Mexico Chiapas Coffee Coop Visit

Motozintla means “Land of the Squirrels”

A trip to the coffee growing region of Chiapas, 2006

I am in Motozintla and, while I haven’t been here long, I can say that there are no squirrels here. I came here on a bus, a wheezing, smoking diesel behemoth that used to be a painted Greyhound, probably the same one I took from Bakersfield to Fresno back in 1983.

Now it seems that 3 of its transmission gears still work, and to find them the driver either needs to synchronize with the engine rpm at a very particular speed, or he has to stop completely. It’s a charter, a bus that seats 50 for just 15 of us. But as far as coffee trips go, that’s about 10 too many on my book. We are off the visit the Mexico Chiapas coffee cooperative where we have been finding nice lots lately. Lots, meaning, a chunk of a full container, nothing special but it tastes good!

No offense, but I am tired of groups. It feels like I am stuck in some gelatinous cytoplasmic goo. I prefer to be my own amoeba. The goo moves too slow, too much inertia. We let Tapachula, hot, sweaty Tapachula, in the morning. If the bus doesn’t have a major seizure, we will be in Motozintla, home base for the coffee co-op best called “La Union”. Or would you prefer the ugly acronym UDEPOM. Or would you like the full name: Union de Ejidos de Professor Otillio Montano.

We arrive at Hotel Alberto. If that is Alberto at the desk, he is hard to rouse, in fact he is asleep most times I walk up to the counter. I get room 43. Room 45 has a syringe on the floor, I am told. Room 43 is good enough for me, but it is not the place you want to hang out.

The group is a mish-mash of U.S. and Canadian roasters. Big ones, and little ones, varied in concerns, with I-don’t-know-what in common. I end up in a conversation I really don’t want to be in, about packaging machines. I guess I just have a compulsion to relate to people. It’s a weird trip.

As it happens, I won’t need the cupping spoons I brought. I won’t even see a sample roaster or a cupping table. The Union office is stacked with their roasted coffee, in jars, labeled “Organic Instant Coffee.” The local supermercado, across from the Alberto, has only instant coffee too. What’s with that? Maybe it makes sense – where else would Instant be so useful but in a place with unreliable electric power, and a brewer costs money. Boil water, add a spoon of coffee, stir.

Fact is, if you want to have a competition for the world’s worst coffee, go to an area where they grow it. Now it’s not like coffee from the area, roasted “for local consumption” would save the farmers of Chiapas, or anywhere. Coffee is a cash crop, made to bring outside funds into an economy that needs it badly. But local coffee wouldn’t hurt; it also would be ideal if producers understood the varying qualities of their own product, which they might if they all roasted and cupped the coffee. It’s not like discriminating taste is strictly and urban quality.

I challenge you to find a more disciplined, discerning and frugal customer of fresh produce and meats than a Latino woman in an open-air market. It’s a typecast I know, I am sure some don’t care at all about the quality of their purchases. But I have sat and watched them shop, and they are discriminating and tough.

What’s the big difference between sniffing melons to anticipate which will be the sweetest, ripest, juiciest one, and what I do when “cupping” coffee? In addition to selling local roasted coffee, a bit of tourism dollars wouldn’t hurt, but outside our awkward pod of gringos, there are no out-of-towners in Motozintla. I like that, but I am not going to infuse the economy with much money so what’s that worth. Consider that my roundtrip plane fare from SFO was $1100, and right now SFO to Paris is around $1050. Hmmm… City of Lights or Land of Squirrels?

But this effort to get cooperative coffee up to the standards of estate coffee is remarkable when you consider that 650 people in 29 widely dispersed communities are doing their own depulped (removing the skin of the coffee cherry) on hand crank machines, then fermenting it in tanks to remove the fruity mucilage layer, washing , and patio drying.

There are so many ways you can mess up at any one of those steps, not to mention the lack of uniformity from person-to-person, community-to-community. And they manage to do it, somehow, consistently producing great Chiapas coffee year after year. The administrative legwork it takes to coordinate all this, to account for each quintale of coffee, and where it comes from, is monumental.

Coffee is a risky business; there is no crop insurance for coffee, anywhere. In this tranquil climes, at some point the producer will suddenly and swiftly get their butt kicked. Residual rainfall from a hurricane, mudslides; if the roads are washed out you might as well not even harvest your coffee. If you are picking, and you get sudden rainfall while your coffee is drying on the patio, you better hope someone pulled it in for you, or it is ruined.

Some in Chiapas where affected in a more dramatic way – the coffee trees themselves slid down the hill into the river. For 3000 others it was worse, they lost their homes. In any case, you see the damage here and you see a lot of people working on the repairs. But you are not going to hear people dwell on it a lot – for them it is just a part of life in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.

I return to Tapachula. I left the palefaced cytoplasmic colony behind, and will fly home alone. I am just a lone amoeba now, I caught a ride down to the lowlands and the airport with a guy named Moises (not everyone here is Juan and Jose!) For that I empty my pockets of pesos so Moises can go do his bimonthly family shopping trip … at Sam’s Club. Well, maybe they have some coffee that is not instant.

They give me a tough time: Tapachula airport security is tough, be warned. They don’t like this thing and that thing, and they really don’t like the hand-cast aluminum spurs I am bringing back. I am going to have to find a box, and then check it through to SFO. Oddly, they announce the boarding rows in English as well as Spanish, but looking around I am the only gringo in the whole airport. (And frankly, I understand clear Spanish much better than garbled P.A>. system English.)

As we climb I look down at the long, straight sandy beaches that dramatically divide the lush flood plain from the azure blue Pacific. Some day, on one of my coffee trips to the mountains, I will get to sit on a beach like that, even for one day. But I am always up on the nauseating and twisty roads where the coffee is grown. And as quickly as I arrive, I must get back to West Oakland.

We’re too small of a company to allow for a dedicated specialist in coffee travels. I have to cup the incoming samples, update the web page, fix this or that machine, water the plants, reorganize the pallet racks, roast the batches on Monday night; any number of things from the many jobs I have in coffee. And while it could be better (like getting to spend a day on a beach) my motto that I hold to be universally true is this: “it’s not all good, but it could be worse, so it isn’t half bad.” –Tom