We visit origin for multiple reasons. Always to create personal connections with our producers, and in the case of this trip, to educate ourselves on the future of biodynamic coffee production from innovative leaders at the front of the movement.
Photography taken by Tatiana Guerrero - Communication and Marketing co-ordinator at Ensambles.
During 2023, our Head of Coffee in the UK, Nuno, traveled to Mexico to visit some of our producers and experience the Mexican specialty coffee industry firsthand. Organised by our importer Ensambles Cafés Mexicanos, the trip explored their coffee farm El Equimite in Veracruz, Mexico.
Truly innovating within the sustainable coffee space, El Equimite is a biodynamic coffee farm solely focused on specialty coffee production – it's one of a kind. Soil conservation, biodiversity, and extreme shade and water management are all key facets of biodynamic coffee farming, which are explored, tested and showcased at El Equimite. They're the kind of producer we love to partner with; focused on sustainable, traceable, remarkable-tasting coffee with the least amount of impact on the environment.
The main objective of the El Equimite farm is to develop knowledge and technology around coffee farming and production. It’s a model farm, a place for experimentation and a place Ensambles uses to empirically cement ideas before spreading them to other producers and farms.
Ensambles allowed us to see their operations, their incredibly lush farm, talk about regenerative farming and show us everything about their biodynamic practices.
Biodynamic coffee begins with shade. Coffee plants develop their cherries for longer when shaded, contributing to slower ripening and development of more complex flavour. However, the downside is that plants produce less coffee when shaded, so it’s always a delicate balance between flavour and productivity.
El Equimite has planted various types of trees to create different types of shade at different times of the day: short and tall, temporary and permanent, all serving different purposes. Adding to the variety of shade trees, the farm also has ten types of fruit trees and twelve different varieties and cultivars of coffee plants contributing to the farms biodiversity.
With some coffee plants being more susceptible to disease than others, producing a range of coffee varietals drastically reduces the risk of disease spreading across the entire farm and destabilising operations.
This biodiversity is beneficial to the farm in many ways. Beyond providing shade critical to coffee growth, carbon and nutrients regenerated in the soil from decomposing plants encourages healthy plant growth attracting pollinators. These birds and insects contribute to fruit growth for consumption on the farm (they can feed 150 people with their fruit and veg production) as well as trading as another revenue source.
For further productivity, El Equimite have a twenty-year plan for every coffee plant on site, ensuring the highest level of productivity over the long haul. After each harvest, a pruning plan is applied to 25% of each crop, moving to another 25% the following year and so on. Even though it seems counter-productive to cut the trees shorter and smaller, the year after a solid prune, plants see a production increase of about 62%.
Pruning is extremely important for productivity and it’s one of Ensambles main messages they pass along to coffee producers.
One of the least eco-friendly aspects of coffee at origin is processing. Whether it's wastage, excessive water usage, discarded by-product or rotting fruit, this stage of the coffee journey can be damaging to sustainability efforts.
In an effort to change this story, processing at El Equimite essentially begins in the field. Varieties and cultivars are separated into their own land parcels, with each parcel planted according to its specific needs and specifications when it comes to levels of light, spacing and soil nutrition.
This separation allows for an easier harvest. As fruit parcels ripen consistently, workers can do whole loops of the farm picking up only ripe cherry parcels as they mature. This system allows the farm to reduce waste and picking over ripe/under ripe cherries in bulk.
The next step is floating the cherries to remove any defect coffee, foreign matter and dirt. Everything that floats is removed and separated into a special lot called segundas (seconds) which get processed separately.
Once harvested and separated, all coffees begin processing with anaerobic fermentation in sealed plastic tubs. This step refines the acidity and complexity of the coffees, so this fermentation happens regardless of variety/cultivar. Lots can then be separated before being processed either natural, honey or washed:
Natural coffees are dried on raised beds for 60 to 90 days, and are moved and rotated daily.
Honey coffees are de-pulped and dried on raised beds for 30 to 35 days. El Equimite’s de-pulper is a Colombian-made machine that doesn’t use any water. Traditional de-pulpers use large amounts of water making honeys and washed coffees far less sustainable.
Washed coffees are de-pulped, left to dry-ferment for 12 hours, then washed twice before drying on raised beds in direct sun for about 20 days.
Any water used during processing is filtered and reused for other purposes in the field. Discarded coffee cherry (cascara) is a key component of the compost the farm produces with leaves, cut grass, bits of wood, horse and cattle manure, vermicompost and soil.
With cattle on the farm closing the biodynamic loop with essential manure and compost for both coffee and fruit trees, El Equimite works incredibly hard to ensure every product and by-product is utilised to its fullest extent.
Knowing that one farm isn’t enough to make a huge difference in the industry, Ensambles have begun sharing their learnings and knowledge from El Equimite with farmers across Mexico.
Having created mobile labs for harvest time, Ensambles provide local quality assessment facilities open to any coffee producer interested in selling their parchment and getting to know the quality of their coffee. These labs and facilitators provide points of information and knowledge for the hundreds of smallholder farms in Mexico to improve their harvesting practises.
They work to inspire all producers to work within a more sustainable model. Some biodynamic/organic farms aren’t certified due to the extra financial costs it brings but many are working towards more regenerative farming thanks to the lengths Ensambles goes to to educate and inform growers and producers. An effort well warranted, as a well-maintained coffee farm can absorb more carbon than a natural forest.
Even with these investments, Ensambles’ goal isn’t to have all farms biodynamic certified.
El Equimite is built on what was formally grazing land which took over five years to regenerate for coffee production. With that experience under their belt, they are now working on a Transition Manual for their Instituto Bios Terra — a producer network that facilitates the sharing of knowledge and technology with coffee farmers.
Projects like these are crucial to the development of the Mexican specialty coffee production and Allpress is incredibly proud to be supporting Ensambles.