Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras
When we travel the symbolic roads of specialty coffee south through Mexico and Central America, two origins straddle those roads like overachieving giants: Guatemala and Costa Rica. The other coffee origins of the region - Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama - make far less frequent appearances on specialty menus, although Mexico and Nicaragua in particular supply several distinguished organic and Fair-Trade coffees, and Panama's Boquete region has had some success positioning itself as an elite origin.
What would I receive if I asked a cross-section of roasters to supply me with their best coffees from four of the most overlooked of these origins: Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras?
First of all, not as many coffees as I had expected. I know that there are fine coffees from all of these origins, but apparently the word is not out. Or perhaps I asked the wrong roasters. At any rate, I ended up reviewing ten coffees, five from Mexico, two from El Salvador, one from Nicaragua, one from Honduras, and one blend of El Salvador and Panama.
I was particularly disappointed by the small number of samples from Honduras and Nicaragua, given that some excellent green coffees have been coming into North America from both of these countries.
Four of the reviewed coffees seemed compromised by mild roasting faults. CounterCulture Coffee apparently has changed its roasting style from a classic full city to a darker style, which is fine, but both Counter Culture samples displayed the bitterness of dark roasts whose sugars in part have been burned rather than caramelized. The "Dutch Flowers Blend" from Stone Cup, a promising boutique roaster in Chattanooga Tennessee, and the organic Mexican from the long-established Caffe Ibis were marred by a hint of rubber in the aftertaste.
The great coffeeman Kevin Knox of Allegro writes in a recent newsletter that finding fine Mexico coffees in the United States is like finding good Mexican food here. Mexican cuisine is varied and superb, but in the U.S. all we get are tacos, burritos, and fajitas. Kevin argues that Mexico coffees suffer the same fate - all of the finest Mexico coffees are shipped off to Europe, leaving us with the equivalent of tacos and burritos.
To some degree, the five Mexicos reviewed here bore out this generalization. Still, these were rather tasty burritos and fajitas. The range of nuance, from citrus (I kept tasting grapefruit) to spice and leather was particularly engaging.
The two El Salvador coffees were impressive, despite the (probably roast-induced) bitterness in the Counter Culture sample. The Allegro El Salvador was fine in the style that typically marks the best El Salvadors - sweet, balanced, delicately nuanced, elegant.
I found the best coffee in the cupping the lone Honduras. Tactfully roasted by the micro-roaster Coffeemaria, this coffee cupped like the best of the Honduras coffees I sampled at a recent Specialty Coffee Association of America meeting: rich, full, sweet, and laced with citrus and flowers.
I admit to feeling a twinge of regret at reporting on this cupping. In retrospect, I should have focused on one or two origins rather than four, and cupped each in more depth. But it is fair to conclude from this very small sampling that all four of these origins deserve more attention than they are getting now from coffee professionals and aficionados.
Unfortunately, we may not taste many fine coffees from any of these countries again if world prices for green coffees do not rise. Every month I feel obligated to remind my readers that coffee farmers all over the world are starving and being displaced by a glut of cheap coffee that, owing to the structural irrationality of a market that links specialty coffee prices with commercial coffee prices, has driven down the price of fine coffees far below the cost that it takes farmers to produce them.
But if through the sacrifice and devotion of the farmers we do experience more fine coffees from these beleaguered origins, I urge my readers to devote some morning cups to enjoying them.