Back from the Road: Mexico, April 20104-19-2010
I arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico, for one of the most exciting weeks of the year: semana santa, or holy week. The days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday have a special significance in Catholic communities around the world, and Oaxaca's unique blend of indigenous Mexican and colonial Spanish cultures make it a popular place to watch parades and processions. In Latin America, it also traditionally means vacation! Not so for the young, dedicated leaders of the 21 de Septiembre cooperative who spent semana santa hard at work cupping coffee, visiting farms, and continuing to develop the relationship that the co-op and Counter Culture have built over the past four years.
We began in the cupping lab at the offices of Sustainable Harvest, our importer, in Oaxaca City. The harvest has all but ended for the 950 members of the cooperative, and the 21st is anxious to divide coffees among their buyers as efficiently as possible. Every year, Counter Culture pays a premium to the co-op for the coffee that we sell as our 21st de Septiembre in order to guarantee access to their best coffees. Our primary challenge has been, and continues to be, that the 21st lacks the ability to separate lots by producer (the way our partners in Colombia and Peru can) because they haven't finished building a cupping lab or trained a cupper. They do separate coffee by community, and we gravitate toward Zaragoza because it has historically produced the best coffees, as well as the most coffee – almost half of the co-op's total comes from this one town! This year, I cupped lots from Zaragoza as well as a few other communities that have contributed coffees to our total lot in years past. When I asked why we didn't focus exclusively on Zaragoza, the 21st explained that the "special lot" they make for Counter Culture Coffee is one of the best tools they have for inspiring growers to work on producing better quality coffee and that, because of that potential, the co-op wants to make sure that we consider other, smaller communities that lack Zaragoza's altitude but have better farming and processing practices. That seemed fair, so we cupped all of the samples without knowing which coffees came from each community. After sorting out the better coffees and making some blends among them, my top-scoring coffee of the day ended up being a blend of 80 percent Zaragoza and 20 percent Nueva Esperanza, which goes to show that sometimes, the whole is better than the sum of its parts. And what a sum it was! Red fruit and orange-y acidity stood out over the classic, chocolate-milk flavor profile and reminded me again that this co-op produces coffee unlike any other coffee we have tasted from Mexico.
With coffees chosen, we set off on the long, twisting road from Oaxaca City to Putla, the small city where the co-op has its office. From there, it's a short distance as the crow flies but a long one as the truck crawls up into the mountains, and I felt a familiar sense of relief and awe when we finally made it to the mountaintop town of Zaragoza. As word spread of our arrival, growers congregated in the coffee warehouse at the center of town. I immediately recognized many of the faces – and voices – of the growers in this cooperative, and I was struck by a comment made by the 28-year-old president of the co-op, Diracsema José, who told me that the co-op faced "two age-related challenges," their aging coffee plants and their aging members. These challenges led us directly into a discussion of my current favorite topic: soil fertility.
These days, I sound like a broken record as I ceaselessly encourage farmers, particularly on certified organic farms, to invest in making and applying compost that will help them achieve stable, sustainable yields from their farms. Though it requires time and energy up front, better soil and consistent productivity allow a grower to spread the costs and labors of farming over more coffee. The 21st has begun worm composting projects, which I always love, and they have also invested heavily in starting new coffee plants from seed to replace the sprawling40- to 50-year-old coffee trees on the farms. Replanting efforts usually make me cringe because it often means sacrificing heirloom varieties, but the 21st is replanting with the same Typica and Bourbon varieties that have always grown on these farms and simultaneously preaching the virtues of these great-tasting coffee varieties to farmers! Seldom do growers in any country receive encouragement from agronomists (or anyone else) within their home countries to prioritize cup quality; usually it's high-yielding, flat-tasting coffees that end up replacing the heirlooms.
Of course, addressing an aging membership is a lot more difficult than replacing aging coffee plants. Most of the children of these growers don't see a future in coffee and would rather migrate to cities – or out of Mexico altogether – than take over for their parents. We talked about the potential of cupping as a profession, and I described the growth of the (mostly) young barista culture in the United States – and the enthusiasm and ideas that young people can bring to the industry that these growers, Counter Culture, and the baristas serving 21st de Septiembre single-origin espresso are all a part of. It's a big task, fitting these supply-chain puzzle-pieces together and making them work in unison, but as I looked around at the leaders of the co-op – under 30, full of energy, internet savvy, and lovers of espresso, all of them – I felt excited that maybe, this is just the group to do it. I look forward to the arrival of this year's coffees and to many more years pursuing deliciousness, sustainability, and innovation with this amazing cooperative!