Mexican Coffee Looks to Its Challenges, and Its Opportunities - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Mexican Coffee Looks to Its Challenges, and Its Opportunities

In an underground tunnel—Paseo Cultural Rodriguez—off Tijuana’s famous Revolución Avenue, 37-year-old Oliver Castañeda is warming up for his afternoon shift at his tiny coffee shop, Aether Cafe. He pulls a shot of espresso sourced from Veracruz and Guerrero and roasted by nearby Excelso 77 Coffee Lab & Roasters, and steams full-fat milk. He then adds a third of an ounce of a white sage syrup he makes using native sage sourced from the neighboring mountainous border city, Tecate. The syrup also has lacto-fermented dehydrated lime to naturally extend its shelf life, local oak, chrysanthemum, and chamomile—all ingredients (except chrysanthemum, which is a Chinese influence) that have grown in the region since the Diegueño and Kumeyaay indigenous peoples lived in the area, now home to the border cities of Tijuana, San Diego, and Tecate.

Mexican coffee white sage latte
The white sage latte at Aether Cafe. | Photo by Gary Allard

“The people of this land have long drunk a restorative tea made from white sage, honey, and lime. This drink is a tribute to that,” Castañeda says. He draws a rippled rosetta design with the foamed milk, but not before stopping to take the order of an older man who asks for instant coffee, which is still the most popular type of coffee in the developing country. Castañeda politely says no, and offers the man an Americano instead. The man initially makes a comment about the price ($40 pesos, which is about $2 USD) but obliges, takes a sip, and says thank you. “Dark, bold, earthy flavors in Mexican coffee are still preferred by most customers. Nescafé is an easy go-to beverage, but after tasting a good, balanced cup of freshly roasted coffee, there’s no way back.”

One-on-one opportunities to convert working people to brewed coffee or espresso is how Castañeda has managed to stay open for 10 years now in a part of Tijuana notorious for partying and sex work. “How can you re-create the flavors people look for in Nescafé through brewed coffee or espresso?” This utilitarian approach in an industry sometimes known for snobbishness is what differentiates the potential of Mexican coffee. His pioneering coffee shop in what’s literally a tunnel has defied all expectations to stay open through the ups and downs of one of the world’s busiest border crossings.

The flavor of Aether’s white sage latte is subtly grassy, with the faintest whispering sweetness. Another experimental coffee drink at Aether is Castañeda’s wild, perplexingly delicious cincuenta-cincuenta (fifty-fifty), which is essentially a barista-fied snakebite: cold brew suspended in mid-glass by tepache, a traditional Mexican fermented pineapple-cinnamon drink. It’s a remarkable beverage that would have gone viral if it had been made on the other side of the border. But like many other food and drink gems in Tijuana, it’s reserved for locals and people who give Tijuana a shot.

Mexico is currently the world’s ninth-largest coffee-growing country, with an annual production of around 250,000 tons grown in a little less than half of the country’s 32 states. Mexico’s coffee industry is dominated by small-scale farmers, who account for more than 90 percent of the country’s production. Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Veracruz lead the country, and have the most infrastructure for exporting.

“A turning point that started shifting the coffee narrative in Mexico was when coffee farmers started to realize that their coffee was worth more money in the U.S.,” says Castañeda. Mexico won the International Cup of Excellence, a coveted coffee competition, last year. Usually, this title goes to Ethiopia or Guatemala, but for this round, it went to a natural process coffee from Finca Santa Cruz in Chiapas.

Tijuana is a key city in the evolution of Mexican coffee. In the last year alone, seven new micro-roasters opened in Tijuana, Castañeda says, and in total, the city has around 20 independent roasters, making it Mexico’s third-biggest coffee scene after Mexico City and Guadalajara.

Mexican coffee Maru
A cup of Finca Santa Cruz Gesha at Maru Café in Los Angeles. | Photo by Joonmo Kim

But the border city is even more important as an access point where American roasters can ship green coffee beans to pick up and import into the U.S. themselves. Going DIY was how Joonmo Kim, Jacob Park, and their staff at Maru Coffee in LA’s Arts District were able to roast and offer a special gesha coffee from Mexico to their customers during the last holiday season. “After some difficulties with shipping logistics, we ended up driving to Tijuana to hand deliver our own coffee,” says Matty Roberts, Maru’s general manager. (After the initial DIY import, Maru plans to continue sourcing the coffee using more conventional means.)

Kim and Park were introduced to the allure of Mexican coffee by Ana Odermatt, the former general manager of Enrique Olvera’s modern Mexican restaurant, Damian, and Santiago Sota, owner of Drip Café Especial in Mexico City. Odermatt and Sota took the Maru team into the rainforests of Chiapas to Finca Santa Cruz, the Cup of Excellence award–winning brainchild of Maestro José “Pepe” Argüello. “As a team, we had never tasted such perfectly balanced coffee,” says Roberts. “The flavor had to be an indication of the obsession and passion of the team at Finca Santa Cruz. Across the board, including coffees we didn’t end up buying, their profile was consistent: perfectly ripened tropical fruit, sweet, mild, smooth acidity, and a remarkable clarity of flavor.”

Maru’s Finca Santa Cruz Gesha sold out quickly. Kim recently returned from a second trip to the farm and is preparing to have a major focus on Mexican coffee this year. “We live in a world where it’s easier for us in the U.S. to piggyback off the generational knowledge and cultural heritage of any small producer abroad and call it ‘direct sourcing’ and then market this as ‘specialty,’” Kim wrote in a blog post on Maru’s website. “It’s an entirely different agenda to partner with a small producer and to understand the labor and history behind the product.”

[Like] anything else that originated in Mexico and is sold in the U.S., Mexican coffee faces a double standard due to the two countries’ proximity.

