The Real Baja

Tijuana coffee culture: a day with the roasters at Café Sur a Norte

Enjoy a cup of aromatic organic coffee

Tijuana coffee culture: a day with the roasters at Café Sur a NorteImages by Jill Marie Holslin.
Images by Jill Marie Holslin.

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TIJUANA.-You have to wait and listen for the first crack. After that, the beans begin to open and transform to rich tones of hazelnut and cocoa. And then you breathe deep, and that familiar enticing coffee aroma rises into the air.

Alex Reyes Salas, owner and roaster at Café Sur a Norte in downtown Tijuana makes small 20 kilograms batches of medium and dark roasted Oaxacan Pluma Hidalgo and Chiapan coffee six days a week. And he knows these sounds and scents very well. After roasting and selling commercially for three years, Alex opened the business to the public in 2012.

And now you can stop by anytime between 7:30 am and 7:00 pm weekdays and 9-5 on Saturdays and enjoy a cup of aromatic organic coffee or buy a kilo of warm, fresh roasted beans to take home for later. Parking is always easy to find here near the corner of 8th Street (Miguel Hidalgo) and Av. Negrete, and the friendly conversation will brighten your day.

I spent the day with Alex and Cuyo this week, and I learned a little bit more about my favorite of all vices--my morning coffee. Alejandro Reyes Salas was born and raised in Tijuana, and then spent some time in Mexico City where he became fascinated with the process of coffee roasting. Roasting is much more common in the south of Mexico, and Alex noticed that there weren't many roasters in Tijuana.

And so, in 2008 he returned home to Tijuana to start his business. He started out selling coffee that was roasted in Chiapas, and in 2010 moved to the space on the corner of 8th and Negrete, bought his first coffee roaster, and began to roast specialty single origin beans from Chiapas and Oaxaca.

The coffees from Café Sur a Norte come from the Huixtla and Motozitla in the Soconusco region of Chiapas and the Pluma Hidalgo region of Oaxaca. Coffee "de origin," or "single origin" mean that all the beans come from one small place.In contrast, the commercial "blends" you get from Starbucks take beans from many different regions and mix them together create a single standardized flavor. Because they are single origin, Café Sur a Norte coffees offer more variety, rich unexpected flavors and textures.

In addition, all these coffees are "de altura." The Soconusco region high up in the mountains of Chiapas--at 3200-9800 feet above sea level--has a dryer climate, the best soil, and superb temperatures for coffee cultivation. That's why Soconusco produces 65% of all the coffee from Chiapas. At high altitudes, the beans mature more slowly, appear denser and harder, and develop rich, deep flavors. The Pluma Hidalgo of Oaxaca is located along the Pacific Coast and the coffees from there are grown at elevations of 1500-4000 feet.

Not only are climate and soil important factors. The small producers who bring this coffee to our table play an essential role. Coffee growers associations work closely with the small independent farmers to build capacity, teach new techniques, and improve the quality of their coffee beans. Alex works directly with a distributor in Oaxaca and two others in Chiapas who in turn work closely with cooperatives of small growers in Huixtla and Motoxintla.

And in the Soconusco in Chiapas, conditions have never been better for small mom and pop growers. Known for its prized cacao seeds since the days of the Aztecs, the Soconusco region started cultivating coffee after it was first introduced by an Italian entreprenuer in 1846. Coffee production took off, but within a few decades, the local indigenous farmers found themselves trapped in a cycle of indentured servitude.

The growth of agrarian committees in the 1930s and 40s restored the balance, and by the 60s, agrarian capitalist coffee production became a powerful strategy for sustainable development. Today, 95% of coffee production in the Soconusco is run and managed by small family producers.

And for Alex Reyes Salas and Café Sur a Norte, this is a win-win situation. Good coffee is all about commitment and trust, Reyes tells me. "This is the most important part. When you have a relationship of trust between the coffee producers and the roasters, you get a better product and the farmers will earn more money."

And what could be better than that?

*More photos about Café Sur a Norte here

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Café Sur a Norte is open Monday-Friday 7:30 AM-7:00 PM and Saturday 9-5.

The store and coffeeshop is located near the corner of Negrete and 8th St. at Ave. Negrete #1620, Zona Centro, Tijuana, Baja California CP 22000.

Tel. (664) 621-3882

Email: Contacto@cafesuranorte.com

jill.holslin@sandiegored.com

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