On remote, mountainous farms, run mainly by indigenous farmers, you can find a gem that is often overlooked growing strong: Mexican coffee.
Mexico is frequently left out when people list popular coffee origins. But it has a lot to offer: distinctive and fruity profiles, positive social and environmental effects, and rich coffee-producing history.
Why Mexican Coffee?
A traditional cup of Mexican specialty coffee that includes candy bar flavors. It’s a terrific crowd-pleaser and one that people don’t know what to look for. And Mexican coffees also stand out in their ability to bring a lot of chocolate and nutty sweetness through many roast levels.
When I bought light roast coffee beans from the Chiapas area; it tasted like a peanut butter cup—a lot to the delight of even customers who preferred to stay away from super-light roasts. And those flavors appear to hang on to darker roasts as well. If you want fruitier coffees, those Mexican coffees are starting to be accessible as well.
How much coffee does Mexico grow?
The crop is grown in 16 of Mexico’s provinces, but most of the country’s 711,000 hectares (as of 2018) are grown in the south.
Coffee first made its way to Mexico in the late 1700s, when grown on farms owned by Europeans with mainly indigenous Mexican laborers. The revolution of the early 20th century started changing the status quo via agrarian land reform.
Today’s Mexican farms look very different from the previous year’s vast plantations: the most recent agricultural census was made up of 515,000 farmers, of whom 85 percent were indigenous Mexicans and 95 percent planted less than three hectares.
Across the coffee sector, indigenous and smallholder farmers are the most disadvantaged – yet the Mexican Government is working with the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI) to help them.
Cooperatives organize a large part of the country’s coffee production. Another little-known fact is that Mexico is one of the world’s largest exporters of certified organic coffee, with up to 8 percent of farmers growing it, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER). These facts are connected, but to understand why you’re going to have to go back almost 40 years.
In 1973, the Mexican Government founded the national institute for coffee INMECAFE, recognizing the potential for coffee to support rural growth. Ten years later, coffee became Mexico’s most important export product, accounting for 35 percent of total agricultural production by the middle of the 1980s. Output peaked at 440,000 tons of green coffee in 1990.
However, the breakdown of the International Coffee Agreement eliminated the coffee price floor and ultimately closed INMECAFE. Instead, cooperatives rose and sponsored not only Mexico’s indigenous farmers, who also promoted organic coffee production.
Most recently, in 2018/19, Mexico exported 2.6 million 60-kilo bags. Although this represents less than 1percent of total coffee exports worldwide, it still makes the nation the ninth-largest coffee exporter in the world.
The traditional Mexican coffee
Mexico produces mainly shade-grown Arabica coffee, with Robusta accounting for just 3–4 percent of its crops. 35 percent of Mexico’s coffee is grown at 900 m.a.s.l., conditions conducive to higher-quality coffee in Mexico’s comparatively cooler climate.
Mexican coffees tend to be lighter-bodied and soft, with subtle flavors. There is a potential for them to be outstanding: the 2019 Excellence Cup saw six coffees smash through the 90-point mark. Cruz José Arguello Miceli’s Gesha won with an outstanding 93.07 points (and sold for US$35.40/lb of green).
The judges noted that this Chiapas-grown coffee had notes of bergamot, jasmine, lemongrass, and vanilla and was generally very sweet with a buttery mouthfeel.
Mexico’s three major coffee regions
Chiapas, Veracruz, and Oaxaca: each coffee region features its distinctive character – but it’s not just about what you taste in a cup. “The level to which the farms are technologically focused is what makes the three coffee-producing countries unique,” says Edy.
Let’s take a closer look at this.
Along the Gulf of Mexico is the long and thin state of Veracruz. It can boast of becoming Mexico’s first state to see a coffee tree planted in its soil back in the 18th century.
Growing inland mountains at 1,100–1600 m.a.s.l., Veracruz’s finest coffees, notes of ‘light red fruits, caramel, blueberries, panela, and are subtle with a bright acidity, and very juicy with a sour and sweet aftertaste.’
