one of the most common amongst Brazilian coffee cultivators, forming around 40% of all grown coffee varieties within the country.
For Enrique, part of the challenge and excitement of coffee production comes from playing with parameters not just for varieties but also processing. When he bought Finca Chelin more than ten years ago, it was all but deserted, the ageing coffee trees succumbing to the surrounding natural vegetation, the infrastructure crumbling and access posing a challenge both for vehicles, animals and people. But at 1550 masl, high in the Sierra Sur mountains of Oaxaca, he saw the potential to grow speciality coffee on land and in an environment that had all but reverted back to its natural, organic state. Shade trees had naturally grown in and the coffee rootstock, while older, was ripe for rejuvenation. By adopting a ‘do-no-harm’ philosophy, Enrique turned Chelin from overgrown and abandoned to a healthy, carbon neutral farm that provides habitat for local wildlife, fruit and hardwood for supplemental use and protects natural spring waters. He has planted new varieties that have not been widely tested in Mexico, and he runs multiple processing experiments every year, pushing boundaries and challenging established norms for what coffee, especially in Mexico, can be. As inspired and inspiring a coffee producer that you’d ever meet, we’re thrilled to have secured this very exclusive lot from Enrique this year.
The second award-winning lot from the Aromas competition is the 19th place, a beautiful lot from Rodolfo Jimenez Ruedas and his son Rodolfo Jimenez Lopez. Rodolfo senior bought Finca El Gato in the Naolinco municipality, Veracruz, almost 40 years ago, a modest 1-hectare farm where he could establish himself and his family through the dream of producing coffee. When they first walked around the property, they came across a cave where four little kittens were running around, and hence the farm got its name. Before growing his own coffee, Rodolfo worked as a coffee picker and travelled from farm to farm during the harvest season to make enough money to raise his family. On occasion, the pickers were able to keep the lower grade qualities collected themselves to take home to drink. Through having to pulp, ferment, wash, dry and hull these coffees he learned about post-harvest processing, and the idea formed to build a coffee farm that he could pass on to the next generations.
When his son was old enough, he taught him everything he knew, gave him his own land to farm, and now both senior and junior are producing award-winning coffees that garner international recognition. They took the 20th place in Aromas as well, with one of their washed lots.
This lot is another one of a variety developed in Mexico that is not often seen outside of the country. Garnica is a cross between Mundo Novo and Caturra, brought out in the 60’s by INMECAFE, the Mexican Institute of Coffee. It did well in Veracruz state and mostly stayed in this area but is still considered unusual as it’s only about 5% of the production there. Similar to Catuai in cup quality, it’s a medium sized plant that yields good quantities and shows resistance to most pests and diseases. Rodolfo has been successful in his dream of creating a family business and legacy and is part of the greater movement to earn Mexico a secure spot in the world of high-quality speciality coffee.
We really hope you enjoy these two coffees and their differences, and we’re excited to continue working on more and better coffee from Mexico and producers like this year on year!