A very short history of coffee in Mexico (and where to get the good stuff)

“This is where coffee cultivation started in Mexico, in 1785” said Ricardo as he hands me a cup of espresso. I taste it and sigh. It’s the first real shot of strong, tasty coffee that I’ve had this trip. Good coffee in Mexico is hard to find. For starters, when you ask for a cappuccino, you may get a latte, you may get sprinkles and whipped cream, or you may get some watered down excuse for an espresso shot. If my brain productivity wasn’t entirely dependent on getting my coffee exactly when and how I want it, it might be fun to never know what I’m going to get when I order. Some friends of mine who just spent three months in Oaxaca even suggested that one of our stories be an investigation into the ever-changing difference between a cappuccino and latte from cafe to cafe.

But the real investigation should be into how the fluctuating price of coffee has affected the family life and livelihoods of coffee producing communities in Mexico like Coatepec. Ricardo and his wife Silvia own Cafe La Onza, a family business of several generations, and one of the few coffee companies in Coatepec that operates its own plantation, roasts in-house, and sells coffee nationally. We walk into their store, the walls filled with mounted coffee advertisements and photos of coffee plantations, framed certificates and awards, stained glass and tapestries with coffee plant patterns, and a range of local products from vanilla to torito, a sugary local liquor. For all their pride in their product and place that radiates from their walls, ask about the how the global coffee market has changed and their weariness is obvious. It isn’t till my seventh question that they start warming up. I ask if them if it’s hard maintaining a small, specialty coffee brand and if they’re a rarity, and Ricardo finally starts to talk.

“Families used to have work here,” he said. “When I was growing up we all went to school and then we worked with coffee. We were fine, there was no reason to go elsewhere.” Veracruz is know for its high-altitude arabic coffee, thanks to the perfect growing conditions around Coatepec: there’s rain, there’s shade, there’s moderate temperatures and there’s altitude. The couple says they use an ecological method of growing coffee, it’s shade-grown with small quantities of plants per hectare. But committing to sustainable agriculture and even to the coffee business has cost them. In 2001 the global price for coffee plummeted- the supply (an increase of cheap robusta beans coming from Brazil and Vietnam) exceeded the demand, and while coffee giants like Procter & Gamble and Nestle reaped the benefits of trading profits, small-scale coffee farmers, particularly in Mexico and Central America had to sell their crops for ridiculously low prices or abandon their livelihoods. “These wholesalers wanted all the beans to be the same, and they wanted them in huge quantities, the quality was irrelevant,” said Ricardo. “The selling price was less than what it costs to harvest. It changed everything… It changed family life in Mexico.”

What Ricardo means is that the days of plentiful work in the coffee industry in Coatepec were long gone. Follow the trends of migration from Veracruz to the US beginning from the late 90’s onwards, and the increase is dramatic. So why didn’t Ricardo and Sylvia give up? “We produce high quality coffee, it’s an art, this is what our family has done for generations,” said Ricardo. It was a shorter and simpler answer than what I expected, but after spending an afternoon walking around Coatepec, it made a little more sense. Coatepec is a designated “magical village”, a town dubbed by the federal government as so because it offers visitors a magical experience of some sort. In Coatepec the houses are even more multi-colored and tiled than your typical Mexican town, small coffee shops like La Onza sprinkle the town center, the plaza is filled with families and stalls of churros and fried plantains, and a beautiful yellow and red church sits in the backdrop. This is a place where if you can find the means to lay down your roots, you will.

Cafe La Onza
Cuauhtemoc No. 5 A
Coatepec, Veracruz

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