An introduction to Mexico

Working from Austin, TX, Jamie Isetts joined the Square Mile team in early 2021 to manage our green sourcing. After studying economics and biology, she began her career as a trader at InterAmerican before spending six years as the green buyer for Merit Coffee. Her approach interweaves disciplines like participatory design and data analysis into the sourcing ethos. In essence, she works as a buyer-at-large, liaising daily with Square Mile’s London team while building programs with coffee producers around the world.

Here, Jamie talks about her personal journey with the coffees we’ll share as part of this year’s Mexico campaign.

Square Mile Coffee in Mexico
Jamie (right) on that first trip to Oaxaca.

Living in Texas, Mexico is literally our neighbour. As with all things close to home, I took it for granted: it was only in recent years that I started to educate myself about it in a meaningful way. When I began my coffee career in Houston, I fell in with a crew of service industry folks who were bringing a third culture funk to the food of their parents, many first-gen immigrants. Some were Viet, some were Chinese, and many–many–were Mexican. Like most food people from the aughts onward, they were obsessive about ingredients’ provenance and food cultivation that works with the ecology instead of against it but did it in a no-snobs-allowed way that is synonymous with Houston. Mix in a timely global focus on all things Oaxaca (thanks to Mexican chefs like Enrique Olvera and famous fans like Noma’s René Redzepi) and we were all suddenly captivated by our fantasy of southern Mexico.

Finca Chelin Coffee Drying Patio
The drying patio at Finca Chelin, one of my favourite places in the world. Oaxaca, 2018.

There was an incredible mezcalería that opened during my time in Houston called The Pastry War (recently closed– thanks pandemic). The minds behind this bar were full-on believers, traveling frequently to remote distilleries and bringing likely one of the best selections outside of Mexico to my adopted city. This was my skewed vision of what being a green buyer was like–just swap in coffee. As I was learning about coffee cultivation through my first job with a green importer, my entry-level bartender friends were learning agave from their managers. We were sponging information, and agave varieties like Tepextate and Tobala were populating our conversations as much as coffee cultivars like caturra and bourbon. 

If you’re doing it right, learning about someone else’s journey of identity makes you reflect on your own culture, your own place. The work of Mexican chefs to highlight the long-suppressed foodways of southern Oaxaca were, at best, an example of how to be part of our local landscape and make food traditions a living thing. Literally and figuratively, our fuel for Houston foraging jaunts (collecting loquat fruits and pecans) was elote and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers, a Mexican snack).

And so, my first origin trip to Oaxaca was as much about food and spirits as it was about coffee. A bar friend and I flew to Oaxaca City together, and while she visited agave distillers in Miahuatlán, I took the bus into the mountains of Mixteca to stay with a coop of coffee producers. We were both struck by the way these very small-scale farmers were using low-intervention, old-school methods and the way that landscapes and people had mutually shaped each other over the centuries. It was hard not to draw comparisons between the mezcaleros and coffee producers, and it shaped my sourcing philosophy permanently. 

Chiapas Mexico Coffee
From a later trip to Chiapas, February 2020. 

Not to be too starry-eyed: as I spent more time in Oaxaca and my Spanish improved, I started to see the reality of the place. The original vision was a refracted, romanticized portrait–honestly, very similar to my initial ideas of coffee production. But as my understanding grows, southern Mexico still stands up as a place that’s intriguing for those that live the culture every day and outsiders alike (much like Texas). So as part of our 2021 Mexico campaign, we’re endeavouring to tell a more nuanced story of the various people, regions, and profiles we’re working with. I hope you taste this range and leave not thinking of “Mexican coffee,” but coffees from Capitán cooperative, the farmers of Sierra Mazateca, or the hard work of people like Salomon Garcia of Union San Pedro coop. We’ll culminate with a panel of several Mexican coffee professionals on what they find unique about their country’s dynamic coffee industry. In the meantime, enjoy the series of blog posts and extras we’ll feature, whether you’re drinking these coffees in Guadalajara or Glasgow. 

La Mixteca Coffee Drying Parchment
One of the first times I saw coffee parchment drying on the street in La Mixteca, Oaxaca. Though we don’t encourage drying coffee in this way, it is a reality for many producers around the world. Oaxaca, 2015.

Flor de Capitán: Speciality in the Context of Chiapas

Though most of our offerings from this year’s campaign come from Oaxaca, it is certainly not the only coffee-producing state in Mexico. Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, produces the most coffee of any state in Mexico.  Our coffees from Ensambles’ “Flor de Capitán” project showcase some of Chiapas’ best. 

