Cafeólogo Series Part One: Into the Highlands

It’s funny how things work out sometimes.  A few years back I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with an extremely talented and passionate coffee professional named Jesús Salazar, by chance, while on a road trip in Mexico.  Little did I know that I would be going back almost 5 years later with my friend and colleague, Ben Bowdoin, intending to purchase coffee from Jesús for 1000 Faces Coffee.  In 2012, I owned and ran a small mobile espresso business called Ursa Minor Coffee (imagine a tiny coffee shop in a pull behind trailer).  I was serving coffee and pastries out of a parking lot in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, right next to the city transit station and catty-cornered to the social services building. This was my first foray into the coffee world and my first shot at running my own business.  I learned the extremely valuable lesson that first winter that for as much as people love drinking coffee in the winter, they equally hate standing outside in the cold to get it.  This was the impetus to give up my house, put my belongings in storage, and road trip through the Yucatan and Chiapas for a little over a month with my wife and young son.  

Driving up into the highlands of Chiapas, and more specifically its cultural hub, San Cristóbal de las Casas, is a heart racing experience in itself.  After traveling through the flatlands near Chiapa de Corzo and the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, you pass through a toll booth at the foothills of the mountains and begin a quick and steep ascent up federal highway 190. It feels like you are driving straight up into the sky.  You go up, up, up, up, and up a little more, then descend like an airplane coming in for a harried emergency landing into the nest-like valley that cushions and protects San Cristóbal de las Casas. Located at just around 7,200 feet above sea level, San Cristóbal is a city known just a much for its stunning colonial architecture and rich indigenous culture as it is for its turbulent political history. The Zapatista uprising of 1994 was an eye opener for many in the world that knew little to nothing about Mexico’s southernmost state, and a spotlight was shown for the first time on the vast economic disparities that are at the root of many of its citizens’ challenges.

While visiting that first time in 2013, I decided it would be foolish not to try to see a what an actual coffee farm looks like. I wandered around the the city until I stumbled upon an unassuming little roastery called Carajillo.  Located on the same lovely pedestrian-only street, Real de Guadalupe, were two cafes of the same name that the roastery was supplying.   The place was quite small - only enough room for a custom built Mexican fluid bed roaster, a long table for cupping coffees, and a small side table where a young employee was hand sorting through coffee samples, discarding the defects, with amazing speed and accuracy.  Simple and attractive retail bags filled with coffee from local growers lined the shelves of the entryway. At the time of my visit, Carajillo was the first specialty coffee in Chiapas, and they strived to push the boundaries of quality and locality.  I was extremely new to coffee and this was the first time I had conceived of the idea that a roastery and cafe owner could be working with farmers right up the road.  This close geographic proximity goes a long way towards cementing and deepening relationships, both professionally and personally, as it allows more direct and intimate interactions with your supplier.  You are able to see firsthand how the grower is taking care of their crop all the way through harvest, even inputting ideas for improvement along the way.  Furthermore, the farmer is close enough that they can even come visit and start to truly get an idea of what the roastery/cafe owner is attempting to achieve with their businesses.  In the case of Jesús Salazar, the children of many of the growers he works with also work for him in other areas of the supply chain, as coffee roasters and baristas.  The feedback loop remains small and the family remains tight,  allowing for natural progressions of quality to happen quickly with each passing year.

So after mustering out some broken Spanish, I was able to get the owner’s number and give him a call. You guessed it - Jesús Salazar answered on the other end.  He said that not only would he be happy to take me to visit a coffee farm, but he would also cup coffees with me and show me some roasting basics.  It was like I had won the coffee lottery on my first try!  The next day, we drove out of San Cristobal and into the true highlands of the surrounding mountains.  After roughly an hour, we reached the Aldama municipality, turned off the winding paved road, and continued travel on a much smaller dirt road.  We entered into the town of San Pedro - think a collection of modest cinder block houses, a couple of small corner stores, and a centrally located school, rather than a full on bustling city.  San Pedro was established when the government started to build schools and roads in the area after the aforementioned Zapatista uprising.  Many farmers came down from the surrounding hills to focus on their children’s education, building homes and setting up a town center surrounding the school.   We drove up to a small store where we were met by Don Victor Lopez, who was kind enough to walk us (more like slide with us through the mud) down into the nearby forrest to show us his coffee plants. We arrived  just at the end of second harvest - the second out of three total pickings throughout the harvest season, due the staggered ripening of the cherries.  I plucked a ripe coffee cherry from the tree, placed it in my mouth, and pushed upwards with my tongue until the two seeds popped out of their fruit casing. As the wonderfully syrupy, sweet juice coated my mouth, I realized that it was my first time truly tasting coffee in its most beautiful and raw form.  The goal at 1000 Faces Coffee, and many other quality coffee roasters alike, is to try to get the consumer as close to this experience as possible.

Fast forward three years later and I am at the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) expo in Seattle for the first time.  As I’m going from booth to booth sampling coffee and new products in the industry, I quite literally bumped into Jesús Salazar.  I learned that it was his first expo as well, and we quickly bonded over the overwhelming nature of the event.  After we get to talking and catching up, he shows me a bag of coffee from his new coffee roasting business, Cafeologo.  While quality was always his focus with Carajillo, the Cafeologo venture seemed to be aiming towards taking the search for truly great coffee to the next level.  The new brand was designed to test the limits and possibilities of what it meant to have quality, collaboration, and sensory exploration from seed to cup - through the hands, hearts, and minds of farmers to that of the baristas serving it.  Fast forward another year and the 1000 Faces team is representing Synesso Espresso Machines on the trade show floor floor at SCAA expo in Atlanta.  Jesús is there and we meet up again, but this time with intention.  I introduce him to Ben and we start exploring the idea of importing the coffees of producers he works with into the United States. He had been supplying roasters and specialty shops within a few other parts of Mexico up to that point, but not in any huge volume.  We left that 2016 expo with many gifts from Jesús - both roasted and green coffee samples from multiple different producers and an email address.  If it worked out, 1000 Faces would be the first to ever import Cafeologo’s coffee into the U.S.