Seventy years ago, Mexico was poised to become one of the great coffee exporters in the world. But the world changed and the country’s coffee producers had to adapt to new market realities. Now, Mexico is one of the top two organic coffee producers in the world.
To better understand how the country navigated seven decades of market change to later emerge as a top organic coffee producer requires a look back at the history of coffee in Mexico.
Coffee is not native to Mexico. It was introduced through the port of Veracruz at the end of the 18th century, adapting well to mountainous zones in the tropical east and south. These same regions are highly isolated because of the terrain, allowing many indigenous and other traditional agrarian cultures to survive to the present day. However, these mountains do not allow for much more than subsistence agriculture.
Corn and beans provide the basics, but these communities have never been able to be 100 percent self-sufficient, prompting the need to earn some money somehow. Coffee offered that, and it is well-suited to lands that may not be useful for much else. Cultivation should be a win all around.
And it was for some time. Farmers found domestic markets as Mexicans took up coffee drinking. Mexico has a national version of coffee – café de olla – which literally translates to “pot coffee.” It is a spiced preparation, always with cinnamon and piloncillo sugar, but it can include other ingredients such as cloves, orange peel and star anise. The preparation of café de olla is simple, with all the ingredients boiled in a clay pot, with the sediment strained or allowed to settle at the bottom. It tends to be quite sweet, but the piloncillo is essential as it gives a flavor similar to that of brown sugar
There are also some regional preparations such as café lechero (milk coffee), which is scalded milk mixed with strong espresso-like coffee. It is a specialty of the state of Veracruz at cafes such as La Parroquia in the port. Here, you ask for another café by tapping your clear glass with a spoon. The waiter comes with two heated vessels, one with coffee and one with milk and pours both into the glass. The milk is poured from a height to mix it with the coffee and give it froth.
I should note here that Mexico has not taken up coffee drinking to the extent that many other countries have. This may have something to do with a long, strong tradition of drinking hot chocolate, with cacao grown in many of the same regions as coffee.
By the end of the 19th century, Mexico was producing enough coffee to be able to export. This was the time of Porfirio Diaz, whose 30-year regime worked to modernize Mexico, but at great cost to the indigenous people and peasants. It was the abuses of these peoples by large landowners that spurred the 10-year Mexican Revolution that began in 1910.
After the war, almost all hacienda lands were taken from their owners and broken up for redistribution in favor of the peasantry. The economy, including coffee production, recovered by the 1930s. Exporting again, coffee became important during World War II, as Mexico became an important supplier to Allied troops. After the war, the Mexican federal government took an interest in regulating and promoting Mexican coffee, joining with other producing countries to keep supplies such that prices would be relatively stable and high. It was a win-win for the government as it brought in foreign income, and it could position itself as supporting some of the country’s poorest regions.
The arrangement worked well in the 1950s into the 1970s. The federal government’s coffee agency was the Mexican Institute of Coffee (INMECAFE), which negotiated prices in world markets and providing financing and technology to farmers. By 1982, INMECAFE had over 280,000 farmers as members, 65 percent of them were indigenous. But this government support had become crucial to the entire industry. Coffee could no longer be sold only locally or even domestically to produce income as it had become a global commodity with prices set far from Mexican territory.
This left Mexican small farmers vulnerable when the global market changed in the 1970s. Global prices hit historic highs, but this high cost brought about market backlash. It also prompted other countries such as Vietnam to go into coffee production, encouraged by multinational corporations looking for cheaper suppliers.
These new countries did not belong to the old consortium of coffee nations, and prices, which were never that stable to begin with, fell. In addition, the 1980s brought neoliberal economic policies that further encouraged competition among coffee producing nations. The Mexican government adopted such policies as well, undermining the role of INMECAFE. The agency continued to limp along during the decade, but was finally disbanded in 1993.