Maru’s success with Mexican coffee shows its crossover potential into the mainstream third-wave coffee world in a way that defies stereotypes—a brave new world where Mexican coffee can be appreciated as is and not just in a horchata latte, spicy Mexican mocha, or café de olla. However, like anything else that originated in Mexico and is sold in the U.S., Mexican coffee faces a double standard due to the two countries’ proximity. That double standard usually appears in the form of a customer having a subconscious bias against purchasing a dish or drink that’s cheaper when traveling in Mexico, yet that same customer won’t think twice about the cost of something of European origin.

It also shows up as an assumption that anything from Mexico will be of inferior quality. “The most obvious challenge keeping Mexican coffee from blowing up is probably our complicated and strained political relationship with Mexico,” says Roberts. “Unfortunately, these tensions and regulations create difficulty for small producers and small roasters and importers to work together.”

There’s a great quote from Porfirio Diaz, the 27th president of Mexico, that summarizes the double-edged sword that is the relationship between the two countries: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

“I remain hopeful that the more [that] people are exposed to the diverse and impressive coffees of Mexico, the more these barriers will start to fade into the background, and we may strengthen our relationship with our neighbors,” says Roberts.

Changing this perception of Mexican cuisine, which includes coffee, is why Jonathan Perez also makes the special trip to Tijuana to pick up Mexican coffee to serve and sell at Distrito 14 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles every couple of months. “It’s the quality of Mexican coffee that drives us as a team to make that special trip to T.J.,” Perez says. He’s proud of the horchata latte he serves at Distrito 14, using Café Estelar from Guadalajara, a roaster considered the first in Mexico to work with farmers aiming at quality, not quantity, when it comes to production.

Distrito 14’s horchata latte involves soaking the rice for 24 hours and fortifying it with ground walnuts to maximize nuttiness. “The amount of care that goes behind producing these Mexican coffee beans is similar to taking care of a primary ingredient in cooking through every step of the process and creating something unique for people to enjoy.” Perez’s last haul with his business partner Guillermo Piñon was about 50 kilos worth of single-origin coffee. “We also bring about 30 smaller bags to sell to customers on a first-come, first-served basis, so they can play with it at home, too.”

Mexican coffee Valentina's
Valentina’s in Seattle. | Photo by Charity Burggraaf

Mexican coffee has now reached the country’s biggest coffee stage, Seattle, where it will have a chance to cement itself as a prestigious coffee-growing region among a discerning and demanding coffee demographic. David Orozco is making this his personal mission with his coffee shop, Valentina’s Café. Born in California, Orozco was raised in Guadalajara and has worked in the hospitality industry since he first immigrated to Seattle in 2000. In 2016, he opened a Mexican restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood called Asadero, specializing in high-quality tacos via prime cuts of beef.

He was loyal to Cafe Fiore during its heyday but noticed a decline in quality, so he decided to try his luck with opening his own coffee shop in 2022, and named it after his teenage daughter. “I went to Mexico and tried coffee grown from cooperatives,” Orozco says. “Even though Seattle is saturated with coffee, no one was bringing in the amazing stuff I was tasting in Mexico.”

It’s been about a year since Orozco opened Valentina’s, and while it’s been going well, he admits that due to the sheer cost of the coffee he sources and the slim margins involved, he sees the café as a passion project. “My prices for coffee were only 50 cents more than the average third-wave coffee shop because I was sourcing exclusively from Mexico, and people would complain that it was too expensive,” Orozco says about the double standard he faced with his customers. But instead of giving in and sourcing lower-quality beans, he looked to the success of Asadero, which also initially dealt with customers complaining about the prices for his dishes.

Mexico is the world’s top producer of organic coffee, accounting for more than 60 percent of global production.

“I broke through the double standard with my restaurants, so I know I can do the same with Valentina’s  Café. I’m lucky that I don’t live off my coffee shop, and if I’m being honest, I don’t really care how expensive Mexican coffee gets,” Orozco says. “As long as it’s the best quality and represents my country well, I’ll keep buying it. I just don’t like mediocrity.” Whenever Orozco encounters a jaded coffee drinker who comes in with preconceived notions about Mexican coffee, he hits them with a statistic that usually surprises them: Mexico is the world’s top producer of organic coffee, accounting for more than 60 percent of global production.

The beans Orozco serves are shipped green via Cooperativa Mixteca de Nayarit and roasted by Fulcrum Coffee Roasters in Seattle. “I even had to convince the roaster to give green Mexican coffee a shot!” This echoes his advice to anyone who has doubts about Mexican coffee: “Antes de criticar, prueba!” (“Give it a shot before you critique it.”)

Despite Orozco’s uphill battle, he shares that a favorite item on the menu is his Tulum-inspired latte made with coconut milk and coconut cream. He dreams of one day being able to offer a nice coffeehouse version of a pajarete, which may just be the pinnacle of Mexican coffee culture under the gaze of American third-wave coffee privilege.

Pajarete tugs at the heartstrings of many of the 4.5 million Mexican immigrants or immigrant-descended Mexican Americans that come from rural communities in Mexico, and it has the potential to intrigue a coffee purist who would revel at the opportunity to drink coffee with raw milk. It’s a traditional, frothy, morning beverage usually reserved for people who work with livestock in Mexico, made using milk so fresh that it’s still warm from the cow’s udder, some crushed Mexican table chocolate or instant coffee, and a shot of tequila or Mexican sugar cane spirit, which is believed to kill any bacteria from the raw milk.

“The local health department looked at me like I was crazy when I first told them about it, but I’m researching ways of being able to offer it at Valentina’s,” Orozco says. “It’s just a matter of time until Mexican coffee has its proper moment. Give it five to seven years, it’ll get there.”

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