Veracruz is the most technologically developed of the three regions, with controlled sowing and more disease-resistant varieties. Growers take care of equally spreading trees one meter apart, with no more than 5,000 plants per hectare.
Nestled on the border with Guatemala, you’ll find the best state coffee-growing between 1,300 and 1,700 m.a.s.l. Chiapas also holds the crown for the highest coffee production in Mexico, accounting for 40percent of its total yield.
Many native Mexicans call Chiapas home, but it is also the poorest country, with a GDP per capita of US$7,249 in 2016.
It’s the location of Chiapas and the climatic conditions that set it apart from Veracruz. “There are similarities between the coffee farms in Chiapas and Veracruz in terms of cultivation practices and varieties,” says Edy. Yet, beyond that, he assures me that you’re going to taste notes of chocolate, nuts, citrus, and lemon, along with a round, long-lasting body.
Slotting as neatly as a piece of the jigsaw, Oaxaca borders the downside of Veracruz and the top of Chiapas, while the Pacific Ocean lies to the west. Its coffee farms are typically between 900 and 1,650 m.a.s.l.
Although it is the least technologically advanced in Mexico’s major coffee-producing regions, Edy reminds me that Oaxacan coffees are unique and high in demand. They seem to be sweet with caramel overtones, orange acidity, notes of yellow fruit, creamy body, and floral hints.
Many farmers here are resisting modernization in favor of traditional methods of cultivation. You can find 80-year-old farms working just as they did in the 1940s, while Edy reports that 70percent of the varieties are traditional in the region.
Pluma Hidalgo is one example of this: the Typica offshoot of the 19th century, cultivated by displaced indigenous farmers in the mid-1800s. Efforts are also being made to secure the Denomination of Origin status for Oaxacan Pluma Hidalgo.
Lying just east of Mexico City, 4th largest and 11 percent of the Mexican coffee production.
Characteristics of Mexican coffee
Mexican coffee is for coffee enthusiasts who love a mild, light-bodied brew. Low acidity and light body, and as well as a nutty flavor, is invariably described as Mexican coffee. Mexico’s finest coffee has an acidic snap, a delicate body, and a very pleasurable dryness like fine white wine.
Due to the different coffee-growing parts of the country, Mexican coffee has a wide variety of flavors and overtones. This results in a not complicated coffee and can serve as a base for a variety of blends.
Chiapas, which grows the finest coffee beans in Mexico, is located near Mexico and Guatemala. Its coffee is known for its distinctly delicate, light flavor and rich, slight acidity with a light to medium body. It is said that a cup of Chiapas coffee can compete with the strong flavor and intricacy of a much finer Guatemalan coffee.
Coffee plant varieties cultivated in Mexico are mostly Caturra (Coffea arabica var. caturra), Bourbon (Coffea arabica var. bourbon), Mundo Novo (Coffea arabica var. Mundo Novo), and Maragogype (Coffea arabica var. maragogype).
Mexico is a member of NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement), culminating in Mexican coffee brands being pretty well accepted in the United States and Canada.
However, when it comes to freshness and quality, your safest bet is to purchase from a local roaster who procures green coffee beans and roasts them themselves. Once roasted, coffee quickly begins to lose its flavor-a lot is lost within weeks of roasting the whole bean coffee (if stored well). This timeframe drops to days if the coffee is ground.
Most of the coffees on the grocery store shelves spend several days going through the supply and distribution chain, leaving you with relatively tasteless coffee. No matter how “high quality” or “premium” the retail-store package claims that its coffee is, it will pale compared to the mid-range coffee, which has been freshly roasted.
Volcanica mexican coffee
- Medium Roasted allowing the true flavor characteristic to come through for a remarkable taste.
This Mexican coffee from the Chiapas region. We like how it brings hazelnut nuttiness to an already complex blend of roasted beans and unusual flavors.
