Ernesto Perez of Coatepec on Veracruz History & Mexico’s New Generation

We were lucky to get a chance to talk with Coatepec Veracruz-based producer, wet mill manager and community leader Ernesto Perez. A younger farmer who took over the family farm and mill just three years back, he’s working to guide community production into high quality specialty, tweak processing, focus on microlots, and help those around him get the best prices their work. He expanded his own wet mill at Finca Fatima into APG Coffee, a micro wet mill for the community that also offers agronomic consulting for other farmers to help rebuild soils and increase quality. Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Aleco: Greetings from Mexico! I’m in Mexico City at the moment, Adam is in Oaxaca, and our good friend Ernesto Perez is in Veracruz.

Ernesto is an amazing coffee producer and also leader of the group APG in Coatepec, Veracruz. He’s delivering some of the most exciting coffees we’ve seen over the last couple of years. 

Joining me in Oaxaca is Adam McClellan, who runs the Mexico operation for us. He’s been down there for a couple of months now with his family and will be through the season, as will I. Lots of good things in store for all of you throughout the season as we get into shipping season. But most importantly, let’s turn it over to Adam and Ernesto and see what’s happening in Veracruz. Welcome, guys.

Ernesto: Thank you.

Adam: Thanks Aleco and thank you Ernesto for joining us. Last year was our first year buying your coffees, Ernesto, and we had a really great response in the marketplace. A lot of roasters are eagerly anticipating more coffees from you this year and asking about them again. 

As you know, Veracruz is a newer region for us—I started traveling there about three years ago and we worked with another coop on the other side of Veracruz. Last year was my first year coming to Coatepec, and I was so impressed with your operation, your vision. To me, Veracruz is really interesting, very different from the other producing regions we work in in Mexico. I’m so excited to taste some of your coffees this year and I know that you’re wrapping up harvests now.

Would you be able to start by telling us a little bit about the history of Veracruz coffee production? 

Ernesto: Thank you, Adam. Let me start by saying what I know about the history of Veracruz coffee. As many people know, no one knows for sure which was the first state where coffee was produced in Mexico. Many say it was in Oaxaca and many say it was in Chiapas and Veracruz. But we’re definitely one of the first states that had coffee in Mexico, and right now we’re one of the three most important states in coffee production in Mexico as a country. I think we produce around 30% of the coffee from Mexico.

Being one of the leading states in coffee production in Mexico, there have been many ups and downs in our history of producing coffee. Lots of big companies have been involved in coffee in Veracruz for many, many years. We’ve always been known for having good coffees, but I think the specialty coffee culture in Veracruz, like the third wave of coffee, never really landed deeply in Veracruz. I think it was because there’s many, many big companies and the culture is not picking coffee correctly. And there’s a lot of things that were really hard for me to change when I started running the family farm and working with the community on quality.

So, that’s kind of an overview of Veracruz. As you know, Veracruz is one of the highest latitudes where coffee is produced on this side of the world. We are located right next to the Gulf of Mexico, so the weather is more humid and cold in Veracruz. I think the latitude and the side of the country where we are located really helps the quality, the weather and the microclimate create the flavor that’s unique to Coatepec. It’s always super cold and misty here during the harvest season, so that’s kind of why we can grow top specialty coffees at 1200 meters above sea level.

I’m really excited to be able to explain more about Veracruz coffee, so people can come, visit, and get engaged in our coffee culture. 

Adam: Can you tell us a little about your farm and your family? I know your family’s farm is Finca Fatima, and then you also run APG Coffee, but did your family start with just farming coffee before they moved into production and things?

Ernesto: So my great grandfather, he was from Spain. He came to Veracruz because he knew how to speak English very well, so he got hired by a company, called Arbuckle Brothers in the US, and he worked as an exporter and a cupper. His history goes back to the 19th century. So, he was in coffee many, many years ago. His name was Antonio Perez Galvan, so that’s why APG is called APG.

