12 Aug Rancho Grande: Sustainable Chinantec Coffee
Welcome to Rancho Grande, a small village tucked away in the Chinantla region of Oaxaca, home to indigenous cultures and traditions, and some of the best coffee in the world. The Sierra Madre of Oaxaca is the least known coffee region in Mexico, despite providing some of the best coffee worldwide. Rancho Grande, a Chinantec community, uses sustainable multi-cropping methods, allowing native wild plants to co-habitate with their hand-picked, organic coffee beans. They also offer ethno-tourism to get a glimpse into Chinantec life, and guests experience their slow-food gastronomy and artesanal traditions.
Oligario and Silvia welcomed us to Rancho Grande. We arrived at their house, the smell of tortillas cooking on the comal (a griddle used specifically for tortilla making). Outside, on their patio, tepetates (large handwoven dried-leaf mats) covered with colorful corn kernals dried in the sun. Silvia rushed out to greet us; she prepared a beautiful meal of stewed local, free-range chicken with vegetables. It smelled so enticing! We sat around their wooden table discussing coffee and the hike that we would make later that day. Lunch was followed by the amazing organic coffee we had come to try and hot chocolate made from local cacao, along with freshly baked pastries.
98% of the Rancho Grande community is Chinanteco, with over 70% speaking the language as well. Their community is called an ejido, a term in Mexico used to describe communities that run themselves independently of the government, making decisions (including allocating resources) democratically within the community. Life is communally organized and they collaborate on growing crops, harvesting, and tending the land. One of the things we most appreciated about their farming techniques is that it isn’t immediately evident where they are farming. By allowing native plants to grow together with seeded plants a natural harmony is achieved that’s both aesthetically pleasing and good for the soil, cultivating beneficial micro-organisms and natural symbioses.
Rancho Grande’s location in the Sierra Madre mountains, at an elevation of 2,800 ft, with abundant waterways feeding the community, and the perfect coffee-growing climate, determines the fantastic quality of their coffee beans. Besides being perfect for coffee, it’s pretty excellent for travel – sunny and warm, but also cool at times, ideal for hiking and with spectacular mountain views of the valley below. This high mountain ecosystem is just one prime example of nature at its best.
They took us on a tour, showing us the coffee process from beginning to end. Butterflies flutter by, a kaleidoscope of color and texture. Bird songs fill the air as well, as they swoop by playfully, enjoying the rich bounty of insects and fruits available for them. The farming techniques in Rancho Grande ensure safety for these animals, replacing the use of agro-chemicals with other nutrients of natural origin, and providing habitat for endemic species to co-exist.
We visited a large outdoor nursery where 6-month-old plants grow into the next generation of caffeine providers for coffee addicts like us. From there, we visited the adult plants, ripe with red, mature coffee beans (called cerezas, cherries) ready for harvest. Oligario showed us how they harvest the beans by hand into a large bucket, ascertaining which ones are ripe enough to pluck and leaving the ripening ones on the plant. Then comes de-pulping, he explained, removing the red fruit-like exterior and finishing with the bare bean.
Roasting is one of the key components of coffee production. The roasting process is also one of the most enjoyable to witness – the smell is incredible! I lean into the roasting machine taking in the fruity and nutty tones of the delicious roasting coffee. After letting the beans dry in the sun until reaching 12% humidity, they are bagged in burlap sacks to let their flavor set … and then the roasting begins. Light, medium and dark roast variations are available and oh-la-la they smell amazing. It seems this gorgeous sub-tropical mountain is home to the coffee plant; its smells fill every nook and cranny of the village.
Vanilla, an orchid that grows in the Chinantla rain forest, is said to have originated here. It is the only place in the world where vanilla where it grows wild. Nowadays, there are both wild and cultivated species in the Papaloapan Region, and delicate hummingbirds fertilize the vanilla by selecting the most aromatic flowers. Pre-Hispanic Chinantecs paid tribute to the Aztecs with vanilla, which the women wore as perfume. Medicinal meliponic honey made by unique bees provides a wide-array of health benefits for the community. (For more on vanilla, its fascinating history in the region and community-guided tours, click here.)
Rancho Grande is also known for its textiles, woven on a loom by hand, and its embroidery techniques, similar to cross stitch. The textiles are made by an all-female community alliance, which work together to create the elaborate works of art. They also make jewelry from painted seeds and coffee beans. Their textiles are beautiful to look at and empowering to wear, knowing you’re supporting a business created by indigenous women, re-creating centuries-old designs in modern times.
Rancho Grande is working on getting sales of their coffee Ñeey online for more people to enjoy. Once at home, they recommend storing the whole beans in an air-tight container, in a cool dark place, and grinding the beans just before preparing your coffee (about 9-10 grams per cup). At the cafe in our Oaxacan State University, Universidad del Papaloapan, they serve it every morning. We consider ourselves so lucky to have Cafe Ñeey at our fingertips, and raise our mug to Rancho Grande every time we prepare a cup.
Getting there and getting away:
1:20 from Tux, about 62 km, on highway 175 Oax-tux. Once you arrive at Valle Nacional, turn toward Cerro Armadillo Grande and drive for 8 km.
Ecotourism Rancho Grande
Rancho Grande and Cafe Ñeey on Facebook