Mexican Cup Of Excellence 2015 with Reuben Hills

My first exposure to coffee farming, in a professional capacity, was judging the 2015 Cup of Excellence in Mexico. I was thrilled to be afforded an opportunity like this early in my career. To see directly into the business of coffee and gain insight into the product I handled every day. And- more importantly- to understand how important it is to the farmers who, through toil & soil start the journey for every single cup of coffee.

After traveling from Seattle via Houston to Mexico City I happened on a bunch of judges in the same departure gate, waiting for our connecting flight to Tuxtla, Guiterez. There was that kind of smile and nod of acknowledgment of soon to be friends. We boarded our half empty plane, the jet engines whining. We rumbled along the runway to take-off speed, the small jet flinging us towards our destination.

As our flight eased through the thick cloud and approached the tarmac the plane suddenly veered. The pilot abruptly pulled the plane back into the sky to abandon the descent. We scorched our way out of the valley of Tapachula and back into the sky, ‘! el viento cruzado es fuerte amigos!’ ‘The cross wind is strong.’

The pilot’s second attempt also failed. After another two failed approaches and terrifying ascents a new announcement crackled through from the cockpit. Vytastaus, my newest Lithuanian coffee comrade, translated it for me.’ We will circle to burn fuel (so as not to be so explosive on impact) and make one final attempt at landing; at Tapachula Airport. Fasten your seat belts! 

By this stage I had accepted my fate, to perish alongside so many excellent coffee professionals in a horror accident. I turned up the Brian Eno in my head phones and made my final wish.
On our final pass at Tapachula Airport the landing gear made contact and we screeched to a halt on what was an unusually short runway.
There were a few Aussies on-board Mark Dundon from Seven Seeds and Fred Lullfitz. Fred was laughing off the experience, claiming, “In Colombia they land planes sideways.” Guess you can take the boy out of Brisbane, but you can’t take the Brisbane out of the boy. I’m not sure Mark was phased at all, he is an old hand at coffee related travel. My jelly legs were springing back into action, slowly. 

After disembarking, the group consensus was’ No more planes, let’s jump in a minivan and haul our asses to Tuxtla.’ Head Judge Erwin had his head screwed on- “We aren’t putting 14 foreigners into a bus and driving them across southern Mexico in the middle of the night.”

Instead, we were all stacked into taxis on top of our luggage and headed to the closest motel. 
From the pointing and murmurs at the large MS-13 graffitied between our motel and the airport I got the drift that sticking to morning air travel was a good idea. We got some Dominos and beers and locked ourselves in our hotel rooms and locked our minds into sleep.
The morning flight was silent. Too many memories and unspoken emotions from yesterday. When we rumbled into Tuxtla there was still the same quiet, smiles coming as we crossed the tarmac. After reaching Tuxtla, it was time to cup some coffee- the first two days were dedicated to calibrating our palettes. Having judges from U.S.A, Japan, Canada, Europe and Australia you could imagine our opinions on roast degree and flavour markers might be way off. In fact, the scoring was tight but some relatively calibrated descriptors were a little out. We fine-tuned the language and were ready to taste the competition coffees. We have all enjoyed finding out what constitutes a ‘good’ coffee and now, it and we were being tested.

The competition began.

There is one big five-star hotel in Tuxtla and we are in the belly of it. In the ballroom of the hotel is the cupping. Tables are set up, a roaster in the foyer is at our disposal to offer feedback and suggest roast edits. There are fifteen or so cupping assistants grinding, boiling, pouring & timing so the coffees extract evenly. This is a really big deal, I have the nagging anxiety I’m an imposter here. A year ago, I was trying to figure out how long I could take to extract an espresso. Now 13274kms from home I’m cupping coffee on behalf of the world’s roasters. I remember feeling excited, the whole event was snowballing and rolling towards the final cupping and the announcement of the top 10 farmers for 2015 in Mexico.

This is an extremely important event for farmers. If their coffee places in the top 10 it will go to an online international timed-limited auction. This drives prices through the roof and the farmer can make a profit from their small lot of coffee.

The highly caffeinated group of new friends was set to celebrate on our last night together as a group. All we had to do was place the top 10 and enjoy the ceremony. Fellow Aussie cupper Mark interjected with a few words that have been good advice for me.

He said, "Take it easy on the Tuxtla town tonight. Remember why we are all here, to pay respect to the farmer and do our job properly."

It was only a passing comment but many times when I'm working in cafes or making decisions about coffee I recall them and try to stay true to that advice.

The next day was intense. Cupping the final coffees, the word was out that the farmers had arrived into Tuxtla for the presentation of the coffee winners. Mexico is known for its coffee quality. It has high altitude farms and rich volcanic soil. Unfortunately, in 2013 and 2014 many of the farms had been affected by a leaf rust disease that prevents coffee from ripening properly- it ruined many farmers’ crops. These factors contributed to Mexico COE 2015 being a very important chance to make money from a coffee crop for many farmers.

With so many people and farmers in one spot, the local politicians had made themselves available to reach out to the farming community. 2015 was a strange time in Oaxaca, politically. The most recently elected Governor was about to be ousted for attempting to militarise the State. It became apparent that the local politicians had arrived to exert some control over the event, rather than show support for a group of farmers doing it tough. The auditorium was packed.

As expected- there was a dispute when it came to presenting the awards.

Much of what happened was lost in translation for me. As I understood it, the Governor and Agriculture Minister did not want the farmers being rewarded lavishly for their work. Mark and Erwin took a strong stance on this and threatened to walk the international jury out and boycott the event. After much agitation and a nagging sense of being in a foreign land and inserting yourself into politics you don’t understand the tension resolved. Fortunately, the competition organisers were able to come to an agreement with the local politicians and the rewards ceremony was permitted to proceed.

It was powerful to see how much it meant for these farmers to win something and receive a decent amount of money for their hard work on the land. It made me appreciate the position I was in, to assist in that journey and be a part of it.

I was thankful for the experience and those who made it possible for me, including Russell Beard, Mark Dundon, Fred Lullfitz and Nic Theodore.