Whilst in San Cristobal de las Casas I visited the Museum of Coffee in an effort to find out more about the black elixir. Also, an excuse to feed my addiction with some top notch samples.
In Mexico there are over 282,000 coffee producers. Of these over 259,000 are small producers whose plots are no bigger than five hectares. Thus, 92% of total producers are small-scale. They supply 60% of Mexico’s national product. Furthermore, 28 out of a total of 54 indigenous groups in Mexico are involved in coffee production. Historically they have been open to exploitation and have struggled to make a living from the complex and rapacious global coffee market.
There are two species of coffee plant grown in Mexico – arabica and canephora. Pre-hispanic legend tells that coffee was found by a goat who ate and ate and ate, then crapped and crapped and crapped. The villagers investigated what the goat was eating and discovered it was coffee. They studied the fruit and cultivated the crop. When coffee was brought to Europe from the East (or possibly Africa) people initially turned their noses up at it. However, by the 17th Century cultivation began in the New World to supply a growing European habit. The plant was brought to Mexico in 1790.
Coffee plants grow to four to six metres in height and can live up to 50 years. The plant matures for the first harvest in three to four years, and max production is around eight to ten years. However, the plant will produce its whole life. Once the fruit is harvested, pulp is removed and the seed separated from the shell. The coffee is then washed and rests for 12 to 20 hours in tubs to prevent rotting. It is then dried and sent for processing.
The coffee industry was originally dominated by large foreign companies that exploited indigenous labour and planted large mono-crop plantations. At the beginning of the 20th Century people traveled to work on the big plantations around the Mexican border with Guatemala. Gradually the workers brought seeds back from the plantations and began to cultivate it. Indigenous producers grow using the ‘milpa’ system – combining coffee with corn and beans, etc.
In 1989, an independent group of 75,000 small coffee producers in Mexico was formed. CNOC aimed to strengthen the voice of the peasants. In Chiapas there are other groups assisting the communities. The smell of good coffee wafts through the streets of San Cristobal. In the cafes much of the product is organic and locally sourced. I’ve never seen Mexican coffee on sale in the UK – maybe it’s a delicious secret the Mexicans want to keep to themselves.