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Look out, café Cubano. Specialty coffee roasters are moving in to Miami

A peek through the windows of Miami’s coffee culture

Miami Herald reporter Carlos Frias sits down with photographer Jake Katel to talk about coffee. Jake Katel set out to tell the story of Miami's love affair with Cuban coffee by photographing all the "ventanitas" on Calle Ocho.
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Miami Herald reporter Carlos Frias sits down with photographer Jake Katel to talk about coffee. Jake Katel set out to tell the story of Miami's love affair with Cuban coffee by photographing all the "ventanitas" on Calle Ocho.

In a Spartan West Miami-Dade warehouse piled with sacks of raw coffee beans sorted by country of origin, Paul Massard of Per’La Specialty Roasters samples cups of freshly brewed coffee lined up on a counter. “Sensory evaluation” is part of quality control, to make sure the flavors haven’t changed since the beans were roasted two days earlier.

With each spoonful, he emits a high-pitched hiss — like ​a high-pressure suction hose — as he slurps the coffee through his teeth. The air sprays the liquid over his palate so it evenly coats his taste buds.

“It’s like tasting through a magnifying glass,” Massard said. As for the Ethiopian coffee he’s just sampled, he says, “It’s very fruit-forward. A lot of strawberry, a lot of blueberry, a lot of chocolate on the finish. The mouth-feel is also very heavy because it’s a naturally processed coffee.”

If this sounds more like a wine-tasting than a java jolt, you’re catching on.

Massard is a certified “Q-grader,” a highly discerning coffee sommelier whose designation is earned through a week of 22 exams administered by the Coffee Quality Institute, a nonprofit based in Aliso Viejo, California. As a Q-grader, Massard is one of about 400 coffee experts in the U.S. who can officially describe a coffee’s taste — including its acidity, flavor and body — and rank its quality on a 100-point scale to within 1.5 points of another Q-grader’s assessment.

Such ratings create a common coffee-grading language for farmers, buyers, roasters and baristas, said Peter Giuliano, who overseas research at the Specialty Coffee Association, a trade organization.

To earn “specialty” status, coffee beans must earn a Q-grade of 80 points or higher. It’s those gourmet beans that earn acclaim for the local specialty roasters that have set up shop in Miami over the past several years.

Leading the trend in 2010 was Wynwood’s Panther Coffee, whose small-batch roasts are famously served in its own coffee houses in Wynwood, Coconut Grove and Miami Beach, along with high-end restaurants. Others have less brand recognition but are coming on strong, including Relentless Roasters in Southwest Miami-Dade, Per’La in West Dade’s Bird Road District, Macondo Coffee Roasters in Doral and Great Circle Coffee in Little Haiti.

And more players are coming to town. San Francisco Bay-based specialty coffee veteran Blue Bottle Coffee recently opened in the Design District and expects to open in Aventura in the coming months. Colombian premium coffeehouse chain Juan Valdez has opened three cafes in Miami-Dade and a fourth in Cooper City. Even coffee juggernaut Starbucks has entered the specialty market with its Reserve bar, which can be found in certain shops.

Given South Florida’s international feel and proximity to coffee-producing Latin American countries, local roasters and retailers believe Miami, once dominated by lusty Cuban coffee, could be primed to become a big coffee capital.

“Miami is a special place from a coffee perspective,” Giuliano said.

The city has strong connections to Cuba and Latin America, which have thriving coffee traditions, and “a European spirit,” he said. “It allows the Miami scene to have its own flavor. And I mean that literally and metaphorically.”

COFFEE CONNECTIONS

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A view of Panther Coffee Wynwood on Thursday, July19, 2017, in Miami. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Joe Pollock, co-owner of Panther Coffee with wife Letitia, calls Miami a place with coffee connections.

When the Pollocks moved from Portland, Oregon, to Miami in 2010, they brought their vintage 1927 German roaster. They chose South Florida because it was equidistant from Joe’s childhood home in Michigan and Letitia’s in Brazil.

At the time, Joe Pollock said, Miami had a huge coffee scene — but no specialty coffee.

After opening in Wynwood, Pollock quickly lost count of the number of customers who approached him at his roaster, asking where Panther’s coffee comes from, only to be “stoked, proud and very excited” to learn that the coffee they drank was grown in their home countries.