Cafe Punta del Cielo
I wouldn’t say this is the best Mexican coffee, but definitely worth a try. While I was in Mexico City, you would notice Starbucks in every neighborhood, but also, Cafe Punta del Cielo. While Starbucks serves coffee the Starbucks way, Cafe Punta del Cielo provides every alternative methods. From Siphon, pourover, espresso, French Press, so it’s a good place to enjoy your coffee, if you do visit Mexico.
I picked one of these up during my stay and just puncturing the whole and experiencing the sound and the noise of oxygen infusing with the coffee beans, from its vacuumed packed can, was definitely an experience worth remembering.
Challenges & solutions for Mexico’s coffee industry
One of the biggest challenges facing the country is the recent low price of coffee. The average farmer could earn only $98 for 45 kg of green Arabica coffee, even though it would cost them an average of $140 to make.
With growers struggling to be profitable, they are underequipped to invest in their farms to cope with adverse weather changes and diseases. In 2018, the coffee price catastrophe saw prices drop – and they have not yet recovered. Panicking, the impact of low prices was noticeable long before the market collapsed.
In 2012, the epidemic of coffee leaf rust spread rapidly across Mexican coffee farms. The fungus attacked coffee trees, shrinking the harvest’s size and quality, and had a long-term impact: production reduced by half from 4.5 million bags in 2012 to 2.2 million bags in 2015.
Producers have tried to combat low prices by replacing older trees with higher-yielding varieties. But they also needed more sunlight and nutrition. This, along with the introduction of herbicides in the Mexican countryside, has led to severe soil erosion, especially as the Mexican coffee slopes can range from 10–80 percent.
The Government stepped in by offering farmers more pest-resistant coffee varieties such as Marsellesa, Oro Azteca, and Costa Rica 95 while also encouraging producer groups to acquire price-enhancing certifications such as the Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance.
The good news is that Mexico’s coffee industry is recovering, with exports increasing by 57% from 2015 to 2018. Production, at this point, was over 4 million bags again.
If your interest is in heritage, flavors, or environmentally sustainable coffee, Mexico is a country rich in it all.
Making a Mexican coffee cup
One thing to note, is that “Mexican coffee” is not just coffee beans, it is also a style of coffee, It is a blend of coffee that takes full advantage of Mexican coffee varieties’ light flavor. It’s a gourmet creation that you can create at home.
It’s called Cafe de Olla or Mexican spiced coffee, or just Mexican coffee.
For me personally, when you eat or drink Mexican cuisine, you are bound to taste complexity.
While we have our separate article on how to make Cafe de Olla, here’s a brief introduction.
Start by putting in your favorite Mexican coffee beans, then add two teaspoons of cinnamon to the filter basket as the coffee is brewed. While the coffee is being prepared, simmer 1/3 cup of chocolate syrup, a cup of milk, and two tablespoons of brown sugar on the gas stove until the sugar fades slowly.
Pour the mixture into cups filled with a blend of coffee and cinnamon, and some vanilla extract. You can put more cinnamon or top it with whipped cream to make it more like a pro barista.
Generally speaking, coffee beans made from Mexico make the perfect cup for coffee lovers who want their coffee light and smooth and don’t need anything else to make it better. Next time you’ve got friends over, consider whipping up some Mexican Coffee—you might never want to spend money in your local gourmet coffee shop ever again!
Is Mexico’s coffee good stuff?
While there is variation between different growing areas, you can expect a good Mexican coffee to be something like this;
- The overall gentle, well-balanced taste; no factor overwhelms;
- Chocolate, notes of various roasted nuts, and occasionally fruit
- Cinnamon or brown sugar sweetness
- A light, delicate body, usually
- A crisp acidity
Mexico’s coffee brands seem to favor darker roasted options. Maybe that’s exactly what people want? Mexican beans seem to have a strong taste of their origin even when darkly roasted.
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