The True Roots team loves networking just as much as we love coffee. We recently met a group of philanthropists in our city as they were on their way to meet a community of artisan textile producers. At one point in our conversation, the group leader asked the essential question weighing heavily on the mind of anyone new to the city: “Where is the best place in Oaxaca for traditional food and outstanding coffee?”
Considering that Oaxaca is an important region in Mexico for organic and specialty coffee production, you would think we would have an easy answer. However, like always, Summer and I exchange glances, waiting to see who will give our standard drawn-out and often tedious response. “The food bit is easy, but… coffee? Well, we can recommend some places that aren’t bad, where you can find a decent cup of coffee. But by no means remarkable.” Our list revolves around three or so coffee shops, well-known and popular spots in the city, but whose quality is rarely consistent.
Being the coffee fanatics that we are, we visit each new coffee shop in the city hoping to find a pleasant space to meet, where a good cup of coffee is a priority and there are tasty snacks to accompany the experience. Over time, our search has evolved into a special mission. On a few occasions, we have thought that we have finally found our holy grail, only to be met with disappointment.
Based on the fact that Oaxaca is a region with ideal geographic and climatic conditions for coffee production, one would hope to find an abundance of high quality coffee in Oaxaca city’s cafes. But many people, even those with refined palates, are unfamiliar with the long, delicate, and careful treatment coffee requires before it can ever result in a remarkable cup. Through each of the approximately 20 steps in this process—from bean to cup—one cannot hope to add additional value. On the contrary, according to a proverb within the coffee world, “Coffee is good by nature, the only thing man can do is screw it up.” With every single step in the process, humans can only work to preserve the intrinsic quality of the bean, while at the same time run the risk of ruining it all based on one bad decision. Considering all this, obtaining a good cup of coffee is nothing short of an art. For us, this is dogma.
Recently, Summer and I attended a coffee tasting in Viajero Café Arte, a new coffee shop in Oaxaca. The owner, a Oaxacan with Peruvian roots, whose kindly appearance reminded us of the dedicated coffee producers we’ve encountered in northern Peru, received us warmly. What we originally thought was a coffee cupping was actually a tasting of the coffees offered at the café, all from micro-lots, purchased directly from small-scale producers in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. The tasting was particularly educational for attendees, providing basic yet important technical instructions for correctly preparing coffee using a variety of methods, including the French press, pour-over, Clever, and Chemex.
We were guided by Clemente Santiago Paz, a Q grader coffee cupper demonstrating a wealth of experience and an eagerness to share his knowledge, in addition to a special humility. In our opinion, Clemente also possesses a critical sense for just what “quality in cup” means. Although there are many skilled coffee tasters in Oaxaca, we feel the majority have focused on calibrating their tasting skills and palate towards the type of coffee sought by the companies for whom they work. And in doing so, these cuppers have forgotten the critical and investigative skills necessary to identify coffee with the potential for excellence.
Yet, as mentioned previously, just having excellent coffee beans doesn’t mean you are guaranteed an excellent cup of coffee—just one bad decision in the treatment process can ruin everything. This can happen during the final stages of roasting, grinding, and preparation, each step being an art and a technique in and of itself. Viajero Café Arte takes this part of the process seriously, applying dedication and diligence.
If you visit the café, feel free to ask about the type and origin of the coffee you order; explore with the owner, your guide, which preparation method will be your next favorite; discover your preferred roast and give yourself over to the sensory experience that transpires when you drink a cup of carefully prepared coffee. And don’t forget to try one of the delicious desserts, salads, and other menu items on offer, courtesy of Ma Petite France.
Take the opportunity to find out for yourself how Viajero Café Arte is taking the art form of quality coffee very seriously, and is taking coffee to a new level in Oaxaca.
By José Luis Zárate