Behind the scenes: How do you get coffee from the future into the present? Apparently you go to Mexico.
These coffees from Kate Avinsino fell out of the sky into our cupping lab through a mutual connection named Scott Rao. Scott connected us with Kate after visiting her in Mexico and was blown away by her work and attention to detail. We decided to interview Kate and make her the focus of this release because if it was not for her hard work and fearlessness getting these coffees to us, we would never have been able to get them to you.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get involved in getting coffee to Colorfull? Is Colorfull the only roaster buying coffee through you?
A: [Exporting] just started this year. Honestly, it really just kind of evolved from a situation of, “I’m working with these producers directly and I’ve been purchasing with these particular producers in Chiapas since last year.” Other producers I’ve worked with for years and years, and some have been doing really experimental things and getting better and better and there will be new producers every year that we’ll deal with. And so it just kind of has evolved.
I’[d] been helping make those connections in Mexico already, like people in Northern Mexico, or Mexico City will be looking for green coffee. They don’t have the time or necessarily the money sometimes to come to Oaxaca. It’s a big investment. Even just from Mexico City. You feel it’s just next door, but you’re paying for getting here and sometimes staying in hotels, or just the time away from work. Not everyone has that ability and even if you do do that, you need to know who to go with because not everybody works the same and so you really need people you trust to guide you through the process. That’s just something that has evolved. I have people that are sometimes really just friends. People that you really know that are like, “Hey I trust you. I wanna buy this coffee through you, or with you.” And then [we] go out there and we do and so that evolved.
“I have people that are sometimes really just friends. People that you really know that are like, ‘Hey I trust you. I wanna buy this coffee through you, or with you.’”
I’ve been friends with Scott [Rao] for a while and so when he came out to Oaxaca to visit, it was unfortunately no longer harvest season, so we couldn’t just go out to the fields, but I was like, “Hey, I have to go out to pick up coffee from a dry mill. Have you ever been to a dry mill?” He’s like, “No!” So I said, “Okay, let’s go!” And we went out to one of the two main dry mills in Oaxaca City and we [also] the smaller one. He was fascinated because it’s a whole thing at the dry mill. It’s just a whole different thing. It’s a whole different world and it’s kind of like a steampunk “Alice in Wonderland” but coffee style. The machines are so big, they’re doing all these different things. Everything seems like it’s a chaotic mess and you have to learn how they’re controlling it and what’s going on with all that. He loved it and was like, “Hey, what you have is great. See if you can send samples to Andy.”
This is the first time I’ve exported and it’s been… Coronavirus made it really stressful. It was horrible and I just felt guilty all the time that things were not getting to places when they should have. But the intention was always to help producers make connections so that they’re able to sell their coffee at the prices they want to. I’m not used to going in and want[ing] to pay less money. A lot of the problems that I see with people who purchase coffee directly from producers and then resell it, is they’ll really undercut the producers. It’ll be like, “I’m paying this amount for the coffee. You can sell it to me if you want to.” Or they’ll offer much more, then pay half and then never come back and pay the other half. That happens a lot. One of the things is I love being able to help producers out [in] export[ing] their coffee. Also we sell it and [use it ourselves]. The coffee you have, I have too. And then I don’t know if there is anymore, but if there were more and someone were interested in Tijuana, or Monterrey, I’d ship it to them too.
It’s about making connections and then letting producers. If the coffee is worth what they want, there’s no reason they shouldn’t get that. I would like to scale up a little bit but I don’t have an operation in mind where it’s large, corporate style, “We come in. We pay this amount. If you want.”
Q: I know you love Mexican coffee but do you have other origin favorites? Do you have variety favorites? Do you have favorites when it comes to processing? Or brew methods
A: My favorite two origins within Mexico will be Chiapas and Oaxaca because even though there’s coffee [elsewhere], all of those places seem to have less complex flavors than coffees from high altitudes in Oaxaca and Chiapas. Chiapas is very close to Guatemala, so you’ll get really, really complex and interesting coffees there. There is volcanic soil [which is advantageous for coffee husbandry] in certain parts of Chiapas. Not all coffees from Chiapas will come from volcanic earthy areas, but there’s also a very famous biosphere, it’s [called the] “Biosphere de Trimophe”, and coffees from those particular areas are really spectacular.
Q: How many producer groups or individual producers do you work with right now and is every new producer or group you start working with one that you plan to work with long-term?
A: I work with about 20 individuals or groups that will mix their coffee [lots together]. Like cooperativos: they [a]re group[s] that will send me samples [and they] have Q-Graders. They don’t need me but I would say that maybe half are long-term relationships and then the other half are semi-long term because the producers are also looking for who will pay [them] the most.
It’s not like I purchase all of their coffee and sometimes they don’t even want to sell all their coffee to us. It’ll be like, “I want this amount but I’m only going to sell you five sacks,” because they know that there are other people vying for [their] coffee. [REDACTED] is out in parts of Oaxaca. [REDACTED] has been here for a long time, [REDACTED] has been here for five years.
