Cafeólogo Series Part Two: Into the Highlands

Jesús Salazar is one of several producers on the forefront of a Mexican coffee renaissance right now.  The long journey Mexico has endured up until this point has not been easy  -  political turmoil within the country, isolation from the United States, widespread coffee diseases, a focus on quantity over quality, and a general stagnation that sometimes comes from growers themselves not having the resources to push forward with more modern and diverse coffee producing techniques.  Jesús has recognized the high level of coffee that his home state ,Chiapas, is capable of producing, and he has made it his mission to work with farmers to perfect these coffees and spread them to the world.  The end goal behind this mission is that the superior coffee will fetch a higher price on the market and lead to a higher standard of living for the growers involved.

We kept in touch with Jesús through email for most of 2016 and sampled coffee from a couple of his grower partners. We were extremely pleased to find how clean and flavorful the coffees were.  They were all so vibrant and sweet and exhibited no defects of any kind.  The bright fruit flavors and pleasant acidities signaled to us that this region was ripe with possibility.  For context, most coffee from Mexico in the past has had the reputation of being grown at relatively lower altitudes and presenting very mild flavors - generic chocolate, nuts, low acidity, medium body. We felt as if we’d unearthed a buried treasure - we were sitting in front of the opportunity to be the first people in the United States to import this super exciting specialty coffee from Mexico.  So we booked our flights to San Cristóbal de las Casas; and in fact, we were some of the first visitors to stay at Casa Cafeólogo - Jesús’s boutique hotel, that is coffee centric to say the least.  There is a cupping lab, sample roasting room, and even a small huller and depulper on the back patio. Coffee processing experiments are drying on the roof on African-style raised drying beds.  The front room of the hotel lobby, which fully opens to the street from huge antique wooden double doors, was being transformed into a small cafe and slated to open just after we left.   Each guest room had coffee brewing gear and a bag of coffee from one of the growers that Jesús works with, roasted at Carajillo just up the street.  From the single group Slayer espresso machine to the stained glass windows, Casa Cafeólgo is oozing with quality and attention to detail.  It’s beautiful and inspiring to see the care that’s put into the coffee and the space and the service that Jesús is providing .

mexico1.jpg

The first full day in San Cristóbal we drove to visit some farmers and their families in the Tenejapa municipality.  Visiting Don Lorenzo and his son is where we first saw a fairly common practice among Cafeólogo’s growing partners, and what we have since referred to as the “Chiapas soak”.  They were submerging the cherries in sealed barrels for 24 - 48 hours prior to depulping and fermentation.  The idea was to bring the seeds out of the cherry and into the world in a more gentle manner (not unlike a water birth) before processing.  Jesús explained to us that this method better kept the structural integrity of the coffee seeds intact - leading to a more stable and better tasting coffee, even many months past harvest.  As we shared pozol (a ground corn beverage) and fresh tortillas, Lorenzo’s son, Alfonso, packaged us up small bags of coffee that had just finished drying for us to take home.  This is where we first witnessed the extreme kindness and generosity of these people.  You could sense the familial nature that everyone had with Jesús. We were honored to be let into their homes, and they were proud to show us around their land.   

Next we drove down the road to visit Pedro Gomez, where we were first able to get our eyes and feet on a coffee farm.  Two things to note are that: (a) these farms are less rows of trees on a flat plantation and more grown wild alongside other crops throughout forested hillsides next to or near people’s homes and (b) the coffees processing is not done at a separate mill with big machines, rather it is manually processed at the farmers’ homes.  This is small-scale farming done with care and taking the manpower of the whole family.  We took a walk through Pedro Gomez’s 30 year old trees; these bourbon and caturra plants were large and lanky with thick roots protruding from the earth.  As we walked around the winding path, Don Gomez constantly pruned bits off of the trees and cleared the ground of debris as Jesús poetically explained the care and intention put into the plants.  Not only did Pedro Gomez place in this year’s Mexico Cup of excellence, but he can also climb a tree like a teenager - we witnessed this second phenomenon first hand as he shook down oranges for us.

The next day we ventured in the other direction away from San Cristóbal and went back to the Aldama municipality, where I had visited many years ago.  San Pedro, the specific village we visited, is a small community with a plethora of dedicated farmers (drawn there by the school, as I mentioned in part one), many who have been collaborating with Jesús and Cafeólogo for multiple years.  In fact, this is where all of the coffees we purchased this year are from.

