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James' visit to El Zapoteco

Mexico is like no origin I have visited before. Forget picture perfect, fields and fields of well kept, young and highly productive coffee trees. Instead smaller parcels of land dot community landscapes, featuring older and somewhat taller trees that although low yielding, are still producing high quality juicy fruit. The last 10 years has been far from kind to coffee producers out in the Sierras due to a crash in Mexico’s coffee market and widespread leaf rust that has resulted in dwindling yields, rising costs of production and a general loss in faith in farming as a profession. There is no doubt that Oaxacan coffee is facing an uncertain future but the week I have just spent with inspiring coffee heroes Red Beetle Coffee Lab and Raw Material has left me feeling hopeful that the future of Mexican coffee is in safe hands.


We have been purchasing coffee from producer group El Zapoteco for the past 3 years and felt a visit to check in with Rómulo Chávez and the community that are responsible for this fantastic coffee was well overdue. We awoke early, ready to face the 5 hour drive from Oaxaca up into the mountains of the Sierra Juraez. As we neared Santo Domingo we were told the only road that accessed the village was out and had been for the past 2 years! A stark reminder of how isolated these producer groups actually are. As if producers didn’t have enough to deal with, throw in the logistical nightmare of getting a truck loaded with parchment out of town with no road! We parked up and walked down to meet up with Rómulo and his son Daniel who were waiting for us on the other side of the ongoing road works.


Right from the get go, it was clear that community was at the very heart of Cafe El Zapoteco. We’d only been on the road for 5 mins when we were flagged down and offered bowls of panela tepache (a fermented drink made from Panela) and sugar cane juice to drink. The family who offered us these drinks were in the middle of producing Panela and this unrefined whole cane sugar was so good that we arranged to return the following day to purchase some en-route back to Oaxaca. Getting flagged down became somewhat of a common occurrence whilst in Santo Domingo with everyone wanting to stop and chat with Rómulo, who is obviously incredibly well respected by the community he resides in.


After lunch, we ventured out into town. We dipped down into back gardens with small patios and de-pulpers - a common sight here in the community where most producers are set up to process their own cherry. We stopped in at the nursery where coffee seedlings and other shade tree saplings were waiting to be planted. And then headed off into nearby forest where we stumbled into small parcels of land where coffee was growing only a stones throw from the nearest homes. A combination of small parcels of land and low yielding, aging coffee trees means that the average producer of Cafe El Zapoteco has just 100kg of parchment to sell each year. And with around 180 producers contributing to this community lot it highlights the importance of having an agent like Rómulo on the ground who can regularly visit each producer, collect samples, offer advice on processing/farm management and deliver payment. Rómulo is invaluable to Thomas and Shaun of Red Beetle, helping to navigate the complexities of cultural relations within an indigenous community that have their own pre-Hispanic language, Zapotec.


The relationship between producer group and exporter is heavily built on trust. First and foremost producers trust Rómulo with their precious crop. Rómulo as Delgado (community leader) is then trusted to: give good advice, organise the harvest and deliver payment. Rómulo trusts Red Beetle to: ensure consistency and traceability, offer a fair and sustainable price based on quality, safely mill and export their coffee. Theirs is a relationship that is mutually beneficial and one that has spanned 8 years. And seen the group grow from 30 producers to the 180 that all contribute to the coffee we are roasting and selling to you today.


Santo Domingo was only the first stop on our journey across Oaxaca, a trip which saw us travel from high up in the misty mountains of the Sierra Juarez, all the way down to the beautiful coastline of the Sierra Sur. We cupped incredible coffees from across all three major coffee producing regions and visited communities that were all navigating the complexities of coffee production in Mexico today. Farms are isolated and widespread, and access to finance and agricultural inputs is extremely limited. Because of this, production yields are some of the lowest in Mexico. Climate change has lead to unseasonable rains at the start of the harvest followed by higher than average temperatures in recent months. And the biggest current challenge is the exchange rate between the Mexican peso and US dollar. A strong peso may be good news for the Mexican economy as a whole but bad news for coffee producers who export products valued in US dollars.


My trip certainly gave me a new found understanding of the value of Oaxacan coffee, an appreciation of both the unique challenges and required solutions that warrant the price that us as roasters need to pay to make sure it’s production remains viable. We are incredibly stoked to feature Cafe El Zapoteco on our offer list and hope that we are doing a good job in helping to tell its unique story.


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