Blog: Harar Quixotic
The roads wind around the mountainsides as they climb from Oaxaca City, north and east to Talea de Castro. Seven of us huddled in a rental that was too big to be a car and too small to be a minivan. There were three mountain ridges that would challenge our engine and especially the brakes between our destination and the city. We hugged the mountainsides as we climbed, admiring views of the valleys deep below, with awe and trepidation. Jordi drove and chatted with our guide in the passenger seat.
We had only been in Mexico for a couple days. We met with our guide, Clemente Santiago Paz, in a café in Oaxaca City the night we arrived. Clemente is a Q grader based in Oaxaca City. His job is to evaluate the quality of coffees at farms in Mexico for a handful of brokers and organizations and to help the farmers increase their quality. He poured over options and possibilities with our team that Friday night. The growing regions were all four or five hours away from the city through the mountains in separate directions. We had to choose carefully, as we could only afford a trip to one. Clemente settled on a village clinging to the mountain face in the Sierra Madre Del Norte. Talea de Castro is nestled in the mountains on the Gulf side of the divide. Bathing in the moist air the Gulf brings to the valley, it is a beautiful and refreshing change to the winter desert surrounding Oaxaca City. It provides perfect Coffee growing climate.
When we settled in our village hotel and had eaten dinner in the house/restaurant of motherly lady, we met with a group of farmers in the village square. This bunch of young passionate farmers had formed a cooperative group called Oro Taleano (Talean Gold). They committed themselves to improving the quality of life for Talean families through their coffee.
Jordi and Chris hopped in the back of a pickup truck with the farmers. Clemente assured us that we careened down the gravel mountain roads at a cautious pace as we rode from one farmer’s little finca to another. These farmers each have smallholdings scattered around their houses and in the forests across the valleys. If you have in mind a pristine and organized orchard, the steep mountain crags would shock you as you see the coffee growing variously under the protective shade of sombra trees. We scrambled down among them listening to the stories of the farmers and tasting with them the sweet ripe cherries enveloping the beans. Most of the plants belonged to their grandparents and were reaching the end of their productive years. They told us about how they were nurturing new plants that in the coming years would bring new vitality to their farms.
The next day, after breakfast at the same dear lady’s kitchen and a trip through square on market day, we visited a couple of farmer’s houses in the village within walking distance. Their houses were surrounded by small groups of coffee trees providing more opportunity to harvest. They pointed across the valley to the other mountainside where they also had houses and farms. They would alternate time tending their crops there with the crops nearer the village. The whole valley is the responsibility of the farmers of Talea de Castro.
We went to one farmer’s house where he showed us how he pulped the cherries, removing the coffee, still in its parchment, from the cherry husks with a machine. His machine has an electric motor, while many of the others operate it by a crank. He then showed us a vat where the beans are left to ferment overnight before being spread out on rooftops, patios, or even on tarps in the street to dry. Then he invited us into his house where his family shared space with his stores of coffee and we sat in the gloaming drinking cups of hot sweet liquid as we talked about their dreams and plans for improving their future.
They had shown us an empty preschool that they would like to turn into a center for investigation, where they can process and test their coffees to help determine their quality, and how to improve. The location would also provide space for education about coffee production, a large drying patio, and a nursery for young plants. We talked about how we might be able to partner with them in making this dream a reality.
Remarkably the farmers rarely see their coffee the way we see it. As rosters we are used to seeing the hard green beans already processed and sorted, without defect. That is why we count it such a privilege to see the cherries ripen on the tree, put them in our mouths, and touch the beans in their parchment. The farmers on the other hand only have that side of the experience. They taste the sweetness of the cherry, observe the proper color as it ripens, and a nice even light color to the parchment gives them indication that the crop will be good. They don’t know the quality of the bean, however, until it is hulled and then sorted for defect. This happens back in the city. The few roasting operations in the village will take their unsorted coffee, roast it darkly and mill it on the spot to a dark powder. These roasters treat it like another local commodity, corn. It is hard to taste the quality of the bean under this dark-roasted treatment. The coffee our friends offered us had a glimmer of promise obscured by the roast. We became excited to take some back to Oaxaca City to roast and cup it.
We said goodbye to our new friends and headed back over three mountain ridges for Oaxaca City. A few days latter, Clemente brought the samples from Talea to us. He had hulled and roasted them and we were ready to cup. We were nervous. This was the only group of farmers we were able to meet on this trip. Their coffee wasn’t sorted to give us just the best. They were proud of how they treated it and were confident, and we were anxious for them to be proved right. Two Talean farmers had given us samples and they were on the table next to another that Clemente thought promising from another part of the state. The Talean coffee shined on the cupping table, and we couldn’t be happier.
Now we are working to import their coffee. We are also excited with the idea of crowd-funding their center for investigation. We’d love to return in a couple years and see how they’ve grown, and how their passion has made their dreams reality. We want a long-term relationship with these farmers to be a part of those dreams.
While we wait for the opportunity to roast and serve Oro Taleano, we want to celebrate our trip to Mexico with a flight of Mexican coffees from local roasters. Stop into either of our locations to give them a try. Also talk to Jordi in New Center, and Chris in Clark Park about our trip and what we’ve learned.