by Amy Woschek Schmidt and Josh Lindstrom
Many of the roads leading out of Huehuetenango, Guatemala are dubious. Impossibly narrow, cluttered with potholes, steep and ever-winding, these roads are not for the faint of heart. But the traveler would be remiss to avoid an excursion down any one of these mountain passes. Why? Because the adventure that awaits always outweighs any potential pitfalls. For us, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a car full of people we'd only just met, the dubious road we were on led to a small village on the outskirts of Huehuetenango. There among the ivy, Aurelio Villatoro, farm manager of the Hola Blanca valley coffee farms, was taking us to his favorite hot springs.
Like the sun, we'd spent the last hour traveling down the mountainside and by the time we reached our destination, it was dark. No streetlights or neon restaurant signs threatened to pollute the mood. Soaking in the effervescent warmth of these natural springs, the stars were all we knew of light, each emerging as if to sincerely welcome us.
We were in Guatemala to visit the farms of the coffee producers whose beans we buy. It had been an engaging and exhausting trip. Here, at the hot springs, we were grateful for a place to relax and reflect. We talked a bit, and laughed, but mostly we sat in silence, happy to be sitting and among new friends.
Moments later, a sharp clang shattered the silence we'd only just begun to relax into. Everyone in our party looked around, stunned and confused. Aurelio's phone, perched on the ledge where he was reclining, was lit up like one of the stars over our heads. His wet hands fumbling, he managed to answer and, after a hoarse hello, began talking very quickly.
We learned later that Aurelio was talking to a room full of coffee buyers. Roasters and brewers, just like us, had called Aurelio because they wanted to buy one of his personal coffee lots. But unlike us, enjoying the calm of evening, they were watching the sun come up over some city in Asia, speaking through an interpreter who was translating Aurelio's Spanish to them and back again. Yes, Aurelio was sitting in a Guatemalan hot spring with a couple of Minnesotans and a handful of Alabamans, talking to a room full of coffee enthusiasts in Asia who knew good coffee and wanted nothing but the best.
This good coffee is what compels roasters to search the globe for the best beans a farm can grow. Across town or oceans away, distance doesn't matter because all beans are not created equal. A low-grade, nameless bean grown carelessly will produce a low-grade nameless cup of coffee. Even if its roasted by a professional, brewed with filtered water by a world champion barista, and served in an aesthetically pleasing vessel, it will still be a low-grade cup of coffee that, frankly, tastes like the bottom of a fish barrel. A low-grade bean is a low-grade bean, nothing more. Quality beans, on the other hand, produce quality coffee. Or at least, have the potential to.
Because it all starts with a green (or unroasted) bean, a roaster who wants good coffee needs to find good beans. Coffee farms, like those of Aurelio's, whose trees and soil have been meticulously cared for produce beans that are full of potential. With a mind toward sustainability, nuanced flavor, and unique taste attributes, these farms, and their growers, do nothing haphazard. As a result, their beans are sought after and prized by quality-minded roasters worldwide. Like the coffee buyers in Asia, all of us at Fika Coffee and countless others across the globe, specialty roasters know the wisdom in taking the time to seek out the highest quality beans available.
A roaster is also wise to recognize the responsibility that comes with acquiring high-quality green coffee. Unlike the pristine wild blueberries that effortlessly carpet the rocky wilderness of northern Minnesota, coffee cherries require the watchful eye of skilled farmers. To thrive, and avoid the throng of pests that can wreak havoc on entire crops, coffee trees need pruning, watering, fertilizing, and cultivating. In other words, you can't just plant a coffee tree and walk away, expecting to yield quality results. High-quality beans are born of a coffee farmer's tireless dedication and efforts. He pours his life into the life of the trees. When we open a 150-pound burlap sack of green beans and prepare to roast, we owe it to the farmers whose backs are bent, the harvesters whose hands are chapped, to treat their product with finesse, skill, and love. Coffee roasted carelessly and without thoughtful, skilled attention to detail will never be worthy of the hard working people who farmed it. If a roaster expects beans grown by experts in their craft, he had better be dedicated to expertise in his own.
And it is a craft, roasting. Because, like fine art, imitation never suffices. Once you've seen a Monet, hotel paintings become almost offensive. So it is with coffee. A burnt, oily French roast coffee, once you've tasted the subtle strawberries and cream notes in a cup of perfectly roasted Natural Processed Ethiopian, tastes strangely like a tuna can. Not only this, but a burnt bean retains none of its original potential. Take, for example, a slice of fresh baked artisan sourdough bread. Toasted so that a golden crust forms on the outside while the chewy interior is still preserved, the full range of flavor is wonderfully enhanced. Toasting was of benefit to the bread and the lucky eater will most likely ask for another slice. But, if that same piece of artisan bread is burnt to a charred crisp, hard as Lake Superior shale, the resulting food insults not only the taste buds of the poor person whose toast it is but the bread itself. Burnt, that artisan bread is no better than a slice of Wonderbread and, in a line-up, couldn't be discerned for the superior product that it is. And you can be certain there will be no begging for a second piece.