He was the first member of our family involved in coffee, so there’s a lot of history. My grandfather didn’t really export coffee, he was dedicated to producing machinery for coffee. He built a wet mill, and that is the wet mill that I’m currently using. It was where he took his clients to show the machinery, like his exhibition room.

Later, my father started exporting coffee in the 1990s. I think it was when SCAA was founded. So Ted Lingle, who was the founder of the SCAA, came to Veracruz a couple of times. My father got awarded first place a couple of times during the 1990s. Despite that, he decided to quit coffee because there was a lot of risk, because he was more into the commodity market. So many bad things happened in those years, and he decided that it was a lot of risk and he didn’t like the business.

So he rented the mill to another company and basically, no one was really using the mill correctly. That’s when I came in and I decided to make major changes. It was not many years ago really. I’ve been working in coffee for three years now. I went to college in the US. I worked in a company in the US for a couple of years, and I decided that my passion was not working in an office. So I decided to get deeply into coffee. I got my Q graders license. I traveled to El Salvador and I got my Q processing license with Emilio Lopez.

Then I traveled here in Mexico to visit Finca Chelin and Victor Lopez in Oaxaca to learn more about coffee processing, like fermentations and things like that. And then I came back to Veracruz with a really good perspective of what specialty coffee production looks like. I made some changes to the mill to modernize it so that I could use it to lead my company to what I saw as an opportunity, which was having full traceability of coffees, truly bringing that flavor of this region and developing the flavors correctly, the sweetness and all the fruit notes that we can find in coffees in Veracruz through processing coffee with longer periods of time, longer fermentations, longer drying times, and keeping everything fully traceable.

So that’s my approach and where I see the future of coffee. That’s the vision that I have currently in APG. I want to keep growing and positioning Veracruz coffee in many places of the world again. 

Adam: Awesome, thank you. I also want to mention for anybody listening that maybe didn’t realize, what I think is interesting and different about the production model in Veracruz compared to other states in Mexico or most of Latin America is that coffee cherries are traded to wet mills rather than coffee in parchment. You drive through the Veracruz coffee country and there’s really, really large cherry processing wet mills that are owned by many different companies. Maybe some of them are cooperatively owned. But, farmers will harvest and bring down their cherry daily. It’s unique to Oaxaca and Chiapas that are two main producing regions in Mexico, where farmers are individually processing on their farms and producing parchment and selling dry parchment to mills or coops, or directly.

Do you think that model helped you make big leaps in quality development pretty quickly, that you’re able to control processing from the point of cherry delivery? And I was also wondering, how do you select which farmers you’re going to be buying from? Do they approach you, or do you seek them out? How does that work?

Ernesto: Well, after all these years, we’re really excited about coffee, because when we started the prices were low and not many people were really investing in the farms. So there’s not many players left in farming here in Veracruz. We decided to invest in our farm, and it was not many years ago. I mean, it was just a property that used to have coffee many years ago, but my father renewed the farm with new varieties, with quality varietals. And that’s when I began to know other farmers, which we’re now more than just friends, we’re kind of like family. Like, for example, [name][13:09] from Finca Las Venturas, he’s a very good friend of my family. We work with other farmers that have that vision of producing high quality coffees. And their farms are located in the highest altitudes possible that have good varietals of coffee, that now don’t just have forgotten farms.

So that’s kind of how I select the farmers that I work with. I don’t call them my farmers, we’re really partners in this deal, because it wouldn’t be possible to do this without them. It’s really teamwork, what we’re doing in Veracruz.

And I think processing coffee from the cherry to the green bean, it really helps you control and standardize the quality of the product. Because many, many things can happen throughout the process that can affect quality.