The disappearance of INMECAFE meant that Mexico’s small coffee farmers lost their almost direct line to the global market. They became reliant once again on middlemen to come and purchase their small crops to combine them with others to sell to large buyers. In many cases, farmers rely on these same middlemen for financing, producing a yearly cycle of debt. Unscrupulous middlemen can push-down prices to the point of abusing farmers, but it is important to note that such buying and transport of small quantities from highly isolated areas is expensive. There is no apparent market solution for this problem.
As a result, Mexican coffee production fell over 70 percent by the end of the 1990s as farmers switched to other crops or simply decided to abandon their lands altogether in favor of migration.
There were some efforts to fill the void left by the federal government in places, but continued low prices hampered these efforts, along with massive corruption. In Oaxaca, farmers complained for years that financial and technical help that had been budgeted for never arrived. Finally, the state washed its hands of the coffee market in 2011.
One bright spot coming from the late 20th century was the start of farmer cooperatives to basically do with INMECAFE did. Instead of having the government or a middleman bundle individual farmers’ crops, the farmers agreed to do this among themselves. The earliest of these began in the 1980s and faced opposition neoliberal politicians. Since then, these organizations have had the most success in Oaxaca and Chiapas, and are very likely responsible for the survival of coffee as a cash crop in much of Mexico.
Today, worldwide coffee prices – adjusted for inflation – are still a fraction of what they used to be, and there are still market complaints about the cost. Mexico ranks 12th in the world as a coffee exporter, with about 62 percent heading to the United States, and the rest spread out to over 45 other countries. The vast majority of this export is raw beans, following by roasted specialty beans and, believe it or not, instant coffee, almost entirely Nescafé.
To compete in the global mass (supermarket) coffee market, it is necessary to harvest, transport and process tons of raw beans. The production of such quantities requires vast lands suitable for coffee growing. Environmentally, Mexico has the lands with the elevation, climate, soils and rainforest cover to grow good-to-excellent coffee. Most of Mexico’s coffee-producing regions stretch from northern Veracruz and Puebla down through parts of Oaxaca and into the state of Chiapas, with some pockets of suitable land found in nine other states. Microclimates allow for up to 30 types of beans to be cultivated although the most common by far are Coffea Canephora (robusta) and Cofea Arabica (arabica), the same as grown in the rest of the world.
The difficulty lies in how the hectares of coffee land are owned and managed. Located in some of the isolated and traditional parts of the country, they are often home to many indigenous societies that have managed to resist full integration into the “mestizo” world (even to the point of civil unrest and violence in some cases). Subsistence and other small-scale farming are still the norm as is a more communal mindset.
Much of the land is held in one of two shared schemes: comunal and ejido. The first dates from the colonial period, arrangements created with various indigenous groups. The second is from land reforms put in place at the end of the Mexican Revolution. In both, community members receive rights to work a portion of land, but not the right to sell it. Common concerns are addressed to community assemblies, which have the final word.
Today, there are about half a million peasant coffee farmers working about 730,000 hectares of land. Almost all work less than 2 hectares, and 95 percent cultivate by hand or have minimal modern technology. They are competing with massive, mechanized farms on other continents.
Consolidating and privatizing this land ownership is a political and social non-starter. Indigenous and other traditional societies need agriculture and control over the land in order to preserve their identity and way-of-life.
Although there have been, and still are, legal and economic pressures on comunal and ejido lands, the system still works to keep a lot of development and international land ownership out, for better or worse.
There is one development in the coffee market in recent decades that has favored small Mexican farmers: the rise in popularity of specialty coffee beans. The most important of these by far is organic coffee. The possibilities of the market were recognized early, in 1960, in the Soconusco region of Chiapas, home of many large farms dedicated to crops for export. But the industry got its footing in the 1980s, often with some of the same cooperatives and other organizations dedicated to helping poor farmers weather the economic storm. It was later joined by other specialty coffees such as rare bean, fair trade and socially and ecologically conscious, as well as those marketed from a particular region.
