LOS MILAGROS - PARTNERSHIP PROFILE

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My previous experience of Mexico to date was a day trip to TJ years ago. Heath and I did our best Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood impressions as we skipped over the border listening to Death Cab and Modest Mouse. It is painfully obvious how tainted our preconceptions of Mexico are, the media we consume paints Mexico as a lawless cartel and a dusty desert just over the border from the United States with cactus and tumbleweeds the only scenery. Flying into Tapachula in the most southern part of Mexico is a whole world away from the drama filled shows we find ourselves bingeing. It borders Guatemala, both sharing the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range; nestled in this range are the hundreds of producers who all contribute to Los Milagros. The southern part of Mexico is the furthest thing from that stereotype, lush and green, with mountains sticking their heads above the clouds.

A very jet lagged version of Tommy is picked up from the airport and some incredible carnitas and pineapple juice are administered, to bring him back to life. I refer to myself in the third person mainly as I was a shell of a human after hours of sleepless, bolt upright, torture that is flying on a budget airline as an over 6 foot tall giant of a human being. Once revived, my companions Marisabel, a petite woman with a wide smile and the most incredibly sweet Colombian accent, Edy the towering, dark haired gesticulator and I head over the mountains and into the Motozintla valley to meet Ramiro, the warehouse manager. On our ascent into the sky I learn Mari's mother teaches English and has passed on the incredible ability to communicate which pairs perfectly in her role as marketing manager. Edy is the manager of the PECA team, a collection of skilled agronomists, former producers and coffee professionals who traverse the mountains helping producers get the most out of their coffee each harvest.

The warehouse is large, very clean and very organised, somewhat rudimentary, but exactly what is needed to store the coffee in parchment before heading to the mill in Oaxaca. Ramiro is one of the many delightful people I meet on this trip, very humble and reserved, that is until it is time to cup and an almighty guttural slurp erupts, asserting his expert abilities and knowledge. We have a table littered with different single lots from various producers in the area, all who contribute to the Los Milagros we enjoy in our Progress St blend and as a feature single origin from time to time.

Caravela has a model where fully dried, ready for export parchment is purchased from each producer. First, a sample is collected by Edy and the others in the PECA team where Ramiro and other Quality Analysts will give the coffee a score and grade, before approving the sample for delivery to the warehouse. The sample is then tested again for confirmation that it is the same lot and this is when a quality bonus is applied. The team tests, tastes and catalogues each individual lot in the Caravela Atlas system which is their crowning jewel, allowing for incredible traceability.

Each farmer has access to their information at all times, the prices they receive, the scores, the moisture readings, star sign and horoscope probably: this system is also how Los Milagros and other lots are created. Each batch of Los Milagros will have an exact recipe and list of all the contributing lots, meaning we can trace exactly which producer's coffee we are consuming at any moment. I think the best part of the system is the way producers can get live feedback on specific lots. Maybe they tried a slightly longer fermentation, maybe it was too late and they were unable to pulp cherry until the following day. Each of these little things can be analysed and give the producers knowledge on how to best improve their coffee.

We depart Motozintla before the sun comes up, climbing through the mountains, stopping for a quick breakfast at the freezing cold elevation of 2840 MASL before descending into more temperate and appropriate conditions for coffee growing in the Siltepec region at 1800 MASL. We are introduced to a reserved young man in tight jeans, a wide hat, and a ripped flannelette shirt that is so torn that functionally, it is more of a bib. The young man is Daniel, a producer dedicated to constant improvement and making decisions that will improve his coffee quality. We wander around Daniel’s home, every available surface is made flat, covered with concrete, and has coffee drying on it. We then jump in a truck and head a few kilometres higher up the mountain. Daniel then wanders ahead talking about the different varietals he has, mostly Catimor, a coffee tree that thrives in this region with high yields and a wonderful resistance to leaf rust. Next we see the wet mill in action, fresh cherry entering and sticky toffee looking seeds come out. The coffee is then left in its mucilage for 20-30 hours before soaking for another 24-48 hours and finally left to dry on patios like the ones encompassing Daniel’s house. Edy is tall, with a kind and confident smile. All the producers have an enormous amount of respect for Edy and his wisdom. As we pause to look at the baths full of coffee resting in mucilage, Edy takes the opportunity to demonstrate a technique where a timber rod is burrowed into the seeds - if when the rod is removed and the seeds fall back in to cover the hole the coffee still needs time, if the hole remains intact then the coffee is ready to be moved to the next step of soaking. As leader of the PECA team, Edy travels around working with producers, recommending processing times and adjustments that will result in quality improvements for producers.

The Motozintla region was incredible, but the time comes to head back to the airport and board another cramped tin can to Mexico City for the day, stuff my face with tacos de pescado while wandering the colourful streets, then onto Oaxaca the following morning to meet the rest of the Caravela Mexico team. I am collected from the airport by Fernando, the very first person the founders employed all those years ago. Fernando is a stoic Colombian man, very softly spoken and the magician who is entrusted with growing each new region Caravela enters and a humble man who has a remarkable palate for someone who is focused on operations. We arrive at the massive Oaxaca site where we are greeted with fresh local fruit, the single best mango I have ever tasted, and might ever taste, hinting to the flavours that might be found on the cupping table being prepared.

A large table is set with neatly arranged samples from all over Mexico, including Motozintla where I had just visited only days before. A green neon with the words “cupping time” are emblazoned on the acrylic backing and give the room a spacey glow as we begin cupping. We quietly sip and slurp our way around the table, taking notes for each sample; my spitoon has been thoughtfully labelled with “Don Tommy”. It is now time to discuss each sample and I am invited to speak first.

I rattle off my notes like I normally would back home and I see the faces contort and twist trying to understand English, let alone my putrid Australian accent. Fernando is next and in a slow, deliberate manner reveals his notes in Spanish, now I am the one with the crooked face. As we progress through the samples we begin to learn the words for each tasting note, by the end I am saying “leche” and “limón” as we share smiles in a mixed hybrid cupping language all of our own.

Mexico exceeds expectations. All the preconceptions I formed in my youth were shallow and the reality is that Mexico is much more than the stereotypical colourful pinatas, sugar skulls and street tacos. The country is very diverse, wild in parts, and offers a wonderful opportunity for outstanding coffee and partnership with beautiful people. Learning about the subtleties and endless variations of something we call a “washed process” was illuminating. We can all follow the same recipe and get vastly different results; interpretation, access to ingredients and tools, culture and tradition and the limitations we face all contribute to what makes each region, varietal and microlot so distinctive and compelling. Mexico resides anonymously in the world of specialty coffee, but it has all of the makings of a future superpower, competing with Brazil and Colombia for our shelfspace and filling our hoppers.