October 08, 2020

Producer Profile: Red Beetle Coffee Lab - Mexico

By Jamie Isetts
Producer Profile: Red Beetle Coffee Lab - Mexico
Supply Chain Sector: Farm Gate Purchasing
Regions: Oaxaca, Mexico
Partner Since: 2017 

Thomas and Shaun pack their parchment coffee purchases into their old Wagoneer. 

How We Started

We first met founder Thomas Pingen in 2016 at a coffee auction in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. We had purchased a small lot from Chelin through Caravela’s auction that year, and Thomas helped coordinate on our first visit with Finca Chelin’s Enrique López at his farm. The communication went well, with Thomas acting as a liaison between Merit and Chelin. The three of us quickly bonded over Enrique’s unique experimental processing and our concurrent commitment to working with the region’s smaller producers. In the coming year, Thomas lived at Finca Chelin for a season under Enrique’s mentorship, mastering many of the unique techniques he employs. They remain close friends and often work together. Pingen even came to San Antonio for a month-long “internship” at Merit to learn our roasting and café operations first-hand. 

Prior to his time at Chelin, Pingen had bought an old VW Beetle (painted red, of course), set it up with a miniature, portable cupping lab, and driven through Oaxaca doing on-the-spot quality analysis for producers in the state’s remote communities. Now, with more experience in export and farm management, he turned his project into an operation that could work directly with roasters in Europe and the US.  Thomas began to build his team with partner Shaun Mace and a network of purchasing agents based in the regions where Red Beetle works. In the off-season, Red Beetle Coffee Lab operates in northern Peru, where they also source lots for Merit.

How They Work

Ask any green buyer: it’s easy to find great coffee in Oaxaca. The hard part is getting it to your roastery tasting just as great.  One major factor? The scale of coffee production in Oaxaca is incredibly small. A lot Merit uses for a week-long pour-over offering could come from five or six individuals, and a larger blend might require hundreds. To ensure quality and consistency requires screening each of these tiny lots separately, addressing each producer’s individual challenges before compiling the blend. This is a tedious, time-consuming task—at which Red Beetle excels. It would be virtually impossible for us to hold such a high standard on quality and farm-gate traceability without Thomas and Shaun’s careful tracking of every nanolot. They’ve worked hand-in-hand with us to not only cup out every lot, but conduct in-depth physical analysis which can help us understand how the coffee will age over time. These two also shepherd the coffees through the dry milling and export process, which a notorious crux for quality in Mexico.

But even they could not do this work alone. Red Beetle works with individuals in each micro-region (think county-size) communities to regularly visit each farmer, collect samples, deliver payment, and offer advice on farm management. Working side by side with locals also helps to navigate the complexity of cultural and interpersonal relations in a state with hundreds of indigenous sub-groups, many with their own pre-Hispanic languages. Rómulo Chávez (pictured above left) acts as such an agent in the Sierra Juarez region, where Merit has purchased for several consecutive years. Felipe Chazares is the key contact for Mazateca, a new favorite for its fruit-forward Typica lots.

Oaxaca’s Other Beverage

Jamie Isetts, Merit’s Green Coffee Buyer, related this story from traveling with Red Beetle in Oaxaca:

“Thomas, a native German, is a passionate home beer brewer. But the booze we bond over is Oaxaca’s own: mezcal, the intense spirit distilled from agave. When Thomas was staying San Antonio, we shared some from mezcalero Emigdio Jarquín, bottled by Vago. Oaxacan mezcaleros share a lot with small coffee producers: they’re often remote, they use traditional methods, and they work with a fickle crop. The next season in Oaxaca, Thomas managed to track down Emigdio at his palenque in Miahuatlán, driving through with the red VW to buy Emigdio’s awesome mezcal wholesale. Needless to say, I was jealous. In 2020 (literally the week before the pandemic shut down the world), my partner Matt and I were visiting producers with Thomas in Oaxaca and, driving through Miahuatlán, decided to visit Emigdio. This was an awesome full circle moment: Thomas had learned about Emigdio through the mezcal we drank in Texas, we’d both gotten more geeky about it, and now Emigdio was walking me through his distillery. I told him that Matt and I, who were engaged, wanted to find a special mezcal for our wedding, and he pulled out a huge plastic jug of one of the best espadines I’ve ever tasted. The three of us bought the whole thing. Emigdio shook out the last drops into our glass barrel, and looking up, asked “do you want the scorpion?” Obviously, we kept the good-luck scorpion they put in the first container of each batch. Our was postponed because of COVID, but we’re saving that bottle of Emigdio’s espadín with the scorpion for our (eventual) wedding day.”