Panther was the inspiration for Colombian-born Fabio Caro, owner of Doral’s Macondo Coffee. His first visit to Panther left him awestruck. “I said, ‘Oh my god, what was I drinking before?’ ” Caro recalled.

He flew home and spent three months learning to roast at his wife’s family coffee farm in Medellín, in the mountainous province of Antioquia. He returned to Miami to open his cozy cafe and roaster, named after the town featured in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” In the novel, Macondo is a place of the extraordinary and unexpected — the same impression Caro seeks to create for his customers.

Despite its strip-mall location, Macondo has a hip vibe, with sofas and polished wood tables set with metal chairs. It serves only Colombian coffee roasted in-house.

Caro hosts occasional sampling demonstrations, where he encourages drinking the coffee black. When beans are roasted but not burned, the process extracts sugars to create a natural sweetness, Caro said. “It tastes like sugar is there, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s in the milk and the roasting.”

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Sergio Boppel, 38, founder of Great Circle Coffee, a gourmet coffee roasting company in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, and Kevin Saldaña, 30, right, check the state of roasted beans on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Relentless Roasters also leaned on family connections for its start in Southwest Dade. In this case, the link was to Nicaragua, where co-founder Daniel Choiseul Paguaga’s grandfather owns a coffee farm.

Despite that heritage, Paguaga, a local Miamian, didn’t have an interest in coffee until he spent time on the farm as an adult.

“It just so happened that my grandfather’s coffee was some of the best in Nicaragua,” Paguaga said. “He just naturally had better practices.” That included a mill for drying coffee, which gave his grandfather greater control over his production process.

Unlike other crops, where production methods do not drastically affect flavor, “specialty coffee is not an easy crop to grow because you’re trying to produce a premium sort of beverage, which you could literally pick apart and find defects,” Paguaga said. “So your processing really has to be on point.”

At his aunt’s encouragement, Paguaga’s grandfather submitted a sample of beans to an international coffee judging competition, Cup of Excellence.

“Lo and behold, he got an award,” Paguaga said. “That kind of shook things up and made everyone realize that we weren’t too far from having a really good coffee.”

After a stint in California, Paguaga returned to Miami and partnered with childhood friend Andre Villarreal to open Relentless Roasters in 2013. Together, they self-financed their business, invested in a small roaster and began selling roasted beans online, and to cafes and restaurants.

“Unlike in NYC, where you needed to go full throttle, we could dip our toes into the water because we knew the [Miami] market was behind,” Paguaga said. This gave them time to develop their cold-brew coffee and its nitrogen gas-infused counterpart, which makes it creamier and more like beer.

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Great Circle Coffee owners Sergio Boppel and Carolina Jaar have brought to Miami flavors from Guatemala, where they have family in the coffee business.

Boppel and Jaar, who are married, began roasting in 2016 out of a Little Haiti warehouse with a Loring roaster in the back. They sell their roasts wholesale to hotels, restaurants and coffee shops.

They named their business Great Circle — another name for the equator — for the band between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn where most of the world’s coffee is grown. It is also a reminder of the positive effect they want to have in the coffee supply chain, Boppel said.

Boppel and Jaar are currently sampling a variety of coffee from a friend’s farm in Guatemala, where they asked the farmers to separate the green coffee by density and size. Their goal: to determine an optimal bean density and size for a particular coffee variety they like so they can achieve a more-even roast.

“That will result in better prices for them and a better coffee for us,” Boppel said. Furthermore, growers can take the knowledge and apply it to other harvests.

“We have a unique opportunity compared to other roasters because we grew up where most of the changes are needed to get good coffee,” he said.

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From left, Per’la Specialty Roasters co-founders Chris Nolte and Paul Massard, pictured at the company’s roasting facility in West Miami-Dade. Per’La roasts about 900 pounds of coffee each week, which it sells to area hotels, restaurants and cafes. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Although the founders of Per’la Specialty Roasters, both from Miami, are not from coffee-producing countries, Paul Massard traveled as a coffee buyer for years before starting Per’La with college friend Chris Nolte two years ago. The company operates from a spartan warehouse off Bird Road in West Miami-Dade.

“We like to make single origins and blends that are approachable, but also unique,” Nolte said. For example, Per’la roasts a coffee that tastes of blueberries and another that is citrus-y. “Each origin is different, each coffee has a different story to it,” Nolte said.

