Mexico is a major coffee producer — the world’s ninth largest in 2018 — and almost all of its coffee is produced by small-holding farmers. Much ends up funneled through mills and intermediaries to be bulked by large exporters to fit the commercially defined cup expectation for Mexico coffee: mild in acidity, sweet, relatively delicate, chocolate- and nut-toned. An agreeable coffee for blending, usually inexpensive.
However, the importance of small-holding farmers in Mexico has created a different stream to market: a significant volume of Mexico coffee comes to the retail market from small-holder cooperatives certified organic and/or fair trade, and it is here that Mexico is most prominent in the specialty coffee world.
Reasons for Small-Holder Dominance
The importance of small-holding producers in the Mexican coffee industry is usually explained on the basis of several overlapping historical contingencies. For one, in the early history of southern Mexico, the colonial Spanish government did not make the large, socially disruptive land grants it made elsewhere in the Americas, which allowed local indigenous agricultural communities to remain intact. Much later, after the Mexican Revolution, land redistribution favored small-holders, as did 20th century policies up through the 1980s that were specifically aimed at encouraging and supporting small-holding coffee producers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the indigenous peoples in the important southern Mexican coffee-growing regions have tended to remain loyal to a legacy of self-governing, communal social and economic arrangements. This makes them ideal candidates for the modern cooperative movement and for fair trade certification. These indigenous producers also historically have had little money for pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers, making them prime prospects for organic certification as well. An estimated 85% of Mexican coffee farmers are from indigenous populations.
Importance of Organic in Mexico
A study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development estimated that in 2012 almost 17% of Mexican coffee production was certified organic, second only to Peru’s nearly 19%. These figures undoubtedly have changed since the onset of leaf rust in 2012–13, as the disease has been particularly difficult to control for organic growers. Nevertheless, if you currently are consuming a certified organically grown coffee, there is a good chance it was grown in Mexico or Peru.
These small-holder Mexico coffees are often marketed by the name of the cooperative and the growing region, but the practice of differentiating coffee through separating coffee by tree variety or processing method that is so prominent in Panama and some other Central American origins seems to have had relatively little impact in Mexico. Small-holding producers appear to have pretty much stuck with fair trade and especially organic production as their favored value-added options.
The practice of segregating and selling coffee by specific cooperative appears to have encouraged more coffee from the high-elevation growing regions of Chiapas, close to the border with Guatemala and Guatemala’s Huehuetenango region. These are Mexico coffees with an often individualistic intensity owing to high growing elevations and local variations in processing method. They may defy the stereotypical soft, chocolaty, nut-toned profile that the coffee industry generally associates with Mexico.
Mexico Growing Regions
The southeastern state of Chiapas, bordering Guatemala, not only produces more coffee than any other state in Mexico (an estimated 30% of Mexico’s total), but also produces some of Mexico’s most respected coffees, certainly some of the brightest and most intense. Somewhat softer coffees with less intense acidity, the type that perhaps best typify the classic industry definition of the Mexico cup profile, tend to be produced in Oaxaca State, west of Chiapas. Veracruz State, stretching along the Gulf of Mexico coast, is known for even gentler coffees grown at still lower elevations. But with all of these regions there may (and will) be exceptions. Other growing regions, north and west of these three major regions, do not often appear on specialty coffee lists.
The Traditional Mexico Cup
Typical Global Descriptors.
Traditionally: soft, balanced, sweet, light- to medium-bodied. Cooperative coffees, particularly from Chiapas, may be more intense and forceful overall with a savory edge to the sweetness that may be owing to idiosyncrasies in processing.
Common Aroma/Flavor Notes.
Roasted nut, chocolate or cocoa, brown sugar, cedar, malted grain, berry, sometimes hints of lush, lily-like flowers.
Mexico Coffee Ratings and Reviews
Click here to view ratings and reviews of coffees from Mexico.