Mexican coffees are similar to other Central American coffees, known for their brightness and leveled with earthy or chocolatey notes. Unlike chocolate and corn, two of Mexico’s culinary gifts to the world, coffee did not originate in Mexico. And the industry did not come to true fruition until the 1980s. But today, the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and Puebla collectively export nearly $400 million in coffee annually, mostly to the United States and Europe. Properly roasted Mexican coffee is delightfully crisp and flavorful—so why did it take Mexico so long to share its unique and excellent coffee with the world?
Like it was elsewhere, the story of coffee in the land once known as “Anahuac” is interwoven with the history of colonialism, migration, oppression, and revolution. From the plantations of German immigrants in the nineteenth century through the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and the country’s modern export economy, coffee has been an important piece of the political, cultural, and economic history of Mexico. Pour yourself a cup of café de olla and settle in for this short history.
Coffee arrived in the French Caribbean around 1720. Planters and traders eventually brought it to the Central American mainland by the end of the century. This explains two of the three routes coffee took to present-day Mexico: one from Cuba through the port of Veracruz around 1740, and one overland from Guatemala nearly a century later. The third route of introduction was via a general who helped Mexico win independence from Spain in 1821—Mariano Michelana traveled to the Middle East in the 1830s and brought Yemeni coffee (mocha) back to the Pacific province of Michoacán.
Sartorius was definitely not the only one growing coffee in nineteenth-century Mexico. A hub for the shade-loving bush was established west of the port of Veracruz, where Mexican nationals planted large coffee farms in the high-altitude cloud forests around the cities of Córdoba and Orizaba. A growers’ organization emerged in neighboring Oaxaca, and a British traveler recounted a high-quality coffee zone in Colima, on the Pacific coast.
By 1874, more than 3 million coffee trees were being grown across Mexico. But coffee at this time was not a monoculture; many farmers interplanted coffee with traditional staples such as corn and tobacco. Newly completed rail lines connecting interior cities to the port of Veracruz helped distribute coffee domestically, but the lack of serious capital investment in coffee and government protectionism made for low exports. That would all change in a few years, when one of the nation’s greatest military heroes took control of the country.
Porfirio Díaz was a Mexican general whose remarkable escapades helped defeat the French invasion of 1862–65. After a brief and unsuccessful foray into politics, in 1875 Díaz and a group of military leaders plotted to overthrow Mexico’s unpopular president, Sebastián Lerdo. The ensuing insurrection successfully installed Díaz as president, a position he would keep as de facto dictator from 1876 to 1910.
Mexican coffee saw a steady stream of foreign investors and observers throughout the Díaz regime, and this stimulated the industry to a new level of export-focused productivity. Mexico went from supplying just 1.6% of the world’s coffee in 1883 to 4% the very next year, and by that time coffee from Michoacán was already considered among the world’s finest.
Díaz had close ties with Otto Von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany. In 1890, the two arranged for several hundred Germans to settle in the Soconusco area of Chiapas to take advantage of the region’s agricultural potential. Overall, railroad expansion, agricultural consolidation, labor control, foreign investment, and a political crisis in Brazil (a rival coffee state) all helped the Mexican coffee industry make enormous progress during the Porfiriato. By 1908, 69% of the nation’s coffee was exported, as opposed to just 26% in 1874.
Even though he had specifically chosen his opponent in 1911, Díaz rigged the election for himself anyway, igniting the long-simmering outrage of the populace. Under immense pressure and unable to put down the various rebellions, Díaz ceded the presidency to his chosen opponent, Francisco Madero—who was immediately overthrown by restless generals in a military coup.
Thus began some twenty torturous years of civil war that are now known as the “Mexican Revolution.” From 1911 to the early 1930s, a handful of generals and their various factions tore the nation apart over the right to install a new constitutional government. Before that was achieved, more than 1 million people were killed.