From what I understand, [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] pay less than we pay even for national consumption. What we normally pay is above what other exporters pay. So that for me is like, “Yay!” But there are other national coffee companies that are from Mexico City. They’re really big and will try to come in and get futures on contracts and for some of our producers that have been, “Whoa, I kind of want to be on contract with [REDACTED], but I kind of don’t. I’m just gonna sell them like 10 sacks and I’ll sell you guys 10 sacks.”
Q: For the San Fernando Cooperative, where you bought the geshas from, do you foresee working with them long-term?
A: Yeah, definitely. One of the things that they were really happy [about] when we bought last year, they were like, “Well honestly, we would prefer the coffee to stay within Mexico than export it.” [But] I just d[id]n’t haggle with them. It’s not a bad thing [to haggle] but if I really like the coffee and think it’s worth that, then I’ll pay it. If I don’t think it’s worth what they want, then I’ll tell them that, “Well, this is what I cupped it at. This is what I found. I couldn’t pay 200 pesos for that. I would have to pay 150 because I just don’t think it’s an 87 [point coffee].” A lot of times people’s MO will be to haggle.
Q: What do you think makes this group special?
A: They’re really organized. What really makes them special is that they are interested in learning and expanding. They do lots of workshops with their producers. They have this whole setup where they have Q-Graders out there, they have roasters out there, they have a whole small dry mill out there. They do everything. I think that’s what makes them special and I think they’re in tune with, “Let’s keep learning.” At the same time, I don’t feel that… Maybe it’s because I haven’t been out there physically yet, but I would be nervous to be going out there and being like, “Hey, let’s do this anaerobic fermentation with all this coffee.”
“They have this whole setup where they have Q-Graders out there, they have roasters out there, they have a whole small dry mill out there. They do everything. I think that’s what makes them special and I think they’re in tune with, ‘Let’s keep learning.’”
For me that’s a really intimate thing that I’ll only do with producers who are really, really close with us. I don’t think they would be as open to [experiments] as other producers we work with. But they’re just really interested in learning and they have all of the tools.
Q: In Oaxaca coffee producers are mostly growing bourbon and typica. Is that also true in Chiapas where the geshas are from?
A: I think it’s mostly true but less true than in Oaxaca. There’s pacamara out in Chiapas as well. People will occasionally plant guarnica, oroazteca; sarchimor hybrids that are kind of not great. The government has given them away [for free]. Caturra, sometimes catuai. I know Veracruz has pacamara. Chiapas also has marago[gype] and some of it is really, really good. Some of it’s not great because they’re hard to roast. It’s hard not to bake them. Marago[gype] can be not amazing because the beans are so big; they’re less dense. Even if they come from 1600 [masl].
But there are a few really good marago[gype]’s out there that we’ve had in. I think Chiapas has more varieties of variet[ie]s than Oaxaca does, but the variet[ies] that are worth their salt out here are going to be bourbon and that’s about it. [P]eople are planting geshas, but they’re still young [plants]. Any gesha from Oaxaca is going to be, tops, four years old. Editor’s note: coffee plants typically start getting harvested at four years old.
Q: How would you describe the broad picture of Mexico’s coffee production today and specialty coffee’s place within it?
It’s growing exponentially. There’s lots of producers that are interested in it. Mexico’s getting a lot more recognition internationally and that’s helping to push the specialty scene here because producers are actually seeing that people are paying more. It’s definitely increasing incrementally. Mexico City has a huge specialty coffee scene. There are a lot of roasteries that have amazing beans and are doing really well. Like Il Lustre out of Tijuana. I think it’s kind of interesting because there’s a lot more attention now to Mexican specialty coffees and I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity because people are used to buying… I mean African coffees are amazing. They’re amazing. Like mind-blowingly spectacular, but I feel it’s interesting because not many people have tried Mexican coffees. So it’s a sales opportunity.
When we started we had to educate local and international customers alike and I know definitely in the last five years, [be]cause we’re right on the tourist walkway, and we get a lot of tourists and they’re really mixed tourists as well: elderly people, a lot of hipsters, but it’s not like one particular… it’s not just like college kids. So we’ll get a good mix and we used to have to educate locals and tourists alike on specialty coffee and why you’d order a V60 instead of a normal Americano and we’ve definitely seen over time–[aside from] a general increase in specialty coffee–people that know what they want and why they want it.
For the last five years that’s definitely been on the uptick, but the last three years, there's just been an explosion culturally in [how what] we do affect[s] locals. Honestly, most of Mexican coffee has been blended and exported. It hasn’t been consumed in Oaxaca traditionally, especially in Oaxaca City. People that would drink coffee would be drinking [l]eftovers after a selection at the dry mill. A very dark roasted batch. So we’ve been part of a cultural shift here for people to drink lighter roasts and therefore drinking higher quality beans.
The last two years, [there’s] been a doubling. Pre-COVID, from [two years ago] to last year, we’ve just been doubling in sales from year to year. Just because of the sheer interest in specialty coffee. We’re the largest shop out here, so the sheer interest is just growing.
“So we’ve been part of a cultural shift here for people to drink lighter roasts and therefore drinking higher quality beans.”