Exploring the Rich and Unique Coffee Culture of Oaxaca: A Journey Through the Land of Flavours and Aromas. Head Roaster Dan tells his story.
Travelling through Oaxaca is beautiful and time-consuming, short distances can take an entire day. The views of the Sierras are staggering and the light is nice this high up. The rugged nature and remoteness of Oaxaca explain the state's tiny production in comparison to neighbouring Chiapas. Most producers grow coffee trees scattered among corn and other food crops. Oaxaca is where we have tasted, purchased and featured our favourite coffees in Mexico. Clean and complex, floral and citrus all come to mind when we think of Oaxacan coffee. One of the goals of our trip to Mexico was to learn more about Oaxaca, as a coffee-producing region and its cultural significance.
Coffee production in Oaxaca is defined by mountain ranges - Sierra Madre del Sur and Sierra Madre del Norte. The mountains create small islands of the cooler climate, these colder temperatures put pressure on coffee trees, forcing their 'cherries' to ripen more slowly, which is a factor in this region's unique cup profile.
Bourbon and Typica have been largely left untouched in this area. Thanks to a lack of government intervention (or neglect - depending on who you ask), heirloom varieties are in healthy populations throughout Oaxaca. Varietals such as Typica and Bourbon are less common in neighbouring countries. Hybrid, GMO varieties are recommended due to their resistance to local diseases, as well as their high-yielding properties. However, these old varieties —Typica and Bourbon—are aggressively sought after by speciality coffee roasters for their superior cup quality. The nature of the land alongside a reverence for tradition makes the farming process in these areas more susceptible to an organic and minimal intervention approach.
In addition to coffee and corn, mezcal is another important product of Oaxaca. Made from the agave plant, mezcal is often produced in small, family-owned distilleries using traditional methods. Each batch of mezcal has its own unique flavour, depending on the type of agave used and the production methods employed. Many of the mezcal producers in Oaxaca are also Indigenous, and the production of this spirit has become an important part of the local economy. There are no arguments here in adding it to our daily consumption after a long hard day’s work. Some may say mezcal has wonderful healing properties to combat any ailment.
Partnering with amazing coffee farmers, would not happen if it wasn't for the unsung heroes and middlemen and women, our coffee suppliers. Coffee distributors and importers play a crucial role in the coffee industry. Without them, it would be difficult for coffee producers to reach global markets and for consumers to access a diverse range of coffee products.
Caravela Coffee is B Corp certified and our partnership with Caravela has spanned over a decade. With a team of more than 200 coffee professionals – spread out in 7 origin operations and 4 import offices, and with an infrastructure of more than 40 purchasing stations, Caravela offers the unique opportunity to access an unparalleled range of specialty coffees, building long-term relationships with farmers and ensuring a consistent product from year-to-year. Through Caravela, we have recently showcased three unique producers as part of our Showcase Series: Birds of Oaxaca; Juana Lopez, Juan Carrisoza and Maximiano Garcia. We were very fortunate to visit two of the three, Juana Lopez and Juan Carrisoza. Unfortunately, we were not able to meet Maximiano Garcia. It was a tough decision to make but we opted for Juan Carrisoza, only because it was along our route and closer to where we were based on that day. Although, both farms were on the opposite ends of Oaxaca; Juana Lopez south and Juan Carrisoza to the north.
The first visit was to Juana Lopez, in the area of San Pedro Alto. I missed this part of the trip but Paul had been lucky enough to be holidaying in Mexico and was fortunate to be on the Oaxacan coast at this time. He was accompanied by Fernando Gomez and his crew, who had come from Oaxaca Central — 5 hour journey— unfortunately, Juana was not there but we did have an extensive tour of the farm hosted by her husband Raymundo. Boasting mostly Typica which was also seen grown naturally along the roads, Paul describes it as coming to an oasis of coffee trees, providing much shade and mixing with the biodiversity of the area.
We have had Juana Lopez on offer throughout February - March this year for the second time round. This specialty coffee has a profile of BRIGHT AND JUICY with notes of Chamomile and Sugarcane. To have seen the origin of the delicious coffee and then to see it on the shelves to share with the public was a very proud and special moment for Mecca. Read more about Juana Lopez from a previous journal here.
Paul and I met a couple of days later in Oaxaca Central and the next producer we met was Juan Carrisoza up north in Sierra Mazateca. That in itself was a journey! After a 6-hour ride from Oaxaca Central through an incredible and unique trail of cacti and crazy heights of driving over a mountain up to 2500 above sea level, we stayed overnight in Huatla and to get to Juan was another 2 hours to get to the farm.
We met with Juan and the Caravela crew, and we were able to present Juan's coffee that we roasted a week earlier. A flavour profile of LIGHT & FLORAL presenting notes of green apple & oolong Tea. This specialty coffee sold out in less than a month upon release before we even came back from our Mexico trip. It was a spectacular farm visit, boasting more Typica & Bourbon among banana trees and corn. Seeing Juan and listening to him talk and provide us with a tour was indeed humbling. These farms are not big and the yields are quite low. It is practically sitting on the slopes of a mountainside, which offers plenty of shade, perfect conditions for Typica to flourish. Upon the end of the tour and when we asked him if there were any more questions about Mecca, all he said “was that he wishes for us to return back and visit him again.”
We are truly grateful to the team at Caravela for the introduction and efforts in making these visits work, as the drive back to Oaxaca Central was a 7-hour drive. Considering that we have been working with Caravela for the best part of a decade, we have seen their evolution in the pursuit of specialty coffee, through the good and tough times, flourishing into the company they are today.
Azahar Coffee are distributors that specialise in the distribution of high-quality coffee products to businesses and individuals. Based in Bogota, the company works with a network of farmers and producers from around the world to source premium specialty coffee beans, which are then roasted to perfection and packaged for distribution. Azahar coffee distributors pride themselves on their commitment to sustainability, ensuring that their products are sourced from farms that use eco-friendly and socially responsible practices. With a focus on delivering exceptional customer service and top-notch products, Azahar coffee distributors have become a trusted name in the coffee industry.
Being our first Mexican journey, we were generously accompanied by Founder / Owner, Tyler Youngblood, Vera Espindola Rafael (Head of Strategic Initiatives) and Clemente Santiago Paz (Quality Control Mexico). These guys were essentially our drivers, tour guides, educators and translators throughout the whole trip. We started in Oaxaca Central, with a cupping session at Azahar HQ and then the real journey began as we zipped north across Oaxaca - Puebla - Mexico City - Tuxla (Chiapas) - San Cristobal (Chiapas) - San and then back to Mexico City. With much respect, Azahar, made it easier to get to the farms in Oaxaca that were also represented by Caravela. And it is these types of relationships that Mecca strives for and resonates with. It is beyond coffee and through the journey, we can build some amazing communities as well as lasting friendships.
That’s what can happen when you trek across the land and are stuck in a car for hours on end. Not to mention during the downtime, together exploring the cultural and culinary delights, sipping mezcal and downing micheladas, sharing stories and creating more stories from our experiences together, can turn a standard work trip into something more fun and more relatable.
With Azahar, the objective was to discover new producers and learn more about the regions, with a particular focus on Chiapas but more to come on the Chiapas adventure.