An Introduction to Coffee Farming in Mexico & Washed Processing 👨🏽🌾
Last month, Ben & Michael got to go to Oaxaca, Mexico to visit coffee farms with our partners Caravela Coffee! Join them on their exciting adventure through the big city all the way to remote coffee farms & back…and learn more about the process of coffee.
Their "pilgrimage" took them from Oaxaca city > San Jose del Pacifico to spend the night > Ozolotepec to hike hours up to coffee farms > Miahuatlan to see the Caravela warehouse > Oaxaca City to the Caravela milling station!
Quick Guide to Coffee Terms
Before we get too deep into the process of coffee, let’s define a few terms! Coffee production starts with a coffee plant, and the coffee cherry is the fruit of that plant. The coffee beans that you grind and brew are the seeds of the coffee cherry! Coffee processing is the way that a seed is removed from a coffee cherry. Coffee cherries have a seed, the pulp, the mucilage around the seed, and a protective skin. And the way that the seed is removed from the cherry affects the final flavor of the coffee. There are a few different main kinds of processing, but in Mexico most coffees are washed coffees.
Natural (Dry Process) - Sorting, Drying, Fermentation, Depulping
Wet-Hulled - Sorting, Depulping, Fermentation, Hulling, Drying
Honey-Processed - Sorting, Depulping, Drying, Fermentation, Hulling
In Mexico, coffee is grown in Oaxaca and Chiapas. One thing that makes Oaxaca unique compared to other Latin American coffee growing areas is the lack of infrastructure, partly due to the remote, difficult-to-reach areas where the coffee farms are. Most coffee farms are very small 2-3 hectares and they are scattered throughout different highland areas. Michael and Ben had to hike for 1.5 hours of steep mountain climbing to get to the coffee farm, and that is very common in this area! Ozolotepec is a small area with a few little towns scattered within, kind of like a county in the state of Oaxaca.
Coffee farmers in Mexico are often part of Collectivos, which are groups of farmers within a specific county/region, and the Ozolotepec Collectivo has about 120 farmers. The farmers in these Collectivos produce the coffee completely on their own….they plant & cultivate the trees (as their family has probably been doing for generations), then they either pick the cherries themselves or hire folks (but there are labor shortages currently). And they process the coffee and sell it as “dried parchment" (more on that in a minute).
The farmers can sell their coffee in three ways, as a cherry (not ideal), wet (processed but undried), or as dried parchment (finished product minus the milling), and the latter is the most common. Because of the distances between the farms and the villages, each farmer does the processing themselves. Otherwise it would be too heavy for the donkeys to carry full cherries the whole way, back and forth on the steep mountain paths! So there are a lot more variables between each of the coffees from different farms (not necessarily in a bad way). In Mexico, the lack of infrastructure contributes to inconsistency of washing and fermenting at small farms. So you are less likely to find micro lots in Mexico because of the farms being so small.
(In Guatemala, for example, they have bigger, more developed infrastructure with bigger washing stations, either owned by the farm or the community. These are made of cement, with the walls of the washing tanks lined with tile.)
After it is picked, the coffee is sorted and put in a trough of water so the floaters (unripe coffee cherries) can be scooped out. In Mexico, they do all the processing in a small wooden trough (which can affect the flavor, think barrel aged whiskey). Then all the good cherries are pulped through a small pulping machine, and fermented for 24-72 hours with just the mucilage on the bean in another wooden trough. Then they are rinsed to make sure all the mucilage is off the bean, and spread out for drying on the roof. The drying can take 4-5 days up to a week, and the beans must be checked carefully to maintain proper moisture content.
Logistics & Exporting
So…how does the coffee from remote farms get to Caravela warehouses in Oaxaca City? The logistics is quite the challenge! Caravela does help somewhat with the fees for transportation. Ozolotopec is three hours from the road to the Caravela warehouse in Miahuatlan. But they first have to get the coffee to the road via donkey on small trails which is 1.5 hour hike! Then from the small town at the road they head to a bigger town where there are more transport options. There are potentially up to three hands just for transport! And the timeline is important, because the quality can be affected by spending too much time in transit.
Caravela Coffee Importers does a lot more than the average coffee buyers or exporters. They work closely with farmers to improve their farming, processing, etc and provide crucial services through their PECA team of agronomists. One of their major focuses is to help farmers increase productivity and quality, while respecting their traditional way of growing coffee.
Caravela has rigorous standards for which coffees they choose. Of the 120 farmers they work with in Mexico, they cup each coffee multiple times. If the quality isn't up to their standard, they won’t buy that farmers’ coffee that year. (But they will go back to them for the next harvest). QC is a major part of this! A lot of this is done at the Caravela warehouse in Miahuatlan, where Michael and Ben got to stop in, and then they also saw the Caravela HQ located in Oaxaca City. That’s where the dry mill, main office and warehouse is, and the coffee is milled before getting ready to be exported. A coffee dry mill is the last stop before the coffee is exported and the coffee gets cleaned, de-stoned (foreign objects removed), sorted, hulled, polished, graded for size, and put in bags for export.