A Primer on Chiapas

At their zenith, coffees from Chiapas display notes of smooth caramel, orange (both fruit and zest), and high-toned baking spices like cardamom. However, the status quo is virtually set up to discourage farmers from prioritising high cup quality, as there has never been a market that rewards extra care with higher prices. Many Chiapas producers have hybrid varieties that without careful lot separation can give herbaceous flavours. While farm sizes are still quite small (typically 2-3 hectares of coffee) producers often deliver multiple-day lots blended together,  which may lead to consistency issues in single producer lots. These are among the reasons that speciality coffee is still a fledgeling pursuit here. Indeed, most small farmers in Chiapas have never heard of cupping, an essential tool for quality analysis worldwide. 

Ensambles Q Coffee Grader
Concepción Ortiz, the Ensambles Q Grader in charge of lot separation for the Capitán lots.  Ortiz was trained in cupping by a German NGO in her home village in Oaxaca’s Mixteca region. Since then, she’s made her career in specialty, working with Ensambles since 2018. She endured two months of constant cupping in 35 degree heat to create this season’s selections!

That is not to say that coffee from Chiapas doesn’t have its strong points. Like many of the farmers we profiled in Oaxaca, Chiapas farmers’ unlikely strength is their low-input method of cultivation. Most farms here are de-facto organic, even though they may not hold a certificate. Producers grow coffee in a rich polyculture under canopy shade. This lowers the yield (and makes the coffee look expensive compared to, say, Colombia), but comes with huge ecological benefits. 

Chiapas is often a poster child for FTO coffee, with its cooperative-heavy landscape focused on large “blender” lots. Ideally, coop membership offers the promise of higher and more consistent prices for a farmers’ crop. As an independent, producers must take their chances with local intermediaries who pay a very low price but in cash. Liquidity can be extremely important in areas where financing is not an option.  Affiliation with a co-op may also not be a choice for the most remote producers, and some opt-out due to lack of trust or preference. Yet, the benefits of cooperative membership are compelling enough that roughly half of all farmers in Chiapas belong to one. With the right leadership, these coops can be a powerful conduit for farmers to access the supply chain.

Café Capitán is such a cooperative, serving about 400 members in the Ángel Albino Corzo area of Chiapas. Known as “Jaltenango” in reference to its largest town, this region boasts some of the highest altitude farms in the state, increasing the likelihood of high cup quality.  Capitán staff know almost all producers in the area, mainly spread in four municipalities: Ángel Albino Corzo, Capitán Luis A. Vidal, La Concordia and Montecristo de Guerrero. (Square Mile’s tailored blend is a good cross-section of these communities). Capitán’s goal is to offer a market for all coffee qualities their members produce, from low grade to exceptional lots. They are not focused on the speciality market, which is why their partnership with Ensambles is such an asset. 

The Flor de Capitán project

As you may have gathered, at Square Mile we’re interested in the upper end of Capitán’s quality spectrum. To provide sales, logistics, and most importantly quality control, the coop partnered with speciality exporter Ensambles, who set up a local lab for this purpose in Jaltenango.

A theme in Mexican coffee is the power of the collective. All of the supply chains we work through in Mexico involve

a) lots of growers who deliver tiny lots (in this case, Café Capitán cooperative)

b) a quality control/logistical entity that does the incredibly tedious work of piecing together the lots to show what is possible from this low-impact, traditional farms (here, Ensambles).

The farmers are cultivating a rough diamond, and the QC/techs on the ground cut it into a faceted gem. 

Cafe Capitán cooperative
Noelia Perez, a member of the Cafe Capitán cooperative. Noelia’s coffee was isolated for its quality through the Ensambles partnership, and because of this, we are able to offer her lot as a single-farmer coffee this season.

Capitán allows Ensambles direct access to every farmer within the group. After meticulously sifting through the coffees of 422 members of the Capitán cooperative, Ensambles found 71 lots scoring 84+ in 2021. These form the core of the “Flor de Capitán” (the flower of Capitán) project. The name refers to a quip from a producer in the Capitán region about the choice farmers face to sell their land rather than harvest the coffee fruit: “Things should be bought from the flowers of the coffee tree, not from its roots.”

Our lots come from this project. Once again, we offer a collective picture ( a tailor-made blend from 19 producers, which we’ll simply offer as “Flor de Capitán”) and a single producer lot via farmer Noelia Perez. We are proud to be a link in this chain, which owes as much to the Ensambles team and the Capitán leadership as it does to the farmers themselves.

BUY SOME HERE

Flor de Capitán

£13.50

tasting notes

CHERRY / CARAMEL / HAZELNUT

Jamie Isetts

Jamie Isetts manages Square Mile’s green sourcing program from her adopted home of Austin, TX. She travels the world to learn from farmers and roasters alike but also makes a pretty great spreadsheet.

Jamie Isetts

Jamie Isetts manages Square Mile’s green sourcing program from her adopted home of Austin, TX. She travels the world to learn from farmers and roasters alike but also makes a pretty great spreadsheet.