Maru team is already five hours into travel from Los Angeles to Tuxtla Gutiérrez in Chiapas, Mexico–a state sharing a border with Guatemala, a gateway from North to Central America known for their coffee and cacao, handicrafts and textiles, and notably the enduring legacy and individualism of its indigenous communities.
We are scheduled to meet with Ana Odermatt at the airport, our guide for the trip and an old friend. Ana came into our lives as the General Manager of Damian, a neighboring business to our Arts District cafe. Maru began supplying coffee to Damian and began a collaborative and genuine friendship. Today she dedicates herself to consultancy and connecting small vendors and businesses. Her dedication to excellence on every level in her work in the food & beverage field impresses everyone around her and in some ways inspired this pilgrimage to Finca Santa Cruz, our final destination.
Through Ana we were introduced to Hugo Duran on a previous trip to Mexico City. A prolific chef and committed advocate for preserving not only the flavors and food of Mexico but also the cultural practices and indigenous land-based economies surrounding food and agriculture; it’s Hugo who makes the connection to Santiago Sota, a coffee obsessive and ambassador. Santiago is the proud owner of Drip Cafe Especial in Mexico City and becomes one of our many gracious guides on this trip. It’s through this chain of well-meaning friendships that brings us to Pepe & Kary, peers and friends of Santiago. Pepe and Kary Argüello are owners of Finca Santa Cruz, a specialty coffee producer in Chiapas.
The drive from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Finca Santa Cruz is a bumpy, stop-and-go 6 hours. The roads are curvy and steep, prone to tree debris and damage. Roadwork is a near constant we’re told, and while the scenery is beautiful, it’s hardly an easy drive at less than 10 mph in some places. There’s a breakdown en route, we indulge on strawberries from a roadside vendor and eat them with soft cheese and call it lunch. It’s a bonding and fitting introductory experience for the trip as we consider how the coffee producers make this trip regularly. We try to imagine the amount of labor, time, and energy it must take to transport thousands of pounds of beans up and down this road. We’re told that every October they rebuild and repair the roads after the damage from the rainy season in order to get ready for harvest.
We arrive at Finca Santa Cruz and are greeted by Pepe & Kary, second generation coffee farmers and passionate believers that integrity manifests in quality. The brother/sister team represent a new generation of farmers in Mexico, uniquely positioned to marry old world practices and wisdom with an understanding of advances in technology and most importantly, regenerative agriculture.
At Finca Santa Cruz, Pepe weave through maintaining the natural biodiversity by planting coffee within the forest, in its natural habitat rather than destroying forests to create efficient farmland. This practice complicates the care but also enhances the life cycle of the crop. Instead of fighting the terrain, Pepe chooses to utilize it. He plants around native trees that have naturally had symbiotic relationships with the coffee plant and prunes them individually to create ideal lighting and shade conditions for the plants.
The reputation of Finca Santa Cruz has long since been well established. The only three-time winner of their country’s Cup Of Excellence Award in the world, Pepe is already well known in the coffee community. In 2022, their score of 93 points was also the highest amongst the eleven producing countries that participated in the competition. A running tenet of his practice has been “quality over quantity”. The previous owners of the land produced approximately 10,000 quintales of coffee while Finca Santa Cruz currently farms 800 quintales–intentionally less to give each plant more time, resources, attention, and build up slowly.
While the land produces several specialty varieties, the Argüellos give extra care to the Gesha plants, the prize of their farm and a renowned and highly sought after bean in the coffee world. At Finca Santa Cruz they employ a farming method called recepa that prunes ¼ of their trees down to a single shoot every year for many of their coffees. This method promotes the overall health of the crop while sacrificing yield, but yield is clearly a secondary goal in this venture.
The harvesting and processing is laborious and time consuming. The community helps to harvest when the cherries are at their ripest and then floats them in water, letting the best cherries sink to the bottom while the unripe fruit floats to the top. From there, the coffee is fermented for 24 to 72 hours. This is another part of the process that gives Finca Santa Cruz its distinctive quality. During this stage of the process they conduct numerous tastings to gauge the height of taste during fermentation, they take notes for the coming year and track their information meticulously. Because they only harvest one plot a day, they can precisely track the effect of sunlight, surrounding conditions, date of harvest–all data points in trying to achieve the highest quality product.
We are amazed by the level of precision and care in each step. At Maru, we’ve always believed in conscientiousness at every step of our process but at Finca Santa Cruz we are struck by the level of obsession, the depth of knowledge, and the respect for nature. It’s a feeling that both humbles and inspires. We are honored to participate in cuppings and learn new flavor profiles, adding complexity and nuance to our always growing bank of coffee knowledge.
It’s an even greater honor to partner with Finca Santa Cruz. It means something different to “source” a product when you’ve met the maker, been on the land, seen the process, and shared meals. We live in a world where it’s easier for us in the U.S. to piggyback off the generational knowledge and cultural heritage of any small producer abroad and call it “direct sourcing” and then market this as “specialty”. It’s an entirely different agenda to partner with a small producer and to understand the labor and history behind the product. These direct relationships not only benefit the quality and appreciation of coffee but also create an alternative marketplace where small producers like Finca Santa Cruz can sustain their specialized practices outside of the demands of large distributors