8th Avenue barista Noah Welch (aka Barquito) went to Mexico with two missions.
1. Learn about Robusta. Robusta is the less popular species of coffee that the industry looks down upon as "low grade".
2. Meet with UDEPOM, a cooperative in Chiapas whose coffee we wanted to sell on the Single Source Menu.
Despite a stolen passport and camera, Q made it out. His account is below.
This place is beautiful. Big and beautiful. Organ grinders, cobblestone, street tacos, giant parks, a few too many 7-elevens for my taste, but a completely entrancing city nonetheless.
I spent two days here acting a businessman. I attended a conference on robusta coffees, held by AMECAFE. I was the only person there who wasn't a Mexican coffee roaster or coffee farmer. As an educational experience, it was fascinating.
Robusta is a different species of coffee than Arabica (nearly all specialty coffee is Arabica). It has lower sugar content and higher caffeine content. It's resistant to many of the pests and diseases that can infect Arabica-which means it's less tempting to use chemicals on it. It can grow in low and warm regions, and each tree yields more fruit than the typical Arabica tree. From a sustainability standpoint, Robusta makes sense as the weather becomes less predictable. Flavor-wise, Robusta has more olive and cardamom ﬂavors than the fruit and chocolate that we find in Arabica. Think the difference between a dry red wine and a sweet white.
Then, there was a day of cupping. I learned that Robusta is not to be considered low-grade compared to Ara- bica. It can make a great addition to a blend, and can be awesome on its own. We tasted robustas from all over the world. Some of them were amazingly complex; some were peculiar and unpleasantly bitter. I found several that I liked, waxy body, reminiscent of oatmeal, epazote, cumin. They all came from the Soconusco region of Chiapas. So I tried to get in touch with the people whose coffees I liked, ate some tacos, and headed south to the Soconusco region of Chiapas.
Profesor Otilio Montaño is not a coffee producer. He was buddies with Emiliano Zapata in the early days of
the Mexican Revolution. In a time when the elite controlled labor in Mexico, Montaño and Zapata fought for land redistribution to communities and individuals of the working class.
The Union de Ejidos de Profesor Otilio Montaño is a cooperative in Motozintla. They take after Otilio Montaño by
representing small producers in the region, exporting their coffee as a cooperative. The cooperative prides themselves
on rigid standards of maintaining organic soil throughout the region.
I hadn't heard yet from any of the robusta producers I had contacted, so I went to visit UDEPOM. We now sell their coffee on our Single Source Menu. I met Samuel, the president. He told me Motozintla was my home. I drove around with Juan Carlos, one of the soil technicians. Every two months, UDEPOM sends someone to all of the farms to test the soil and make sure that the department of Motozintla stays free of chemicals. Oved Velazquez and I scrambled up some of the steepest mountainsides to inspect his coffee, while our driver Ovidio went to eat some corn from Oved's yard. The community was incredibly welcoming, and the land was immaculate.
I left Motozintla in a colectivo minivan to head back to the heart of the Soconusco. It was late, hot and crowded, and I was running out of hope for visiting robusta. Just as I got to Tapachula, I got a phone call from Jorge Aguilar, coffee manager of CASFA. He wanted to spend the next day showing me some robusta producing communities.
BELLA VISTA & NUEVA ALICIA
Jorge works for CASFA, an exporting cooperative that helps small producers of coffee, chocolate, fruit, and fish to export their coffee. Jorge picked me up in a CASFA van with Jose, the resident permaculturist, and we headed up to visit robusteros.
One of the coffees I tasted in Mexico City came from Bella Vista, a very small village on the border with Guatemala. Bella Vista is up by the Tacana Volcano. It has a small distribution of homes, with no real town center to be seen, lots of broken concrete, open doors, tiny alleyways. Everyone's house has a patio for drying coffee. Each citizen of Bella Vista owns about 5 hectares of land scattered around the mountains leading up to town. I met Epifanio' wife Rayar sorting coffee in their backyard.
She pointed us to where her husband was harvesting on the mountainside and we went to hang out. We ran into Santos Hernandez, another villager, harvesting further up the mountain.
He called out to Epifanio. Epifanio, Santos, the CASFA dudes and I sat for a while, kicked it, talked about waterfalls and coffee trees.
Jorge and Jose and I went back to town and ate tacos, drank Modelo and ate carnitas, talked more about the importance of upholding environmental standards as a community, how glad we were to find each others' companies, how we'd like to work in the future with the people of Bella Vista on improving coffee production and infrastructure.
To close: I learned about robusta. I met dedicated organic-fair-traders in Motozintla. I met passionate agricul- tural organizers in Tapachula. I saw interesting production structures, reminiscent of early Zapatismo. We sell Otilio Montano now. We will have some BellaVista on the way soon.