September 2023 Discovery Coffee

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Mexico - Café El Zapoteco


OMNI ROAST (What’s an omni roast?)

REGION | Santo Domingo Cacalotepec, Sierra Juárez, Oaxaca

PROCESS | Washed

SPECIES | Arabica 

VARIETY | Typica, Mundo Novo, Bourbon

ALTITUDE | 1300-1700 MASL



Café El Zapoteco is an association of 180 coffee producing families from three towns in the Sierra Juarez. The Sierra Juarez, as well as being the birthplace of Benito Juarez - Mexico’s first President of indigenous origin - is a temperate mountain range to the north of Oaxaca city.

Café El Zapoteco is led by Romulo Chavez. Romulo has been working for several years now to establish direct relationships with buyers in order to obtain higher prices for the producers of the cooperative. He has also fostered a very strong communal outlook for the association and its producers.

The central point of the Café El Zapoteco cooperative is the town of Santo Domingo Cacalotepec. This name is composed of both Spanish and Zapotec. Cacalotepec means ‘mountain of the raven’, which you can see depicted on the bags from this producer group, as a raven with a coffee cherry in its mouth.

Most members of the association are of Zapotec heritage and speak Spanish as second language after Zapoteco. There is a very strong, communal aspect to Café El Zapoteco across its three towns that is deeply rooted in the historical ties of the community to the Region. 

Rather than employ pickers during the harvest, when a member’s coffee is ready to be picked, several neighbours will help the producer to harvest their coffee. Instead of payment, the producer whose coffee is being harvested is expected to cook lunch for everyone and in turn, to help pick the coffee of those who helped them when their coffee is ready.

Farm sizes range from 0.5 to 5 hectares, but the average member of Los Machos has less than one hectare of coffee and produces between 100 and 150 kilos of parchment per year. The coffees are pulped and fermented, often in hand built, wooden tanks, then dried on petates, traditional woven mats. Low production volumes and low yields are the biggest challenge facing the producers of Café El Zapoteco, and in Oaxaca generally. In the last decade coffee leaf rust disease has decimated production yields here and producers have little access to finance, training or support to tackle this. Likewise, coffees are usually sold to local intermediaries for a market-based price and lose all traceability and individuality.



As throughout most of Mesoamerica, Mexico was first planted in coffee during early colonial times, most likely in the late 18th century. Due to the greater attention paid to the region's rich mineral deposits and mining opportunities, however, coffee didn't really develop as an industry until later, especially coming into its own in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the redistribution of farms after independence and the emergence of smallholder farmers, specifically those of indigenous origin. In the late 20th century, the Mexican government established a national coffee institution called INMECAFE, which, like the FNC in Colombia and ICAFE in Costa Rica, was developed in order to offer technical assistance, botanical information and material, and financial credits to producers. Unfortunately, INMECAFE was something of a short-lived experiment, and dissolved in 1989, leaving growers with a vacuum in their access to support and resources—especially those in very remote rural areas. This disruption to the infrastructure as well as the coffee crisis that followed the end of the International Coffee Agreement plunged Mexico's coffee farmers into despairing financial times, which of course in turn affected quality dramatically. Throughout the 1990s and since the beginning of the 21st century, an increased presence, influence, and focus of Fair Trade and Fairtrade certifications and the emphasis of the democratically run small-farmer cooperative organization has worked to transform the image of Mexican coffee to one that reflects sustainability, affordability, and relatively easy logistics, considering its proximity to the United States.  

In recent years, Mexico has struggled mightily with coffee-leaf rust and other pathogens that have reduced both yield and cup quality. This, combined with enormous turnover of land ownership and loss of labor to emigration and relocation has created a somewhat tentative future for the producing country, though we have seen great cups and great promise from quality-inclined growers and associations there. The top cups are fantastic, and they're worth the work and long-term investment to try to overcome the obstacles facing the average farmer, who owns between 1–5 hectares. (Though some of the mid-size estates will run closer to 25 hectares.)

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