Mexican coffee, by now a staple of the agricultural economy, assumed a new role in the chaos of the revolution. Before they marched or fought in Chiapas, General Emiliano Zapata’s soldiers drank a specific type of coffee drink prepared for them by female soldiers known as adelitas (adelitas served as camp attendants, officers, and foot soldiers themselves). From clay pots, the adelitas served coffee mixed with piloncillo (unprocessed cane sugar), cinnamon, cloves, and cacao, invigorating the Zapatistas and fueling them for the day’s military activities. This was the origin of cafe de olla (“coffee from the pot”), and the recipe was passed down through future generations to become the popular drink it is in Mexico today.
Several historians have attributed the rise in small-scale coffee farming in Mexico to the Mexican Revolution, as it began a decades-long process of land reform that eventually broke up many of the Porfiriato estates. Another effect of the revolution was that a larger share of Indigenous populations—many of whom fought or had relatives who served in the revolution—adopted coffee farming and cultivation. Indigenous communities remained concentrated in the country’s forested and higher-altitude zones, which were ideal for coffee cultivation.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the Mexican government created several institutions to fund and regulate the national coffee industry, such as the Instituto Mexicano del Café (INMECAFÉ, 1959). For most of the mid-twentieth century, INMECAFÉ and other institutions managed Mexico’s coffee industry, overseeing a spike in production, improvements in quality, and higher export volumes. By 1990, researchers found it difficult to generalize about Mexico’s coffee industry, as the crop was grown in 357 municipalities and more than 4,200 different communities.
In 1989, however, the world’s coffee-producing nations failed to reach an agreement to maintain price protections for the crop. As a result, INMECAFÉ was abandoned in Mexico in favor of foreign corporate investment to keep the industry afloat. Things got even worse with the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, after which companies like Nestle and other powerful foreign interests swooped in to exploit the nation’s small-scale producers.
From 1990-2003, already-modest incomes for coffee farmers plummeted in what is known in Mexico as the “Coffee Crisis.” In regions where coffee was the dominant source of income, such as Soconusco in Chiapas, NAFTA and declining coffee incomes played a part in the violent Zapatista rebellions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Since the Coffee Crisis, better global awareness of inequality in the coffee industry has propelled the creation of co-ops that help small-scale farmers in Mexico and other countries get fair prices for their coffee crop. That said, coffee production is still concentrated in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, which are all among the poorest states in Mexico. In place of INMECAFÉ, today's small-scale coffee farmers are helped by institutions like Cafecol in Veracruz, a research outfit dedicated to ethical coffee production.
A natural fit for Mexico's forest ecosystems, coffee plants in these areas support biodiversity and help the soil retain water. But as in almost every coffee-producing nation, coffee rust disease is a huge problem in Mexico; this was painfully apparent in a 2012-2013 outbreak that affected 70% of farms and left more than 1.7 million unemployed. In the 2020s, development of hybrid varieties that are more resistant to disease and to the other effects of climate change are helping coffee keep its foothold in the land of Anahuac.
Sources & Further Reading
Regina Campos, “Café de Olla, the true Mexican Coffee,” Modern Mexican Mercadito, January 10, 2023.
“Coffee in Mexico,” Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), 2021.
Coffee of Mexico, “Our History” (accessed Nov. 2023).
Heather Fowler-Salamini, Working Women, Entrepreneurs, and the Mexican Revolution: The Coffee Culture of Córdoba, Veracruz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).
Alba González Jácome, “Dealing with Risk: Small-Scale Coffee Production Systems in Mexico,”Perspectivas Latinoamericanas 1 (2004).
Burton Kirkwood, The History of Mexico (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005).
Michelle Threadgould, “The Revolutionary Origins of Café de Olla and the Mexican Americans Keeping the Tradition Alive,” LatinoUSA.org, May 30, 2017.
“Understanding the Mexican Coffee Crisis,” Borgen Magazine, March 19, 2021.
University of Texas-Austin Libraries, “From Porfiriato to Mexican Revolution,” n.d.
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