REVIEW: TEC Knowledge Talks - Enrique Lopez
This is a wrap up from a work event I attended earlier this week which had an epic focus on sustainability so thought it would be prudent to publish it here!
Early this week the TSE crew were thrilled to attend another Knowledge Talks at Toby’s Estate HQ in Alexandria. These events have become an epic industry fixture and give everyone a great opportunity to talk shop and learn new things about the always-fascinating and always-evolving world of specialty coffee.
Giving this most recent talk was pioneer of processing Enrique Lopez, whose tireless pursuit of post-harvest innovation has seen global recognition and earned extensive acclaim for his hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico. Enrique has farmed coffee for two decades and is the proud owner of Finca Chelin; a plantation not only producing critically awarded “Best of Oaxaca” coffees but also achieving the first Rainforest Alliance Certified Carbon Neutral certification in Mexico. Yep, this guy is a rockstar.
Aside from exploring new and previously unseen growing and processing methods, environmental sustainability is a key feature of Finca Chelin and sets a framework for admirable leadership in the Mexican coffee community. A diminutive 7 tonnes of CO2 emissions is entirely offset through traditional permaculture farming, and the wet mill powered exclusively by solar. All water used in the mill is fully recycled through irrigation, where some post-processing constituents actually contribute to improved plant health (and bean taste!) before being effectively filtered back into groundwater through the soil structure. As per Rainforest Alliance status, organic coffee farms are in fact more effective than reforestation in enhancing biodiversity and providing carbon sinks for greenhouse gas recapture.
Enrique farms specific arabica varietals that complement the natural ecology of his estate. At Finca Chelin he grows Geisha, Zolok, and Pluma Hidalgo, once the most popular coffee farmed in Mexico before falling victim to widespread leaf rust. Pluma Hidalgo now comprises only 15% of Mexico’s total output but Enrique Lopez’ passion for posterity sees it still contributing to his harvest every year.
After realising the maintenance of an unmoving status quo by coffee producers around him, Finca Chelin’s reputation soared after Enrique began a meticulous and decade-long process of experimentation with processing methods. Motivation came by default, as Enrique freely admits “I just didn’t want to be bored by doing the same thing over and over.”
But by precisely altering single components of the processing method one at a time across with the same coffee, patterns began emerging. It quickly became clear to him that this was an unprecedented opportunity to ‘design’ specific flavour profiles in the processing phase. Enrique has now performed over 600 controlled processing experiments and has manipulated profiles to achieve stunning results.
Combining different yeasts and vitamins with fastidious time control and anaerobic fermentation tanks has established Enrique Lopez as a legit sensei-level master of the craft. With cupping scores like 92 under his belt, since his taking ownership Finca Chelin is now a true heavyweight champion of the Mexican specialty coffee industry.
Look at Enrique's drying management, for example. Processing coffee anaerobically increases its moisture content meaning drying time is about 25 days, as opposed to 5-6 elsewhere. Three whole weeks extra! As for the drying method, further lengthening the process is his insistence that every batch be dried in full shade before being packed up and put under cover overnight in case of sudden rain or mildew which would compromise the delicate fermentative balance of the beans’ metabolism.
With measures this extensive, it’s pretty clear Enrique Lopez is not in the coffee industry just to make a buck. This guy is a full tilt frother, and the global specialty coffee industry is lucky to have people so committed to the pursuit of sustainable excellence.
A highlight of Enrique’s talk was understanding the potential social impacts of the coffee industry. How’s his form in the community? It’s good, really good. He has started up multiple co-operative programs to employ and empower various demographics, using his knowledge and skill to strengthen the entire region. For example, one coffee from an all-female co-op - Manos De Mujeres Oaxaquena - fetched a price over eight times what it would have been worth at market were it not for his careful instruction. Needless to say this level of effect is life-changing.
Enrique has also openly shared the results of all his experiments in the hope of empowering other producers to up their game, and in doing so re-establish Mexico as a global specialty coffee powerhouse. I mean right?! In the world of specialty coffee, Enrique Lopez has achieved full Elon-Musk-level legend status.
So yeah, wrapping up, it was a great evening of interesting insights to the far side of coffee, a production process from which we have on the most part become very disconnected. Kudos to TEC’s Cosimo Libardo for translating Enrique’s in-depth analysis of scientific knowledge shared entirely in Spanish, and the whole Toby’s crew for amazing hospitality we have inexplicably come to expect from the Knowledge Talks series. We had a blast guys, can’t wait for the next one!