We begin by knowing where the coffee comes from. We analyze the cherry and assess the quality of what we’re receiving at the mill, what percentage of ripes and unripes we have. We use technology to sort this coffee, to store it correctly, and to mill it and prepare it for export correctly. Our approach allows us to sell coffees that have a longer shelf-life. We’re also extending drying times a lot, more than most of the companies in Mexico do. We simulate drying temperature as if we were drying with the sun or under the shade. And fermentation for us is something that has existed in Veracruz for many years. We didn’t have the machines to remove mucilage before, so it would take 48 hours before to ferment coffees and get rid of the honey, the mucilage. Now, we still do the complete 48 hour fermentations, which I think creates more sweetness and a more balanced and round flavor in the cup. So, those are the factors we can control in the cherries, and I think it’s a good aggregate value for the product.

Adam: Can you talk more about your drying practices? Are you using mechanical dryers or raised beds? I know you mentioned the climate in Veracruz makes the drying one of the more challenging aspects of production there. I’d love to know more about how you’re managing all that. 

Ernesto: Well, one of the good things about Veracruz is that our seasonality is very predictable every year. The months of December, January, and February are usually extremely humid and cold. There’s always rain, and there’s always high humidity levels and high and low temperatures. So it’s really almost impossible to dry coffees with the sunlight during these months and we have to adapt to what we have.

So we use mainly mechanical dryers for the washed coffees that we process from December to February. And we always wait until March and April to process the natural and honey process coffees because we have a lot more sunlight and higher temperatures during those months. We even have to use shade to protect the coffees from the high temperatures in those months. The drastic change between the winter and spring months made us look at what we have and use technology to process all different types of coffees correctly for their needs.

Adam: Awesome, thank you. How many different producers are you working with in the region for your company, APG Coffees?

Ernesto: Of course we work with Finca Fatima, which is a farm. My neighbor, she won Cup of Excellence last year as well from her farm Finca Consolapan. We work with Jose Cienfuegos from Las Trincheras Farm. He won Cup of Excellence too. And we work with three or four other producers that are new, that we’re going to share samples with you this year. I think they have a lot to offer to the market.

So we’re currently a group of seven producers, and our approach for next year is to start growing our relationships with small farmers in higher altitude regions in order to have an economic impact on smallholder farmers. 

Aleco: That’s great. I’m just absolutely intrigued with the Mexican coffee industry right now, and specifically seeing the evolution of the industry, to see the coffee culture in the country. I think the cafe culture in Mexico City, and I’m sure elsewhere, is really bar none in producing countries. It’s really special to see what people are doing with roasting and coffee and just the general hospitality experience that they give to people.

 And there are folks like you, and we have other friends in other parts of producing regions in the country, younger generations that are kind of like the new face of the coffee industry here. Because as you said, the coffee industry was very commoditized for a long time, and also maybe an afterthought for the government in a lot of ways. But to see folks like you is really promising.

But it makes me wonder that there must be a whole new competitive landscape out there, even for you to buy cherry, to process coffees, to trade coffee locally. I’m curious what you’re seeing on that front, and what your take is in general?

Ernesto: Well, this year we had a 40% smaller harvest than last year in general, so coffee prices were super high this year compared to last year. It was much more competitive because there’s many companies that need coffee from Veracruz. But, since we work with committed partners, we didn’t have an issue with buying cherries, because, I mean, it was part of our shared plan. We are growing together, so it’s their investment. It’s not just an opportunity of the moment, we’re trying to truly build partnerships with companies like you, that you can find roasters that really appreciate the quality that we’re offering.

So as far as the cherry and the price, that’s what I don’t like about coffee — that some years we have a lot, some years we don’t have much, but it’s part of the agricultural business. That’s how it is.

Adam: What percentage of those coffees are you selling nationally? I think we’re both really interested in the national market in Mexico, and I think in some ways some of our biggest competitors here are our local roasters, which both of us think is super cool. We don’t see that in other origins. There is this whole young generation of Mexico that’s really excited about coffee because of the local roasters and the coffee bars and things like that all over the country. How does that play into your vision for selling coffee?

