If you have been a part of our community for a little while, you may remember our Oaxaca Mazateca bean from late 2021. This Mexican coffee stood out because of its rich chocolate and honey flavor and became a favorite to take home. The bean originates from Sierra Mazateca, Oaxaca, one of the most remote areas in Mexico. The area is home to the Mazatec people and part of a series of mountain ranges known as Sierra Madre de Oaxaca. The towns in the Mazateca are obscured by dense Pine Tree forests and winding roads that make arriving difficult. Our team was able to visit this region last month through an invitation by Red Beetle Coffee Lab, along with our friends at Osito Coffee and Sey Coffee.
Despite its rough terrain, Sierra Mazateca is home to some breathtaking scenery, with its mountain range that seemingly goes on forever, dramatic valleys, and green forestry in every direction. Sierra Mazateca received an influx of visitors in the 1960s who were looking to partake in spiritual healer Maria Sabina’s magic mushroom ceremonies. Since then locals have been somewhat wary of outsiders due to the disruption that the wave of tourists caused to their economy and way of life.
The coffee fields are especially unique in the area as they are mostly located on the face of the mountain, down steep slopes, and surrounded by overgrowth, which makes working the fields especially taxing. According to Germàn, a local experimental coffee producer in the area, many young people are abandoning the fields altogether, and are opting to move to the city. Those who remain are typically over the age of 55 and have few alternatives for employment. Many of the producers we met were even in their 70s and 80s. Coffee prices in the area are also relatively low, with many producers receiving the equivalent of less than $200 per harvest. In the 1980s and 90s coffee producers in the region began to receive support from the government to preserve the region’s largest source of income. According to several local producers, the support was poorly implemented, with mislabeled varietals sent to farmers that ultimately were incompatible with the soil. After this, the program was abruptly suspended in the 2000s and then sporadically reimplemented and cut several times in the following years. Since then, producers have mostly had to navigate the difficult situation with little outside support. With a large part of the workforce leaving for the city, many fields have fallen into disrepair. Those that remain have to sell their crops at low prices to keep food on the table. This has created a scenario ripe for the exploitation from coyotes or commercial coffee buyers who seek to gain from the difficult situation here. While the situation is somewhat dire, there is progress being made by those who see potential in the region. Germàn and Alicia, who are among the youngest producers in the area, are leading the revitalization and specialization of the coffee supply in the Mazateca. Germàn, a former economics student, has been a big proponent of new agricultural techniques and forward-thinking supply-chain solutions to fix some of the problems plaguing the producers. From solutions that range from trimming methods, a collaboration between producers, and working with technicians to improve fermentation and the washing process. They receive significant support from relatives and community members who believe in their vision to quite literally save the coffee production in the region. They work closely with our hosts, Red Beetle Coffee Lab, a group of Coffee technicians that works with coffee producers in Mexico and Peru. Red Beetle is the collaboration of Shaun, Tomas, and Rene, all of whom have unique backgrounds in the coffee industry. A large part of their technical assistance comes from their cupping sessions, which they regularly host at a house about 1/2 a mile away outside San Mateo. During our stay, Red Beetle allowed us to cup coffee and visit with some of the local producers with whom they collaborate.
The house, like the town, occupies a space that almost feels frozen in time, closely mimicking the type of housing that was built after the Mexican Revolution. The view that the sliding wood window shudder revealed was a breathtaking sight of the mountainside, almost like it was something out of a movie. The cupping sessions served as a way to introduce the group to the producers that Red Beetle works with. ‘Cupping’ is a process that involves tasting, identifying, and evaluating the flavors of specific coffees, so you can imagine that cupping coffee in a setting like this is an incredibly unique experience. For one, it’s a chance to experience the coffee in an environment close to where it originates from. But also, a chance to learn about some of the specific challenges that each producer faces. Most of the coffees we tried were grown by producers who had been receiving technical feedback from Red Beetle for some time. And despite significant advances in quality, grows still face issues such as fluctuating prices, an aging worker population, changing weather patterns, lack of government assistance, and decreasing yearly crop yields.
Despite the difficult situation that they face, many members of the community are optimistic about their situation. While many problems need to be resolved, La Finca has identified Sierra Mazateca as an opportunity to engage in our vision for relational coffee. Some of the problems the community is facing are beyond the reach of any individual, as they are often the result of historical and socioeconomic disparities. However, we see what is being done here and we want to support our newest collaborators in whatever way possible. Once it is back in season coffee from this region will return to our store. But beyond that, we are collaborating with Osito Coffee to support the work that Red Beetle and producers like Germàn and Alicia. And while those plans are still in the works, we believe it is important to bring this information back to our community here in DFW. As our plans on how to continue to support the Mazateca begin to be fleshed out, we will keep you in the loop and inform you of ways to get more involved. Your continuous support makes relational coffee, which is desperately needed, possible. For that alone, we thank you. We will be counting on it as we take steps to create a more equitable and kinder coffee industry.