Per’La roasts about 900 pounds of coffee each week, which it sells to area hotels, restaurants and cafes. They have no plans to move into the retail business, though their coffee can be purchased online.

“We want to partner with our wholesale accounts, rather than compete with them,” Nolte said.

In addition to roasting coffee, they also teach baristas whom they sell to how to prepare their coffees and tell the stories behind each coffee.

As a Q-grader, Massard uses his expertise to match Per’la coffees with restaurant menus for clients.

“If you have a chocolate cake and a coffee with a lot of chocolatey undertones, or a blueberry pie and a coffee with berry notes, they pair very well together. That elevates the experience of the coffee,” Massard said.

A LABOR OF LOVE

At Macondo, a handful of coffee lovers are slurping spoons of the warming brew through their teeth in a blind taste comparison between commercial and specialty coffees.

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Coffee expert Saul Zuaza serves different kinds of coffee with different roasting processes for attendees to taste during a coffee class at Macondo Coffee in Doral. PEDRO PORTAL pportal@miamiherald.com

“Brown sugar, caramel, some cashews,” says Kiara Pagan, a self-proclaimed specialty-coffee aficionado, as she samples a light brown offering, its color obvious in a clear glass. A second vessel holds a darker, murkier drink that tastes burnt, she says, and smells of dry leaves.

“I do coffee-hopping the way people go bar-hopping,” said Pagan, who loves the slow deliberate lifestyle of specialty coffee. “In big cities, you can get everything fast. Everyone does things for money,” she said. “[In specialty coffee], they do things for love.”

Coffee, it seems, inspires passion. On a busy afternoon in Wynwood, Viviana Mora waits for a friend as she sips her $4 Panther ice coffee.

“This is good, but I think overpriced,” said Mora, who is from Colombia and usually drinks Cuban coffee. Nearby, fellow patron Joseph Landau demurs. “It’s not that much extra.” When compared to Starbucks, “the difference is like 55 cents.”

For an increasing number of local java jockeys, corporate coffee from Starbucks and the like just doesn’t meet the mark.

“Miami people are looking for quality and they want to know where the coffee came from,” said Joe Pollock of Panther. “When you believe that your roaster has integrity, there’s meaning to that. But most importantly, people want to put something delicious to their lips.”

Paguaga, of Relentless Roasters, agrees. “There’s the notion that you’re buying from a place that bought it from a roaster that bought it from a producer. You’re not just paying for a $4 cup of coffee,” he said. “You’re paying for a cup of coffee and a story.”

While there is reason for optimism, one big hurdle for specialty coffee in Miami is the existing coffee culture, Per’La’s Nolte notes.

“Cuban coffee culture is very important here,” said Nolte. “It is less expensive. The [bean] varietals are of less quality, and it’s tied to commodity priced coffee.”

It’s a challenge he hopes to overcome through exposing more consumers to better coffee. And he doesn’t mean Starbucks.

“We’re probably not going to convince a lot of people our parents’ age,” he said. Instead, millennials are his target consumer. “There’s also a lot of potential. That’s what we like about it here.”

And though Great Circle’s Boppel suspects that each roaster knows where competitors are sourcing their coffee, no one is competing for specialty lots yet, he said.

“The day that’s happened, it means the market is where we want it to be.”

​The specialty difference

Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world after oil. According to legend, it was first consumed by an Ethiopian goatherd who discovered its stimulating properties after sampling some red berries that invigorated his goats.

Cultivation and roasting developed in the Arabian peninsula and went global in the 16th century after the Ottoman Empire invaded the region. Coffee took off in Europe after Pope Clement VIII supposedly cheated the devil of his drink by baptizing it, while the Boston Tea Party pushed colonial America to embrace coffee over tea.

Current world production of coffee hovers between 150 million and 160 million 60-kg (132-lb) sacks each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 40 percent of that coffee is Robusta, a hardier, higher yielding species often used in cheaper coffees or in blends as a filler. Sixty percent is Arabica, considered more desirable for its flavor.

Whether Arabica or Robusta, all coffee comes from seeds within the fruit of the coffee tree. Each fruit, or cherry, contains two seeds. Green coffee refers to seeds that have been separated from the fruity pulp and fibers, washed and dried, but have yet to be roasted.

