180,000 Producer Households
HARVEST: November to February
MASL: 1,200 to 1,650
FLAVOR PROFILE: light body and acidity, slight nutty flavor and chocolate nuances
PROCESSING: sold to local "beneficios" centers, where de-pulping and drying occurs, typically located in warmer/sunnier regions
The state of Chiapas is a center for biodiversity in Mexico, and is home to over 30 percent of Mexico´s fresh water resources. The lush jungles of the Lacandon rain forest and the high cloud forests of the Sierra Madre have been the traditional territories for the over 12 recognized Mayan ethnic groups throughout the state. The higher elevations on the slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range is where most coffee production takes place. The introduction of shade grown coffee has allowed small farmers to conserve the unique cloud forest ecosystem. In fact, 90 percent of coffee in Chiapas is shade grown thus contributing to environmentally friendly growing practices. The vitamin-rich soils of the forested mountain slopes further contributes to the excellent profile of Chiapas-grown coffee. In the southernmost part of the state of Chiapas, coffee grown near the city of Tapachula is grown near the massive Tacana volcano (over 4,000 masl) where rich volcanic soil improves the flavor profile of the coffee.
Coffee was first introduced to Chiapas at the beginning of the 19th century. While coffee production was originally tied to large estates run by absentee landowners, in recent years small, indigenous farmers have incorporated small-scale coffee production as part of diversified, agro-ecological farms. While small, indigenous farmers in the country have tended to be marginalized throughout Mexican history (Chiapas is by far the poorest state in Mexico), coffee has become one of the state´s most lucrative exports, thus offering economic benefits to a number of families across the state.
The vast majority of coffee grown in Chiapas is grown by small-scale farmers, the majority of whom identify as Mayan. In fact, in many parts of Chiapas, Spanish is a second language as Mayan languages continue to dominate in rural, mountain communities. While most small-scale farmers in Chiapas grow corn and beans for their sustenance, the implementation of coffee has allowed them to protect large areas of forest. The shade grown coffee crop allows these rural communities to benefit from the forest ecosystem where they hunt for wild game, gather firewood for cooking and heating their homes, and preserve the soil in the mountainous and rainy environment.
Among the most prolific Mayan ethnic groups in Chiapas, the Tzeltal and Tzotzil Mayan groups dominate large areas of the Sierra Madre mountain range around Central Chiapas. Several small cooperatives of coffee growers have emerged in recent years, allowing coffee producers to receive more income. Fair trade and direct trade practices are common throughout Chiapas, and have been important in helping to reduce migration of young people from their rural livelihoods.
One of the biggest, recent challenges faced by coffee growers in Chiapas is coffee rust, known as “la roya” in Spanish. While this fungal disease decimated much of the coffee production throughout Chiapas (and the rest of Central American and Mexico), most small farmers have successfully renovated their plantations with rust-resistant varieties that can thus be grown organically.
Lastly, the Zapatista movement in Chiapas has led to autonomous, indigenous areas throughout much of southern Mexico. Coffee production and just forms of trade and commercialization have allowed these rural communities to deepen their sense of autonomy and sovereignty.
Coffee from the Chiapas region of Mexico is almost exclusively shade grown in the mountain forests that border the smaller corn and bean fields of small scale, indigenous producers. These complexly flavored coffees are known for having a light body and acidity, and a slight nutty flavor can also be noticed. Chocolate nuances can also be picked up in the delicate body and pleasant dryness that characterizes the best of Chiapas coffee.
Coffee in Chiapas is generally harvested by hand by families with small-scale plantations between the months of November and February. These farming families meticulously pick only the ripe beans, and routinely do several picks throughout the harvest period to let the bean naturally mature on the bush. Once harvested, the coffee is usually sold as bean to local processing centers known as “beneficios” where it is de-pulped and dried on cement patios. While the cloud forest ecosystem where much of the coffee is grown is humid year round thus contributing to the rich flavor profile and optimum growing conditions), the drying and resting process is generally carried out in the warmer, sunnier regions where the rainy season doesn’t begin until May.