As we drove into town Jesús spotted Lucas Sántiz, so we followed him to his house to watch his coffee being hulled with one of his neighbor farmers.  Hulling is the process of milling dried parchment off of the seed,  taking it to its final form where it is ready to be bagged and roasted.  Often in this area, farmers will either buy equipment together and share or rent from a nearby farmer that owns their own machinery.  Lucas was the first person in the village to attempt naturally processing his coffee, and he has had great success.  Naturals are the exception right now in Mexico, and this was the first time we had come across one (along with one other producer, Pedro Vazquez, whom you will read about soon).  And we purchased both of these coffees!  Because of the small amount that each grower was able to produce, the lots were mixed together, giving us two bags total.  Juicy, fruity, and clean, are the three words that first come to mind thinking of this coffee.  Initial taste notes were plentiful - grape candy, cherries, tropical, juicy, milk chocolate, syrupy body.  We are extremely excited to share this rare coffee!

We next had a quick stop in for the best rooster stew and fresh tortillas of my life with Salvador Hernandez.  Also a winner in this years cup of excellence with coffee from his farm, Finca Esperanza, he has one of the longest running partnerships with Cafeólogo and specializes in pulped natural coffees. 

Our next stop was across the street with Hilario and his wife, who own the little store I mentioned from my first visit to San Pedro years ago.  Like almost everyone else in the area, he grows, processes, and dries all of his coffee himself, mostly right behind the store on their concrete patio.  Here we were shown his concrete fermentation tanks and met his mother who was diligently watching over the drying coffee.  We purchased a very nice 4 bag lot from Hilario that I think would please any coffee drinker - it’s clean and chocolate driven with a peach juice acidity and tangy molasses-like feel.  

Hilario proceeded to grab his machete and take us on a little tour of the town.  First stop was at a small cinderblock building to show us where he and others store their processing equipment.  In this case, a group of farmers bought machinery together and locked it in this building to protect it from both the natural elements and also theft.  After stopping to smell coffee blossoms along the roadside and chatting with a few neighbors, the tour took us to Don Víctór.

Víctór Lopez, as you might remember, was kind enough to spend time with me years ago when I visited San Pedro.  He wears a good sized cowboy hat, grins ear to ear almost constantly, and is one hell of multitasker.  When we showed up at his house, he was drying coffee, repairing fermentation tanks, fixing his truck, and overseeing several family members while they sorted through already processed green coffee by hand.  While talking to him he would periodically walk over to the sorting and pick out a defect from farther away then I would think the human eye could notice  On his drying bed, he showed us some of his coffees and the different varietals he grew.  He pointed out some very large seeds drying on the patio that were maragogype variety.  He discussed the future possibility of starting to sort out some of these varietals into separate lots which is something quite often done in other coffee producing communities we’ve visited in the past.  His coffee was wonderfully crisp and clean, sharing many attributes of his neighbor and son-in-law Hilario’s coffee, due to similar growing, processing, and varietal choice.  

mexico22.jpg

Our last stop in town was Pedro Vázquez’s home.  It wasn’t surprising at all that his coffee was so fantastic as he seemed to be the most enthusiastic adopter of trying new methods under the tutelage of Jesús Salazar.  Behind his tiny house where he lived with his family, he had just started a small experimental nursery.  Jesus had gathered as many seedlings as he could from varietals popular across the world, and they plan to see what will grow and thrive in the Chiapan climate.  While it didn’t happen this year, Pedro’s goal is to win the Mexico Cup of Excellence at some point.  He was super quality focused and obviously saw the potential for what he could produce in the highlands.  The overarching theme we noticed about the growers in Aldama was the importance and forethought that they were putting into long-term improvements and slower quality-focused growth rather than short term subsistence-only farming.  This was investment in not just the health of their families but the continued success of their field of expertise.  Institutional knowledge, work ethic, and the potential for quality was already there.  The growers’ partnerships with Jesús Salazar just added a needed injection of more modern and focused methods and promotion to nudge something already great into the realm of amazing.

mexico23.jpg

Mexico right now has something to prove to the world about how fantastic their coffees can be (specifically from the highlands of Chiapas), and we feel that the coffees we chose and the growers that Cafeólogo are working with are doing just that.   This is only the beginning of the renaissance in great Mexican coffees.  We only have more to look forward to in the harvests to come.  We are excited for our continued discussions with Jesús as the year goes on and our relationship deepens.  It’s a true joy to collaborate with someone who shares the same philosophical values as 1000 Faces; we will continue to share and grow together, pushing the quality of coffee as far as we can.  These beautiful coffees were grown by people with a true agrarian spirit despite lacking some of the facilities a more economically mature coffee producing region would have. These are great coffees from great producers, and you will know it by they way they look, the way they smell, and most importantly, by the way they taste.