Editor’s note: In researching Crown Jewel information, our team will frequently reach out to producers to gather additional facts or inquire about the particulars of a relationship, processing type, or harvesting scenario. Rarely do responses come along as engaging and far-reaching as the multi-part email installment I received from Alfred Klein, owner of Finca San Carlos near Mexico’s southern border in the state of Chiapas. In his own words below you’ll find the incredible story of his family, his farm, and the persistent challenges of cultivating coffee. If you care to learn more about the coffee Sr. Klein produces, we recently featured it as a Crown Jewel and blogged a bit about it, too.

Early History

In 1892, Mr. Ludwig Hotzen, a German immigrant, bought the land that is now Finca San Carlos from an English company that had the concession to measure and sell the fractions of what, in those years, was thousands of hectares of wild forest. The order from pro-European President Porfirio Diaz was to get foreigners to buy the land, knowing that this region was mostly uninhabited and the locals would not be able to make the land productive.

Some years before, in the 1850s, the first coffee fincas were established with great success, so coffee was the ideal crop. An interesting point is that the first foreigners that came to Chiapas to grow coffee were Americans, followed by Italians, French, and Spaniards. Germans were the last to arrive and bought up some of the already established plantations as well as fresh land.

There are plenty of books about coffee in Chiapas, but one of the most important is San Antonio Nexapa (Nejapa) written by the daughter of American coffee grower Helen Sargeant. I strongly recommend reading it.

Mr. Hotzen and his wife had two sons, both born on the coffee plantation called Acapulco where he was the manager at that time. Adalbert and Otto were sent to Germany to get proper education and were caught there between both world wars. Adalbert returned earlier around the 1930s after his father’s death to manage San Carlos. His mother Luise died in the early 1930s. In the 40s Otto returned to Mexico and together with his brother managed the farm as a society, los Hotzen hermanos.

In the early 1950s Adalbert sold his part of the society to Otto and started a new farm called La Victoria in a nearby region. Otto had two daughters and lived mostly alone at San Carlos for around 45 years, neither of his two wives lived at the finca for long. The first of Otto’s daughters, Gesa, started to sell the coffee from the farm in the 1980s, though she was living in Germany and later in San Diego, California. The first American client was Seattle’s Best back in those years when its founder Jim Stewart still managed the company, around the same time the relationship with Royal started.

Family and Coffee Background

I myself come from coffee growers too; my grandfather arrived in Chiapas in 1930 and immediately became a naturalized Mexican. He managed the plantations of the Giesemann family for over 30 years. My dad as well as my uncles and aunts were born at a little hospital at the Maravillas plantation, attended by nurses.

In the early 60s my grandfather, my father, as well as other growers from Chiapas started new plantations in the state of Puebla (only 5 hours from Mexico City). I remember spending most of my childhood and teenage years either in Chiapas or in Villa Juarez on the coffee plantations.

In 1986 I gave myself a break from the ordinary and headed to Argovia – the dice were rolling and I knew then that coffee would be part of myself forever. In October of 1990, freshly married, my wife and I arrived to stay in Finca Argovia. I took charge of the wet and dry mills as well as overall installations of the Giesemann group: 5 wet and 2 dry mills. During that period I really got deeply involved in the coffee process from wet to export. All machines used in the mills were the original ones from the early 1900s: mostly English, Scottish, and German equipment.

So you could say I learned the coffee process like the old ones did it, taking a big amount of pride and trying to maintain your good name in the market. Things change with time, though.

One of the big drawbacks of traditional wet coffee preparation, like fermentation, is the enormous amount of water used and the contamination of the clean water by the process. It was time to change to new technologies, specifically, dry pulping and layering of the byproducts under cover. (For many years pulp, mucilage, and all process water was just channeled to the next water course and swept away.) We made a lot of changes not only involving machinery but also in the processing itself – huge amounts of equipment, machines, tanks, channels, and so on started to become obsolete. None-the-less, quality had to be guaranteed at any price.

In conclusion, and after years of experience, I can only say that things have to be kept as simple as possible. No need for fancy looking, nicely painted, imported machinery from Brazil, Colombia, or Costa Rica that depended on vast amounts of electricity. Any wet mill from the old days could be modified to suit the needs with moderate expenses, and that is what I started to do with other growers that sought my help.

Becoming a Coffee Grower on Finca San Carlos

In 1996, one morning very early Mr. Otto Hotzen stood at the door of the workshop seeking my help on some repairs at San Carlos. He invited me to visit him to see what could be done to improve installations and process. After two or three visits and after having changed and repaired some really minor problems he offered San Carlos for me to buy, as he planned to retire and go back to Germany to be close to his daughters. The conditions for the transaction at that moment looked very good, and as Mr. Otto was from the old school a big handshake sealed our fate.

After all documents and legal situations were taken care of, we arrived at San Carlos in late April 1997. Mr Otto left for Germany a few days after our arrival. So, suddenly I became a coffee grower and the future looked bright.San Carlos had the best crops ever during 94/95 and 95/96, due to a dramatic shade tree pruning that the whole plantation underwent in 93. The consequences of this had tremendous influence in the plantation for the next years.

Even though I had walked the finca extensively before accepting Mr. Otto’s offer, and the coffee trees seemed still to be in good condition after those huge crops considering that around 30% of the existing trees were very old Typicas and Bourbons, I realized on my first harvest that there was going to be a very special need for plant renovation as we started to see dying plants all over the place.

It is necessary to say that Mr. Otto was very narrow minded in many things concerning growing coffee. His success was mostly based on application of huge amounts of fertilizer that for many, many years was a very cheap item. His points of view and actions related to plantation management like renewals, pruning, soil erosion control, weed control, and many other long term actions or new technology application were that these things simply weren’t interesting to him.

Winds of Change

The first hard hit from mother nature occurred in March of 1998. A three-day-long, very dry north windstorm left the plantation without leaves during the driest part of the year. The last flowering which normally occurs in late March in our region never appeared, and the little beans in formation from the earlier flowerings blackened and fell off. Winds are an important issue for us, but normally they occur from November through early February – none of the workers and people from the surrounding areas could remember such a wicked wind in March.

The consequences were devastating. Many old coffee trees never recovered and the expectations for next crop were gruesome. The original plan I had was to renovate the plantation by compact areas, getting rid of old plants and starting from scratch. Unfortunately I changed my plan and instead of areal renovation I started to fill in spaces left by dead or dying plants. This was a big error!

I did though apply a sufficient amount of fertilizer during June and October, so that the majority (70% perhaps) of the plants recovered. The fact that they were carrying a small crop also helped a lot with the recovery. Pruning (or what we call recepa – a full cutdown of the plant to a height of 45cm) would have been the best agronomic solution for many of the most affected plants, but was impossible to realize due to the proximity of the wet season. 98/99 crop turned out only one third of the previous harvest.

Back in those years I used to get financing from what today is a multinational import/export company. Conditions were not the best: the loans were in US dollars but the payoff was in Mexican pesos, including an unfair differential that for years (and is still being applied) to all Mexican coffee despite of origin or quality. The interest rates during the 90’s didn’t help much, even though the exchange rate due to the constant peso devaluation seemed to mitigate the loss of income.

Fortunately we did cover our debts from the previous year with the importer and even the yearly payment for Hotzen family. But the news of our poor harvest had spread and the negotiation for future financing was difficult.

Mr. Otto visited us at San Carlos that year and stayed for several weeks. During our constant conversations, one day he brought up the issue of exporting the coffee to Germany or the US in order to achieve better prices. I had thought about this myself, I just did not know anyone, and the coffee was too good for the importer to let go…

Continued here (part II)