Ernesto: Well, that’s kind of the reason why our model has worked to improve the economic activities on the farm, because we provide immediate liquidity to the farmers. There’s a lot of people that are really into specialty coffee in Mexico, like a lot of specialty coffee bars. And there’s a lot of new, trendy things, many people getting into the specialty coffee market. But they all finance their own coffee production. They buy small quantities of coffee, and they don’t buy the inventories that they’re going to use throughout the year. So, basically the farmers have to finance these small coffee shops, and that doesn’t really work for them.

So, I really like that we’re growing, like our culture is growing, but I don’t like that the last priority of the market is to provide the financial liquidity for the farmers, which is where everything comes from. So it’s very delicate. That’s kind of my perspective of the market right now.

Adam: What would you want roasters, especially small ones who are just buying five to 15 bags of APG’s coffees, to know about how you produce coffee and the challenges you face? It must be exciting to see coffees with your name or Cienfuegos’s name on a bag in some of the top roasteries in the country? I mean, you’ve only been in this three years, and you’re already touching the top tier of the market, and we’re super excited to represent your coffees. So what are some things you want to communicate directly?

Ernesto: One thing I really want them to know is that although we don’t have many certifications, one of the things that make Veracruz coffee very special and very hard at the farm level is that we we really focus on conserving the forests that we have, all the ecosystems that we have.

I think this is something super special in Mexico. We, or most of our farms, produce all shade grown coffees. So this is a challenge of having a small production one year and a big production in the next year. But we are really aware of where we’re going in the future, and all this effort is to keep having healthy coffee production in the future, to preserve a stable environment and conserve our microclimates and stable weather. So whenever they buy a bag of coffee from us, I think they should feel that they’re really helping conserve the ecosystems here in Mexico.

Aleco: That’s fantastic. Adam and I were out in Pluma de Oaxaca, so a very different region. But I was really blown away at seeing how forested that area was and how healthy the trees were, too. I was a little surprised. I didn’t think that was necessarily how it was going to be, and really as good of shade as I’ve seen anywhere in Latin America. Very special.

Ernesto: Yeah. Sometimes it seems like you’re in Africa, in the forest. It’s incredible.

Aleco: Yeah, a little bit like Ethiopia.

Adam: Would you be able to talk a little bit about where you’re currently at in the harvest, and where the labor of the harvest comes from? Is it mostly local, or not necessarily?

Ernesto: It’s very interesting. Many people that live in Veracruz or used to live in Veracruz, they go to Mexico City for a part of the year and work in finding jobs in Mexico City. And throughout the harvest season they come back to Veracruz, and they love picking coffee. It’s a whole experience for them to come and pick coffee. But the good part of Mexico is that they have the chance to go work somewhere else throughout the rest of the year. It’s a good side of coffee production in Mexico.

About the harvest, we’re wrapping up the harvest now. I think most of our washed coffees are already done, and we’re working on the natural and special process lots, like all the crazy fermentations and honeys as well as the natural lots right now. I think these coffees that come at the end of the harvest are really special in flavor, because they went through all this time of cold weather. So I think they’re the most interesting coffees that come up.

Adam: We just have one more question. Lot separation and producer transparency is important to higher end roasters—is that something your mill is taking care of? Tell us a little bit more about how you separate lots and maintain traceability?

Ernesto: One of the major changes I’ve made in my mill is that before, producers just delivered the coffee and you would just throw the cherries into a place where everything gets mixed. Now, we’re separating every single entry of coffee by producer. We process, we ferment independently, and we dry independently, and we store the coffee independently. Every single lot has what variety it is, what time of the year it was harvested. And I think we’re doing a tremendous job at keeping traceability fully intact. It’s one of the things that is the most important for me, being traceable, fully traceable.

Adam: Excellent. Thank you so much. We, really, really value your partnership, and, for me, on a personal level, I think your vision and your execution is incredibly inspiring. I’m looking forward to tasting the coffees this year. I know that we have a lot of roasters excited for them. 

Aleco: Thank you, Ernesto. I echo Adam’s sentiments entirely. It’s a pleasure to work with you.

Ernesto: Thank you very much. And thanks to all the roasters that support this operation.

 

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