Specialty coffees are niche markets, but customers are willing and able to pay more for perceived health benefits, gourmet beans or political and/or social statements that accompany the same caffeine jolt that “normal” coffee beans provide.
Such beans, even in their unprocessed state from the farm, can command prices that are 15-20 percent higher than those sold to large commercial buyers. It may not seem like much, but it is enough to make coffee production viable for small farmers. This is the case even though organic coffee requires more work and some specialized knowledge to produce. In the cases of fair trade and regional coffees, the isolated areas and cultures associated with the farms can become marketing pluses.
Today, Mexico is one of the top two organic coffee producers in the world, and it is grown in all of Mexico’s major coffee-producing areas. Certification of Mexican organic and other specialty coffees can be found through various governmental agencies like Mexico’s Secretariat of Agricultura (SAGARPA), NGOs and even private companies.
The boom in such coffees has not escaped the attention of the major conglomerates. Nestlé, the producer of the Nescafe instant coffee found in just about every Mexican store and restaurant, has brands and programs to market itself as a friend to the Mexican coffee farmer.
The federal government is once again taking an interest in Mexico’s coffee farmers. With some inching away from absolute free-market politics, it has rediscovered the idea of presenting itself as an ally of Mexico’s poorest communities by promoting coffee. Coffee is again part of SAGARPA’s long-term planning. One particular goal is to promote Mexican coffee to the domestic market, which still sees good coffee as something coming from other countries.
In 2016, Mexico finally saw an end of the decline in coffee production, with small increases in production in the years since.
Although Mexico is one of the top two organic coffee producers in the world, Mexican coffee still faces many challenges. The largest by far remains how to make Mexican coffee competitive, even in the Mexican coffee market, and still have it produced by small farmers. Cooperatives show some promise in this. Some are even moving into the processing of their coffees to take advantage of the retail market, where the real money is. But this tactic has not been tried on any kind of large scale, never mind nationally, as a real substitute for the old INMECAFE. The largest and oldest cooperative is La Union de Comunidades de la Región del Istmo in the Isthmus region of Mexico, but it has had problems with bureaucracy.
The other challenge is the farmers’ lack of ability to make periodic investments for the long term. Many coffee fields are over 40-years-old and susceptible to disease. One problem in particular is the coffee rust fungus, hitting organic farmers hard as they are limited as to how to treat it and remain organic. Hybrids resistant to this rust have been developed, but most farmers cannot afford to replace entire fields. Starbucks and Nestlé along with some NGOs have started programs to help farmers buy new plants.
How can you support Mexican coffee? The simplest way is to check packaging to see if the coffee is from Mexico. One of SAGARPA’s programs is to certify that coffee that is grown in Mexico can carry the “Hecho en México” stamp.
There are organizations, profit and non-profit, that sell Mexican specialty beans, often alongside coffees from other parts of the world. One that is focused on Mexico, specifically Nayarit, is San Cristóbal. Even more direct is to buy from local farmers that have been able to create their own online presence. These include Yuku Café in Oaxaca, Tojtzotze in Chiapas and Monte Blanco in Veracruz.
If you live in Mexico, there are some Mexican-owned alternative to Starbucks such as Cielito Querito Café and Tierra Garat in Mexico City and Veracruz’s La Parroquia, which now has locations in the state of Veracruz west to Mexico City.
When the pandemic is finally over, coffee tourism is also an option. San Cristóbal de las Casas has a strong hot chocolate and coffee culture, surrounded by coffee farms. Also in Chiapas, you can find Ruta de Café in the Soconusco region, where you can visit coffee farms, as well as sleep and enjoy a fine meal. Also recommended are the coffee areas around Xalapa and Orizaba/Córdoba (try the coffee cookies sold on the Veracruz-Mexico City highway). Puebla’s coffee regions are in its scenic Sierra Norte, home to various handcrafts and towns promoted by Mexico’s tourism secretariat within its Pueblos Mágicos program. Coffee harvesting season is generally between December and March, depending on location.