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An overview of the Mexican coffee industry

Mentioning Mexico tends to conjure up a number of images in a person's mind, including spicy food, tequila and sombreros.

However, Mexico also has a thriving coffee industry – the achievements of which are arguably not quite as well-known as those of some of the world's biggest bean-growing nations, such as Brazil and Ethiopia.

Mexico is one of the many countries that we at DRWakefield source our green coffee from. Here, we're going to look at the history of coffee cultivation in the country, how this has developed over the years and what the future looks like for the industry in Mexico.

The history of coffee production in Mexico

It is believed that coffee first arrived in Mexico in the late 1700s and began to be grown by local farmers. It came to the country along with the Spanish, who brought the plants with them from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Yet it wasn't until many years later that Mexico's coffee industry really started to take hold, as it began to export its produce overseas on a regular basis during the late 1800s.

Around this time, Mexican coffee was primarily grown close to the country's border with Guatemala, which led to some disputes over land among farmers, resulting in wealthy European parties purchasing large areas and investing in long-term cultivation strategies.

It wasn't until the 20th century that many smaller farmers started to take bean growing seriously, realising it was a viable way for them to make money and meet demand from traders and roasters based overseas.

The history books show that these smaller-scale producers were often much more successful than the larger plantation owners – something that Harvard student Casey M Lurtz has been exploring in her analysis of the Mexican coffee industry.

Speaking to the Harvard Business School publication Working Knowledge, Ms Lurtz stated: "The people who succeeded were those who didn't get too aspirational.

"The ones who failed were those who were determined to go big or go home. They went home."

The country's coffee market has grown significantly over the years and today, Mexico is among the biggest cultivators of organic beans in the world – in 2000, the nation was responsible for 60 per cent of the world's organic coffee.

Coffee-growing conditions in Mexico

Mexico lends itself perfectly to the cultivation of Arabica beans, thanks to its ample location close to both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Due to its diverse climate and location, the country's coffee plants tend to flower between three and four times each year – providing conditions are suitable – meaning the season from November to March usually sees a successful coffee harvest.

The South American nation has a significantly varying topography, but the majority of its beans (around 40 per cent) are currently grown in high and medium altitude forests, according to figures from AMCAFE.

Mexican coffee cooperatives

Like with many countries, coffee in Mexico is marketed and exported through a cooperative system, bringing farmers together and ensuring they receive the fairest price possible for their produce, while making sure traders like us at DRWakefield get the best beans available to sell on to our roasters.

A cooperative-style group – INMECAFE – was in place in the country during the latter part of the 20th century, but this collapsed in 1989, having a devastating effect on farmers, due to the prevalence of corruption and exploitation.

However, the nation soon recovered from this, with new cooperatives established a few years later.

In fact, the Equal Exchange states on its website: "The model and success of Mexican cooperatives and civic organisation has laid the groundwork for some of the most compelling social movements in the world."

Recent production

Despite its fragmented beginnings, Mexico's coffee market has expanded significantly over the years, with figures from the 2011-12 harvest showing the country produced around 5.6 million 60 kg bags of beans, shipping 52 per cent of these abroad.

Although the crop accounts for just 0.26 per cent of the nation's total economy, in some of its most successful coffee-growing states – Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla and Chiapas, for example – 90 per cent of Mexico's beans are grown, meaning the commodity has much more of an impact on the local economy there.

These four states produce coffee with very different cupping profiles too, with that from Oaxaca tending to have an aftertaste reminiscent of milk chocolate and almonds, while beans from Veracruz are very sweet, with notes of roasted hazelnuts.

In Puebla, the coffee tends to taste like walnuts and caramel, and in Chiapas, notes of dark chocolate and cherries are often present, demonstrating significant diversity depending on the individual lot and cup.

What's next for Mexico?

The Mexican coffee industry has undergone many changes over the years, but its beans remain among the world's most popular due to their intensely rich and unique cupping profiles that are coveted by roasters all over the world.

At DRWakefield, we will continue to source quality green coffee from this origin, while keeping a close eye on the goings-on of the Mexican market to see whether or not its future will be as eventful as its past.