6 Am, it is dark and I'm leaving San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico on an unexpected trip through the misty hills towards the famous coffee region of Jaltenango. In the front seat sits Teddy Kim, a South Korean mastertrader who now owns a coffee shop and roastery called Teddy's Coffee Factory, along with his associate Andrés. The latter is going to be our main salesman and translater for the meetings we are going to have with coffee farmers and unions.
With a selfbrewed coffee to wake up talkative Teddy paints the part of the country we are driving through, for the next 4 hours. Chiapas used to be a part of Guatemala and has some pretty energetic people. 'Every now and then there is some discontent with local authorities and people just block the roads, once I couldn't reach my car for a week.' But this region is mostly known for the Zapatistas, a movement of farmers that knew there uprising in 1994, revolting against land reforms. The government just chooses to ignore them now but they still exist. When we pass unusual police control I get to hear that there are rumors of the famous druglord 'El Chapo' hiding here. All talk I assume but a couple of days later I bump into an online article which confirms this talk on the street. Exciting stuff! While Teddy keeps throwing anecdotes to me about where people crashed with their car or where you can find jaguars, I still have no idea what we actually are going to do when we arrive.
This soon becomes clear when we visit a friend of Teddy who is going to be our human gps and will guide us through the jungle of little cabañas, sideroads of sideroads, friends of friends and holes in the calles while avoiding street dogs and vendors. But not without empty stomaches. We all get a traditional dish containing heavy foods like egg, cheese, beef, and beans. Apparantly this is breakfast. I see why i am the skinniest one of this unordenary group. Our first stop is the ranch Sancta Rosa owned by Sergio who works in alliance with his brother and has three coffee fincas or farms. Now I get to see why Teddy and Andrés made this trip. They are trying to sell plastic conservation bags for green coffee beans. This will keep the beans in better condition while being stored and shipped, as Mexican coffee in general needs to be stored a long time, and exposure to sun and moisture affect the quality by making them yellow and pale. Besides the bags they are offering a machine that sorts coffee beans according to color, and Korean made roasteries (Fuji Royal). As we are sitting outside the ranch I feel very privileged to witness the daily business of a coffee farmer in the midst of his property. This is why I came to Central America. But I have to hide my childish enthusiasm as Sergio explains his troubles and goals for his farms. This region had an epidemic of roya, a decease that affects the coffee tree, six years ago. Coffee farmers needed to start all over again and look for more resistant varieties like Marsellesa. The problem of this leaf rust still exists up to this day as I will see later in the afternoon. Sergio believes these difficulties can be met, especially with specific micro lots and long term contracts with exporters. By consequence, buying hermetic coffeebags is a small step towards improving his precious coffee. After our meeting he gives us a few contacts of his competitors which makes me conclude that he is concerned with the Mexican coffee industry as a whole and sees future in this market. Our next stop is an organization called Egos. They mostly provide the service of processing coffee by milling and exporting. Sadly 90 procent of the coffee here goes to Nestlé, so they are not very interested in our merchandise. I secretly and quickly took a picture of the machinery, hence the bad quality, to show in what conditions low grade coffee is processed.
Up to the next one, a company that buys and roasts coffee (1500kg/month). They are willing to buy our bags but just for a small percentage of their coffee that gets exported. It thus seems that a few local buyers of green beans are not tempted to improve quality, as their clients Nestlé and Starbucks just don't demand it. This I can also tell by their nonchalant way of roasting. It is a shame because the farmers that sell their coffee won't get any incentive to improve the quality and by consequence will stay depended on the market prices dictated by big companies. Time to get to our next potential buyer which is a coffee union representing almost 500 families in the region. They don't hesitate purchasing our bags and were even interested in a roaster if they didn't just ordered a new one. A big difference with our previous meeting. It seems like the union is investing knowing it will turn out better for their farmers in the long term. What struck me the most after all these conversations is how many livelyhoods depend on this product. In a region where the hills are full of coffee we talked to people in the business in a radius of just two kilometres and there were signs of coffee organizations everywhere. I knew it before but I will state it again: consumers in the global North have no idea what it takes to get a cup of coffee.
Teddy proposed to visit a farm he buys coffee from. 'Hell yeah!'. This is the expected highlight of our journey. But not before a 40 minute drive into the hills making some altitude to finally arrive at Finca Las Chicharas. There the friendly owner gives us (very proudly) a tour of his farm, processors, drying patio, and office. His trees are situated between 1250 and 1540 masl, and consist of 8 different varieties. He introduces us to a few of his many workers (I estimate around 45) of whom a lot are children and refugees from Guatemala. As it is a couple of weeks before harvest most were occupied with making tortillas or tidying their dorm. Not the best conditions to live in although they seemed happy to have a job and a good relationship with the boss. I didn't want to ask too many questions but there was no education whatsoever and the salary was a meager 80 pesos a day. Now I saw with my own eyes what I've been reading so much about.
And another dream came true (one of those unstoppable days wherein the surprises trying to outdo eachother) when I was suggested to taste a coffee cherry. Although early in the season some were beautifull hellred ripe. I picked one, looked at it and... my world stood still, it was if only my tastebuds and the soft flesh around two slimy beans existed, as if all the neurons in my brain were powercut, as if the supernatural joked around telling me the super is natural, as if you have the feeling you hook your eyes onto somebody elses and doesn't know what it means but it is amazing, as if all global material stops existing and the whole universe fills your mouth, as if colour becomes one with sensation, as if I finally arrived. I could taste and imagine the perfect sweet, fruity coffee, and it just lasted for a ridiculous 5 seconds. This taste is what a barista should try to accomlish by brewing I realized, so this sensation is something I am definetly going to pursue in the future.
After 18 days of Mexico I did what I am here for, the reason to travel to Central America. And I feel that this is just the start of my coffee adventure.
Written by Babu