Petrona Lopez Intzin is a small coffee producer living and working in the remote mountains of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. She lives in a small town called Plan de La Libertad, also known as “Plan” to those in the region who, by slim chance, have heard of this little village nestled in a circular valley surrounded on all sides by high hillsides where some of the best Mexican coffees are grown.
To refer to Plan as a remote village would be an understatement. The capital city of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez, is a bustling and relatively modern city in the centre of one of Mexico’s most agriculturally based and economically challenged departments. To reach the coffee lands from Tuxtla Gutierrez one must drive south in the direction of the Pacific coast to Jaltenango along what we affectionately refer to as the “Highway to Jal”, a three hour stretch of scattered potholes surrounded by ranches left arid and browned by the post-harvest dry season. Jaltenango is the largest centre near the Triufno Bioreserve and signs of the coffee industry are seen all over town. Large multinational import/export companies operate here to aggregate coffee from the small producers and easily recognizable icons of the big coffee roasters can be found painted on the walls of complexes through town. From the vantage point of a high balcony one can look out at the rooftops of those who live in Jaltenango and see coffee being dried in the sun for sale to the local aggregators.
The rooftop coffee is typically natural processed – the fruit of the coffee tree is picked from backyard plots or from small producers that are not organized into cooperatives and is sold at the going local rate to people in town who dry it and in turn sell it to local entrepreneurs who buy this coffee and sell it along to domestic or multinational buyers. The quality of this coffee would likely not pass the international commodity grading standards and would either be consumed domestically or subject to significant sorting and treatment before exportation.
To find the good stuff you have to drive past all of the little shops that buy and sell coffee locally on the “Calle del Café” (the coffee street) to get to the cooperatives located on the edges of town. There are a number of cooperatives of small producers in Jaltenango representing thousands of small producers who have been able to organize into well managed production, processing and exporting organizations that maximize the profitability of coffee farming for their members. Three of these have organized into a Union to gain efficiencies by sharing processing, logistical and quality control resources – the Triunfo Union. We have developed a strong affection for one of these cooperatives, a mid-sized group of around 250 farmers called Finca Triunfo Verde that has a receiving warehouse at the very end of the Calle del Café.
Triunfo Verde is managed by a gregarious and passionate man named Hugo, father of two rowdy young boys and no doubt an inspirational figure to the membership of the coop. He talks at length about crop husbandry, the business of coffee, American football and country music. We feel like Hugo’s spirit of innovation and competiveness translates quite effectively into cup quality, which is where we finally arrive back at the farm of Petrona Lopez Intzin. Like all members of the coop, Petrona operates a small farm of roughly one hectare in the remote hills a further three hour drive into the mountains from Jaltenango.
The plots of land are reached by walking uphill from Plan, which for the high altitude farms at 1500 meters and above can take around an hour. The farms are well managed using organic methods – a wealth of protective leaf litter is present on the soil and canopies of shade crops protect the coffee from intense sunshine while moderating soil temperature and providing the biodiversity necessary to protect the coffee from pests and disease without recourse to expensive and damaging chemical agents. Terraces have been built to prevent soil erosion and composted coffee pulp is scattered at the base of the trees to provide a significant wealth of nutrients. There is limited genetic diversity on these farms but the choice of varieties has played a tremendous role in the success of their quality initiatives – lower yielding but high quality Bourbon and Arabe trees ripen to a deep red colour on Petrona’s farm as well as on the farm of her husband, Diego.
Coffee is picked by hand once per year by Petrona with little help – small coffee producers typically operate their farms with the aid of family but without hired labour. A small concrete bath for pulping and fermenting the coffee is used to remove the ripe fruit and to expose the coffee seeds to allow for even drying, which is crucial to achieve a high quality harvest.
Petrona produces a little over 5,000 pounds of coffee per year on her farm. Usually this coffee would be aggregated with the rest of the members’ coffee into large “lots” of 40,000 pounds of blended coffee with an average quality. Much to our excitement, last year Triunfo Verde began experimenting with the idea of separating out the coffee of farmers with higher altitude farms growing quality varieties to see if they could get better prices. Petrona’s husband Diego was the pilot project and his coffee was successfully sold for higher prices to enthusiastic buyers – Bridgehead roasted the bulk of his production that year. This past harvest the management at Triunfo Verde was fired up by the success of the Diego pilot and collected single farm “microlots” from over a dozen producers – enough to fill an entire 40,000 pound sea container. These included the production of Petrona, her husband Diego and Diego’s brother Nicolas.
After our visit with Triufo Verde and a very special visit to Diego’s farm in March we received a little package full of samples from all of the segregated producers that Triunfo Verde was trying to sell. After a blind cupping we were amused and pleased to find that the best coffees were those of Diego, Petrona and Nicolas. This was a testament to both the importance of both microenvironments and the skill and knowledge of the coffee farmer. Without hesitation we booked the full production of all three producers.
Diego’s coffee is almost gone – we started roasting it in late July and it will only be around for a couple more weeks. Petrona’s coffee will be available in stores on Thursday October 17th. It is a Full Medium roast with a clean, predominantly roasted almond/hazelnut aroma with slight cinnamon and floral nuances. It will only be around for about 6 weeks so we hope you enjoy it while it lasts!
Posted in: Coffee & Roasting
October 15, 2013