Courtesy of Albuquerque The Magazine
For Juan Lopez, “waking up and smelling the coffee” isn’t just an idiom—it’s a way of life. His extensive coffee knowledge helps give thousands of Albuquerqueans a day their morning buzz at Flying Star Cafes and Satellite Coffees around the city.
Sure, you’ll hear people say they can’t live without coffee. But for Juan Lopez, the sentiment truly means something. After all, this is a man who started picking coffee cherries with his family in Costa Rica when he was five years old and today is roast master for Flying Star Cafe.
“I was born in a coffee farm and my family used to grow coffee,” Lopez says. “In the coffee producing countries, it is common to have the kids help pick the coffee cherries—when the family owns a coffee farm or just working for one the whole family works as a unit.”
Once Lopez graduated from high school, he started working for a German coffee company called the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe. There he worked as coffee exporter, regional office controller, miller, taster, trader and regional manager—positions that exposed him to all aspects of coffee business, from paperwork to computers (the company paid for his college degree) to learning everything there is to know about coffee beans. His coffee bean know-how serves him at the Flying Star Cafe every day. Owners Jean and Mark Bernstein knew he was the man for the job.
“When we saw his resumé, we were so impressed we hired him right away,” Jean Bernstein says. The Bernsteins are themselves coffee aficionados with an extensive knowledge, and search the world to buy beans.
Lopez can tell a bean’s entire history, just by looking at it: if it was picked too soon (yellowish color), if it was dried too much, too fast or not enough (white on the edges), if it was kept in water too long (yellow spots, moldy) and if it was dried on the sun or in a machine. He can even tell if the bean was grown in a high altitude (tighter shaft) or low.
“Based on how the bean looks, I decide if I want to roast it longer— like, to get rid of the green flavors of beans that were picked too soon,” he says.
Lopez roasts all of the coffee sold at Flying Star Cafes and Satellites: that’s fourteen to 16 55-pound batches a day, totaling 500 pounds of green beans and 400 pounds of rich roasted beans. He tastes every other batch to ensure quality, unless it’s a brand-new batch—those he always tastes.
To know how a bean should be roasted (different coffee beans require different lengths of time in the roaster), Lopez experiments with small batches of new beans. From those, he learns how the coffee should look and sound at the time it reaches its peak of flavor and acidity—the time it should be “dropped,” or released from the roasting machine.
“If I drop it too soon, I have a lot of acidity,” he says. “If wait too long, I lose all the acidity and get bitterness.”
The theory is that the temperature in the machine is 475 degrees Fahrenheit and the beans should be dropped when their temperature is between 400–430 degrees—when they’re darker in color and make a cracking sound for the second time as water and oils are released. But Lopez says he doesn’t like to rely on numbers too much. He likes to trust his eyes and ears because it makes every batch different and personal—and he says that’s how he likes it. Also, every bean is different, even when it comes from the same farm because the conditions around it were different as it grew. Even the way to process the beans is different, depending on where it came from.
In Costa Rica, the process is to pick the coffee cherries, press and wash them to separate the fruit from the bean, put the beans in small water tanks to ferment (raising the acidity level), then into the drying machines for 24 hours. After that, the beans are moved into big silos for months to settle, then into peeling machines. Only after all that the beans are ready to be sold. Lopez also worked with coffee in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Germany.
After a lifetime of exposure, Lopez’s knowledge of coffee has no boundaries. Even when he came to the United States, while taking a break from the coffee business, all he did in his travels was to look for a great cup of coffee. He says it’s an addiction.
“Everywhere I go I try to find a coffee shop,” he says. “You can ask me questions about all the places I’ve been—I don’t know the place, but I can tell you where there you can get a good cup of coffee.”
He adds that he found great coffee in Irvine, California; Los Angeles, he says, had no good coffee.
“There’s no coffee culture there, just Starbucks,” he says. “For me Starbucks is to coffee what McDonald’s is to hamburgers: nobody says McDonalds has the best hamburger, but everybody eats it sometimes.”
For Lopez a great cup of coffee is one that’s balanced—without peaks of acidity or flavors. Bad coffees usually have an aftertaste, sometimes from being overly fermented or burned.
For Lopez, a great life is one that’s connected to coffee. He loves it so much, he says, he hopes his children, Adriana and Alberto, will follow in his footsteps.
—By Karina Guzzi