Coffee trees love the temperate zone, so it was only logical that some beans journeyed to Mexico from the Antilles in the closing years of the 1700s. Stories vary, but Juan Antonio García is credited with bringing coffee cultivation to the country through the port of Veracruz, while an Italian by the name of Geronimo Manchinelli helped establish coffee in the Chiapas region near the border of Guatemala.
Early on, wealthy settlers purchased large tracts of land for coffee plantations. Great news for coffee but bad for the indigenous people, many of whom ultimately ended up working on the plantations. Mexico began sharing its coffee with the world, especially to consumers in Europe, in the late 1870s. Roughly 50 years passed, along with a few laws, and in 1914, land was redistributed back to the people, who in turn used their acquired coffee-growing expertise on their own small farms. Again, good news for coffee.
INMECAFE (Instituto Mexicano del Cafe’) came on the scene in 1973 to provide technical and financial assistance to growers and to facilitate the International Coffee Agreement . With these aids, coffee production in Mexico exploded, in some rural areas increasing by nearly 900%. But then oil prices plummeted, the country began defaulting on its loans, and INMECAFE came to a grinding halt. Farmers could get no credit. Predatory coffee brokers--”coyotes”--bought coffee beans from farmers for pennies and resold at profit. Soon growers could no longer afford fertilizers, pest protection, or resources for farm management, and production dropped. Some smallholders stopped harvesting their coffee completely. Ultimately, this crisis birthed cooperatives with collective power to purchase and maintain mills, lobby for rights, and develop direct trade relationships with buyers.
These days, Mexico is the one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, and the largest coffee trade partner with the U.S. Yet of the 12 states that grow coffee, most aren’t even known by name. This is due in part to the fact that only about 10-15% of Mexico’s coffee is considered specialty grade. But with the advent of the Cup of Excellence competition, coffee farmers are taking more interest in the quality of their coffee, not just the quantity. Coffee aficionados project that we’ll be tasting a new generation of flavors in the future, and learning some new names from the Mexican coffee scene.