After two weeks of vacation spent studying Spanish in Antigua and Guatemala City, Guatemala, I decided to brave the cross country bus system in order to rendezvous with Trish in Oaxaca, Mexico. Every travel guide I found was packed full of warnings to travelers of the dangers of traveling at night in Latin America, and stories of highway robberies by pistol toting banditos. For the sake of adventure and a ticket that cost one tenth the price of a domestic flight, I put my well being in the hands of Galgos, the Latin American equivalent of the Greyhound bus company…
Seven extremely comfortable hours later, I arrived in Tapachula, Mexico just in time for a monsoon that flooded much of the state of Chiapas (including the streets surrounding the bus station) forcing me to roll up the cuffs of my pantalones and wade across the street in search of food. My encounter with the rain storm paled in comparison with the thousands of lives lost and households devastated in south-eastern Mexico and Guatemala by what was later dubbed Hurricane Stan.
I had no idea of the extent of the damage as my Pullman bus carried me safely through the fringe of the storm, but found out later when I arrived in Oaxaca and relieved friends concerned about my safety told me that Chiapas was in a state of emergency and much of the region was flooded.
Tapachula to Oaxaca City is roughly eleven hours overnight. The trip would have been a convenient time to catch up on some sleep, if it weren’t for regular security checkpoints at which armed guards boarded our bus every hour on the hour to wake up the passengers and check their papers. Luckily, I had everything in order and the worst I had to endure was the nuisance of the interruption. A few Guatemaltecos in the seats in front of me weren’t as fortunate, and were pulled off the bus repeatedly to be shaken down for money due to a technicality with their travel visas.
As the sun rose over the arid countryside of the state of Oaxaca, I could begin to make out buildings and signs indicating our approach to the outskirts of Oaxaca City. One of the few things I knew about Oaxaca before arriving in Mexico is that it is home to hundreds of Mezcal distilleries. For the uninitiated, Mezcal is a beverage very similar to Tequila, but produced exclusively in Oaxaca using Agave (more commonly known as Maguey in Mexico’s southern states.)
All tequilas are Mezcals, as Mezcal was the first liquor distilled from Agave (which is not truly a cactus, but more similar to Aloe) by the Spaniards when Cortez introduced the process of distillation to Mexico in the 16th Century. Not all Mezcals are Tequilas, however, as the names of the liquors are associated with the region they are produced in; Tequilas traditionally are from the areas surrounding the town of Tequila near Guadalajara while Mezcals are traditionally produced in the southern state of Qaxaca. The variety of agave used to produce each type of Mezcal greatly affects the flavor of the liquor, as does the method by which the leaves of the Maguey are dried and the material used to construct the casks in which the Mezcal is stored. Maguey prepared for traditional Oaxacan Mezcal is dried over hot rocks and wood fire giving it a strong smoky flavor, whereas Agave for most Tequilas is dried in gas ovens making it less smoky and more clean tasting.
El Gusano or, “the worm” is also something Mezcal is normally associated with. Of the three general classifications of Mezcal: claro, reposado and anejo, reposado is the type that most commonly has the worm; salty and crunchier than you might expect, el gusano is not to be missed. Maguey is also purported to have mildly hallucinogenic properties (similar to wormwood in Absynthe) and while I saw many unbelievable things while drinking Mezcal with my friends in Oaxaca, I can only wish that I was hallucinating.
Right, sorry for the Mezcal Tangent. Most of my friends in the coffee industry are into other types of imbibables as well, so I’m sure that someone reading this is going to find my discussion of Mezcal interesting. It’s also very pertinent to the story, you see, because my purpose in traveling to Oaxaca in the first place was to meet with a group of American coffee roasters at a small conference called “Let’s Talk Coffee”, sponsored by Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, based in Portland, OR.
Mezcal quickly became the official refreshment of the weekend and my enthusiasm for the liquor was put to shame by the fervor of the other American attendees. Let’s Talk Coffee has been held in Oaxaca for the past three years, and the point is not only to bring all of the roasters that purchase coffee from Sustainable Harvest together in a beautiful setting to socialize. Sustainable Harvest, together with their Oaxaca-based Mexican branch Sustainable Origins, coordinates the producers of each coffee sold by the importer and brings them up from their home countries to Oaxaca to meet the roasters that buy their coffee face to face.
We met with producers from Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Ethiopia, as well as growers from nearby Oaxaca and Chiapas. This meeting is the only one of it’s kind in the world, and offers roasters from The States a unique opportunity to taste coffee side by side with the farmers, mill operators, cooperative directors and quality control specialists that actual produce the green coffee purchased. Cupping coffees together gives roasters and producers the chance to standardize methods used to evaluate coffees.
Our first day in Oaxaca, a group scoured the city’s bustling market place in search of any item that we might compare aromas and flavors of coffee to, in order to express how we feel about a certain coffee. We found tobacco, leather, honey, various types of chocolate, an assortment of nuts, fruits (both fresh and dried), meats, an array of spices, honey, caramel candies, fresh flowers, and spread them across several tables so that we could all taste an apricot and say “When I taste apricot, this is what I taste.” Sustainable Harvest provided a form for all of us to use to assign a numerical value to each facet of the coffees we were evaluating: Fragrance, Aroma, Acidity, Body, Sweetness, etc., and even provided translators from Berlitz (much of the speaking was in Spanish) to make sure communication remained clear.
The conference included presentations by owners of a few prominent specialty coffee roasters in The States that clearly broke down the price charged for a pound of roasted coffee, and a cup of brewed coffee, to ease the common suspicion among many coffee growers that the margin between the amount they receive for their green coffee and the amount charged for the finished product in the consuming country is evidence of exploitation.
For myself, the experience of getting to know the farmers, cooperative directors and exporters who are responsible for some of the coffee we buy was invaluable. The relationships formed between roaster and grower can last a lifetime. It’s an interdependent relationship built on trust and mutual benefit, and the farmers rely on us to consistently pay fair prices and give constructive feedback as much as we rely on them to provide high quality coffee consistently and reliably.
As Zoka forms more relationships of this type, it will be crucial to extend the relationship to the customers that enjoy our coffee every day. The more our patrons recognize and appreciate the amount of effort that goes into the coffee bean, both in the producing country and here at our roastery in Seattle, our capacity to develop these relationships and ability to offer exclusive coffees will increase.