Specialty coffee is coffee that scored 80 points or more from a Q-grader after it’s been cupped. During cuppings, the formal way to judge specialty coffees, ​beans are prepared under strict specifications: 8.25 grams of freshly ground coffee steeped four minutes in 150 ml of 200F water. This method extracts about 20 percent of the coffee solids.

Beyond these parameters, however, specialty coffee implies extra care and control in how the coffee is grown, harvested, washed, roasted and brewed. ​

Whereas ​most coffees are ​harvested by mechanized paddles, specialty coffees might be handpicked by laborers who select cherries for ripeness and sugar content, resulting in a sweeter flavor.

Specialty roasters sometimes visit the coffee farm they buy from to see how the coffee is produced. Or they might request that farmers plant specific varieties in specific areas of their farm to account for the effects of sunlight, climate and altitude on taste.​

What is direct trade?

While not a new concept, the specialty coffee industry has embraced “direct trade” in the last decade years. The term reflects a farm-to-table ethos in a product that has to travel thousands of miles from where its grown to reach consumers.

For roasters, buying direct can mean regular trips to the farm from where they buy coffee. This allows them to give farmers special instructions for how the beans are grown, harvested and dried. It also lets them spotcheck whether workers are being treated fairly and paid a decent wage.

Direct trade can also mean sourcing from suppliers who buy coffee from farmers whom they trust and have good relationships.

“There are usually some intermediaries in that transaction,” said Kim Elena Ionescu, who studies sustainability at the Specialty Coffee Association. “It’s usually not as simple as the roaster flying down to put cash into the producer’s hands.”

At its core, direct trade is meant to give farmers a better price for better beans.

In direct trade, buyers pay a premium to producers for high quality green coffees, which motivates farmers to keep growing higher quality beans, said Bruce Wydick, professor of economics at the University of San Francisco and author of the “The Taste of Many Mountains,” about the impacts of fair-trade coffee in Guatemala.

For farmers, it’s an opportunity to see which growing, harvesting and processing methods can help their beans command a higher price from buyers and use these techniques to earn more money, Wydick said. “With direct trade, there’s more potential for mutually beneficial relationships.”

Direct trade is a different approach from fair trade coffee, in which local growers pool their beans together so that beans, regardless of quality, are sold at a minimum set price.

“It doesn’t allow growers to create a niche to capture more value added to themselves,” Wydick said.

The current fair-trade price for conventional, washed Arabica is $1.40/lb, whereas specialty coffee can fetch 10 times at coffee judging competitions.

Farmers whose beans place first become “rock stars” in the specialty coffee world , said Chris Nolte, co-owner of Per’La. It’s not unusual for farmers of prize-winning beans to see their harvests get bought out for years in advance.

“It’s really brought a spotlight to the farmers,” Nolte said.

Where to sip and slurp

Great Circle Coffee:

Husband-and-wife partners Sergio Boppel and Carolina Jaar started roasting just last year, focusing on single-origin coffees and blends. They are now roasting about 800 pounds of beans each week for more than 20 wholesale clients. Their beans are available to consumers via subscription at www.greatcirclecoffee.com.

Macondo Coffee Roasters

▪ 2494 NW 89th Place, Doral

Fabio Caro, known for his Colombian coffees, began roasting in 2014 at his Doral cafe, which sells his coffee by the cup and by the pound. www.macondocoffee.com

Panther Coffee

▪ 2390 NW 2nd Ave, Wynwood

▪ 3407 Main Highway, Coconut Grove

▪ 1875 Purdy Ave, Miami Beach

Joe and Leticia Pollock started roasting in 2010. Today Panther is known for single-origin coffees and blends. It is distributed to the company’s three retail shops, above, and to 150 wholesale clients. http://www.panthercoffee.com/

Relentless Coffee Roasters

Daniel Choiseul Paguaga and Andre Villarreal began roasting in 2013. Today Relentless is known for single-origin coffees and cold brew coffee served on Cold Brew Station food truck. The company sells wholesale to about 30 clients, including Ms. Cheezious and Graziano’s, and via its website, www.relentlessroasters.com.

Per’La Specialty Roasters

Owners Chris Nolte and Paul Massard began their roasting operation in 2015 in a warehouse near Bird Road. They now roast about 1,200 pounds of beans weekly for their single-origin coffees and custom blends, sold to about 50 wholesale clients. Their Ethiopia Shakiso was recently named one of 25 finalists in the upcoming Good Food awards. Their beans are also available online at www.drinkperla.com

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