Nestled in the remote mountains of Southern Mexico, San Antonio Chicharras is turning the spotlight onto specialty Mexican coffee.
Owned by Eduardo ‘Teddy’ Esteve, who also operates ECOM Trading, the farm was purchased in 2004 but coffee has been grown at San Antonio as far back as 1898. ECOM Trading is one of the largest coffee millers in the world and has been a family business for generations. Teddy is a 5th generation coffee professional and like anyone who has worked with coffee for 40+ years, it was a dream to own his own farm and so he set out to revolutionize the land under San Antonio estate.
Over the years, San Antonio has earned a reputation for sustainability and ethical practices that has paved the way for other Mexican coffee farms to change how they grow and process coffee. This journey has taken them to new heights in the coffee world and brought pride to the Mexican coffee industry.
The Dream Behind San Antonio
San Antonio began with a simple yet lofty mission: to make coffee farming more sustainable for the environment, employees, and community around the farm. At the time, coffee farming was more of a purely commercial undertaking, with the focus being output above all else. This came with a high cost: degradation of local ecosystems and harsh working conditions on farms. How could we ever hope for a future for Mexican coffee when the present seemed so bleak?
And there the spark of a dream was born- why not try to make coffee cultivation more equitable and sustainable, so that future generations would want to continue the trade? In the ensuing years, San Antonio focused heavily on sustainability and worker welfare, starting by implementing better cultivation methods, increasing worker pay, and initiating activities like schools and clinics for the community.
The Unique Environmental Challenges
Bordering Guatemala, San Antonio is located between the Sierra Madre de Chiapas Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. This region poses some unique challenges for coffee farmers, the biggest obstacle being the high humidity. This region, called Soconusco, is one of the top 5 wettest regions in Mexico and it receives an average 4300mm of rainfall per year and the average humidity hovers around 85% to 99%. The extreme humidity means it's incredibly difficult to ferment and dry the coffee cherries without mold or bacteria.
It’s not all challenges however, since this region is covered by rainforests and most farms are at least 1200-1300m above sea level, where the climate is more moderate. The area is enriched with volcanic soil from the Tacaná volcano, whose eruptions over millennia have added vital nutrients to the soil which gives San Antonio coffee a distinctive edge.
In 2012 and 2013, the farm was overrun with coffee rust which prompted them to pivot towards hybrid and Marsellesa varieties. The farm regularly invests in infrastructure and is completely rust-free today. The coffee is 100% shade-grown, in keeping with the farm’s commitment to sustainable farming.
An In-Depth Look at San Antonio Coffee
Around 48% of the coffee grown at San Antonio is Marsellesa, and the rest is Mundo Maya, Star Maya, and Mundo Mex. A small section of the farm also produces Robusta of the conilon variety. Their specialty coffee is complex and acidic, and undergoes different processing methods like honey, natural, anerobic, and extended fermentation.
All coffee on the farm is hand-harvested, sorted, and taken for processing. After depulping, the coffee is left to ferment for 36-40 hours depending on the surrounding temperature. It’s then placed to dry on raised African beds for 1-2 days. The rest of the processing is completed in mechanized drums which takes around 50 hours at 45°C. This mechanical drying reduces the moisture content in the beans down to 10% and prevents mold while speeding up the process which would otherwise take 15-20 days.
Fermentation is a traditional element of coffee processing in Mexico but San Antonio takes it one step further by prolonging the fermentation duration. This produces a fruiter and cleaner taste profile than most Mexican coffees. San Antonio sends out samples of their fermented coffee to clients and listens to their feedback so they can produce and deliver coffee that is exactly what their customers want.
San Antonio also takes a very proactive approach to fertilization of their coffee plants. Each coffee varietal is grown on separate lots, and they collect soil and leaf samples to determine the nutrients in the soil and in the plants. Based on this they make a special ‘recipe’ for different plots. These fertilizers have the exact nutrients needed to grow good coffee. After harvesting, the plants are pruned, the shade cover is regulated, and then fertilizer is fed into the soil through a pump system. Nutrients go to the plants as a whole as well as to the cherries as they grow. This prevents excess use of fertilizer and keeps the plants healthy.
Worker Welfare at the Heart of San Antonio
Increasing wages for workers was one of the most pivotal changes launched by San Antonio. In most farms, coffee pickers are paid based on volume and not per kilogram of coffee picked. This means that pickers are paid less than they actually deserve.
San Antonio has changed this status quo- workers here are paid above the minimum wage in Mexico, with additional incentives for productivity. As the farm employs close to 450 people during the harvest, this improved wage structure has helped many workers improve their livelihoods.
A majority of workers here are migrants from Guatemala and thanks to San Antonio’s collaboration with Fundación C.a.F.E, these migrating pickers have access to learning materials, helping improve the literacy rate.
Fixing A Broken System
The pricing system in coffee is due for an upgrade. Many producers are unaware of the true cost of their coffee and many farms, especially the small farms, don’t have the knowledge to determine their minimum price.
In these cases, a trusting relationship between producers and customers is necessary to ensure that workers get a fair wage. You need clients who are willing to pay a fair price- both to the producers and to the farm workers. By building a stronger customer relationship, everyone involved in the coffee business can understand each other’s needs.
In reality, there are many ecological and social issues that farms like San Antonio need to overcome to fix the broken pricing system. Most of Central America faces acute labor shortages and with frequent border closures, it can be hard to find farmworkers. All workers are legal at San Antonio but with closed borders, there are less workers and it becomes more difficult to find new employees.
In light of this, San Antonio has initiated many social welfare programs for their employees, the foremost being schooling and education. In the past it was common practice for children to work with their parents on farms but of course, this is no place for a child to be working. San Antonio is strictly against child labor on farms and so they provide formal and informal schooling for the children of coffee workers. A teacher comes to the farm to educate the children- formal schooling happens year-round while vocational training or informal schooling is conducted during the off-season.
The children have access to both education and leisure activities for all-round growth. Their parents no longer have to worry about where they are or what they’re doing- the children are kept safe and happy, as they should be. In fact, this system at San Antonio has worked so well that the Government of Chiapas replicated this model on other farms.
San Antonio and Era Of We: Looking to the Future
San Antonio sees their partnership with Era Of We as an opportunity to share their coffee, community, and way of life with the world. They aim to improve the quality of their coffee with every harvest while building lasting relationships with importers, roasters, and consumers.
It’s quite rare to find Mexican single-origin coffee, especially in Europe, so if you’re trying San Antonio coffee for the first time, approach the experience with an open mind. Many of their varietals are unique and you’re sure to discover new flavors in your cup.