A dark, bitter, and strongly brewed cup of coffee was the coffee shop norm and expectation for many years. But recently, taste preferences have begun to change. A lighter, more nuanced take on coffee has struck a chord with enthusiasts and, as a result, has opened wide the spectrum of tasting notes. This, for the craft-minded roaster, is license to explore, to experiment, to truly pursue coffee roasting as an art form. Charged with bringing forward something beautiful, something greater than the sum of its parts and, ultimately something that keeps the patron coming back for more, the roaster is himself an artist or, at the very least, a craftsman.
If you view roasting on a spectrum, one extreme is best described as an underdeveloped green taste, akin to grass or hay with a sharp note that lingers a little too long in the mouth. The other extreme is the burnt and bitter bite of an oily French roast. In between the two extremes is the roaster's canvas. With each roasting, there is a creative opportunity to highlight whatever characteristics the roaster wishes. Bright and sweet or mellow and earthy, the roaster's aim is to utilize the tools of temperature and time to create a perfectly balanced taste that values the bean, gives homage to the farmer who grew it, and pleases the palate of the customer who holds the steaming cup in her hand.
This trilogy of regard is part of what drives Fika Coffee to roast. Every burlap sack of green beans that gets poured into the hopper of our Diedrich IR 12 Roaster is a chance to appreciate the remarkable coffee plant, the beautiful people who grew it, and the customer who stops in for a quick hello over a cappuccino. Roasting coffee is a catalyst for recognizing the incredible worth in our world and its inhabitants. We love that about coffee.
But, exceptional taste and high regard aren't the sole motivators for our early mornings, late nights, and meticulously kept spreadsheets of roasting data. In many ways, it would be easier to purchase our roasted coffee from a trusted roaster and stick simply to brewing. With this model, we wouldn't need the overhead of roasting equipment, additional space or staff time, all of which cut into the bottom line of our business. Running our business this way would require less risk, too. If our coffee came to us roasted, there'd be no chance of us making a mistake and ruining an entire batch. Some days, when everything seems to be happening at the same time, one less iron in the proverbial fire sounds like a dream. But we want Fika Coffee to be a thriving, relevant business and we figure that requires taking at least a few risks.
Fika Coffee calls the North Shore of Lake Superior home. A stunning stretch of country, it is an understatement to say it attracts visitors. During the summer months, the population of Cook County skyrockets, as thousands of people come to relax, sight see, and seek out adventure. We like to think they come to drink coffee, too. And fortunately for us, many of them do. But we can't build a healthy, sustainable business off of simply selling cups and bags of coffee to the people who visit our store during those busy summer months. During the winter months, our county's population returns to its sparse norm and business in tandem with it. If we relied simply on in-store sales, we'd be dead in the water right about the time the water in all the inland lakes freezes solid.
Roasting our own coffee allows us to create a product that can travel to where population doesn't ebb and flow. Restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores in the Twin Cities and beyond stock and brew our coffee year round, to a relatively unchanging consumer base. Roasting our own means that Fika Coffee remains original and one-of-a-kind. If a visiting customer really likes a particular blend they taste in our shop, when they're home in Florida they can't go to the local Starbucks to buy a bag. They have to come to us to get it and, call us smug, but we prefer it that way. We love shipping coffee out of our shop into the homes and businesses of customers around the world. Ideally, we'd hop on a plane and hand deliver every bag but, for now, USPS is a convenient second best. Which brings us to another thing we love: Highway 61. Highway 61 is literally the only road that leads to Fika Coffee and the only one that leaves it. It is our lifeline.
Historically, this county's economy was focused on fishing and logging, the abundant natural resources of the landscape. Highway 61, and to some extent, Lake Superior, made it possible for these resources to be exported and for the hard-working men and women whose trades these were, to carve out a life on the North Shore. The demand for both these resources remains and fortunately, continues to provide sustainable, year-round, living-wage jobs for a handful of residents and their families. But we think there could be more.
A community thrives when its community members are thriving. Good jobs, that pay the bills, are a key component to a thriving community. By roasting our own coffee, we've generated a new in-demand product for export, a promising economic possibility, and living-wage jobs. Perhaps roasted coffee will never be a major export of Cook County, Minnesota, but we are convinced that it is a trade with tremendous community-focused potential. As we've mentioned before, all the green beans we purchase are sourced from farms dedicated to community wellbeing. To disregard our own community as we operate our business would not only be hypocritical, but unacceptable.
Fika Coffee has been roasting for nearly six years. Thousands of pounds of coffee have gone through our roaster, resulting in more cups of brewed coffee and espresso shots than we could ever hope to count. After that many years and that many bags of coffee, we like to think we know what we're doing and that we're rather good at it. But when we're honest, we realize that roasting coffee still feels a little like a drive down one of those dubious Guatemalan mountain roads. White-knuckled and trying to relax enough to notice the serene view, we've seen enough to know that we love what we're doing. Roasting coffee is that impossibly narrow, steep, and ever-winding road and one we couldn't be happier to travel.
Fika Coffee is always on the look out for adventurous folks to join us on our journey. If you'd like to partner with Fika, please reach out for information regarding our wholesale and partnership options. Better yet, stop by and share a cup with us next time you find yourself on Highway 61!