Boots on the Ground: Mexico
Rows of hybrid coffee plants in the Dos Rios nursery
I’ve been with Spyhouse for just over two years. I started as a barista at the Hennepin location, and got to watch with envy as Tony crafted a spectacular in-house roasting program for a company that was previously a multi-roaster shop. My love for coffee and restless desire for knowledge craved nothing more than to work directly with Tony, and learn and apprentice under him.
In January of 2014, that wish was granted when I was made a roasting and packaging assistant. Five short months later, I was full time in the roasting department acting as a production roaster and packaging manager. I was honored to have been lifted to that position in such a short time.
I never thought that within that brief period I’d be given an opportunity to travel to origin. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.
This trip, hosted by Café Imports, brought Christian (owner) and I to the city of Xalapa in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. We and several others from roasting companies across the US were to judge a national coffee competition that Café Imports has been organizing over the last few years to help bring prestige to the hard working coffee producers in Mexico who are often overlooked by the specialty coffee industry. It’s called “Lo Mejor De Mexico” – literally, “The Best of Mexico”.
Lo Mejor De Mexico has special significance to us at Spyhouse. Last year, two of our employees– Kathie, our educator; and Kimberly, a barista– competed in the Big Central regional Barista Championship with a coffee from Ixhautlán, Mexico, that won 3rd place in last year’s Lo Mejor competition. Those who are regulars might remember it for its killer espresso profile and elegantly balanced brew character. It was truly a coffee that could bring a smile to anyone, and we like to think it helped changed some preconceived notions of Mexican coffee.
This year’s competition took place over two days in the Beneficio Las Animas wet mill. Entries from all over Mexico were submitted, and Café Imports’ team narrowed around 50 submissions down to half that for the scored and judged rounds. The first day consisted of 3 rounds of cupping, each judge filling out score sheets based around dry fragrance, wet aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, sweetness, and an overall cupper’s score.
Between each around, every cupper shared his or her scores and thoughts for each coffee. Soon, a top 10 emerged.
The next day, the 10 advancing coffees were re-roasted and re-cupped. There was a palpable tension in the air amongst the echoing slurps as each cupper focused intently on grading and evaluating every coffee they tasted. After all, we were deciding the best coffee in Mexico– a heavy decision.
Top: Mark and David of Hub Coffee Roasters evaluating dry fragrance; Square One Coffee green buyer Sarah Shirk evaluating wet aroma
Bottom: Water being poured into dry grounds; Christian of Spyhouse taking notes
Results were tabulated, information was disbursed, and an award ceremony was held later that night. This year brought about a first for the Lo Mejor competition: a live auction of the top 10 winning coffees. Producers who placed in the top 10 were invited to the ceremony to receive congratulations and awards from AMSA, another organizer of Lo Mejor and a company dedicated to enriching and enhancing coffee farming in Mexico.
Intense bidding ensued, and the farmers who produced such spectacular coffees were rewarded with a price per pound well above average market value (as well as the aforementioned prizes from AMSA). When the dust finally settled, each and every representative of the present US roasteries had a huge grin on their face and an appetite that could only be satiated by tacos and tequila– both of which were aplenty after the auction.
We at Spyhouse won 28 bags total in the auction, each bag being 69kg/~150lbs: 5 of the 27 total bags of the 1st Place coffee, GRAPOS El Porvenir; and the entire 23 bag lot of El Amate, the 5th Place coffee (though both Christian and I scored El Amate as our 3rd favorite coffee overall).
Between rounds of cupping, we spent much of our time traveling to other significant coffee-related sites around the area. The Dos Rios dry mill we visited is responsible for the sorting and final preparation of coffee received from various wet mills around the region. Additionally, Dos Rios has a large coffee nursery where scientists are working on creating genetic hybrids of Robusta plants and specialty-grade Arabica plants in an effort to fight the roya (rust) leaf disease that has been devastating many Central and South American coffee farms. Robusta plants are incredibly disease resistant and high producing, and this hybridization process (known as embryogenesis) is able to create a coffee plant with the exceptional heartiness Robusta is known for while retaining the complex and delicious cup character of Arabica.
Top: Processing machinery at Las Animas wet mill; stacks of 1000kg "super sacks" in warehouse
Bottom: Workers at Dos Rios unload parchment coffee from a truck; a grafted coffee sapling from the embryogenesis nursery at Dos Rios
We also visited the farms of two producers who entered the Lo Mejor competition. Finca Consopalan and Finca Fatima are both a short drive from Xalapa in the region of Coatepec. Though Mexico’s harvest season is over, there were still many flowering and fruited plants on the farms. The beauty of both farms was immeasurable, and the care and dedication of their respective producers– both of whom we met– was instantly noticeable.
Our first and foremost mission at Spyhouse is to responsibly source amazing coffees and build direct relationships with excellent producers. Our commitment to this shows in the coffees we buy out of major growing regions like Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, etc. Additionally, we strongly believe in developing and encouraging excellent coffee in passed-over regions like Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico. Since the inception of our roasting program, we’ve made it a point to work closely with producers in these areas to help maximize their potential and bring you, the customer, the best coffee possible.
We hope you enjoy drinking these coffees as much as we enjoyed sourcing and buying them for you. Look for them in our offerings list in the next few months.
- Max Lee