Did you know that most freshly roasted coffee actually isn't nearly as "fresh" as you think it is?
Last week I sat down with Tyler Youngblood, the young, brilliant and super cool co-founder of Azahar Coffee. Azahar is a new line of single-origin Colombian coffee that is grown, hand-selected, roasted and packaged at the source.
I am a big supporter of companies that have a great mission, sell a quality product and have good karma. Azahar certainly fits the bill.
Scroll down to read our brief interview and learn about the difference between freshly roasted and freshly sourced.
What is Azahar Coffee and what inspired you to start the company?
As far as what inspired me to start Azahar, I guess you could say that it was an accident or a coincidence or that it was meant to be, depending on what you believe in. Normally, coffee people get into the industry from the service side of things, starting as a barista and graduating to a roaster or a coffee buyer and getting the opportunity to travel “to origin.” I kind of did things backwards, which means that I was traveling through Colombia on my way back to L.A. with a car I bought in Chile when some people invited my partner Keith Schuman and I to stay on a farm in the southwestern part of the country, about an hour-and-a-half from where our factory is located today. It was actually the people working on that farm that invited us up into the mountains to see their coffee plots and little washing stations, which was something completely new to me at the time. Each farm had its own varieties of trees and growing conditions, and each farmer had has own way of picking, pulping, fermenting, washing and drying his coffee. Yet at the end of the day, they all sold their coffee at a near loss to the local cooperative, where it was all mixed together in one big pile to be sold to a dry mill and exporter and shipped out by sea as a standard Colombian coffee. That was when my partner and I looked at each other and asked ourselves if something couldn’t be done to change the way things were currently working and get those different farmers’ coffees intact to people around the world willing to appreciate them.
Azahar Coffee is what we call “Farm Fresh Roasted Coffee.” Traditionally, in Specialty Coffee, there has been a great emphasis placed on how recently roasted your coffee is – and rightfully so. It is incredibly important to minimize the time between the moment a batch of coffee gets emptied into a roaster’s cooling tray and the moment it’s ground, prepared and consumed. However, in this rush to deliver the freshest roasted coffee possible, people have largely overlooked the importance of the freshness of the raw material – or, in other words, the harvest date of the coffee.
Part of what makes a given coffee sweet, aromatic, flavorful and delicious are its natural sugars – and the way these sugars are developed during the roasting process. Over time, these sugars break down, leaving the coffee in a much different state than the one in which a “cupper” (coffee taster) originally found it. Sometimes, it takes coffees half-a-year to a year and sometimes more before they’re in a roaster’s possession, meaning that no matter how freshly roasted your coffee is, it’s just not going to be what it could have been if the beans were one, two or three months off the tree.
So, instead of buying green beans that must pass through a long chain of intermediaries before they arrive at our roasting works in the US or Europe or Asia or any other principal coffee consuming market for that matter, we decided to set up our own dry mill and roasting works in Colombia, buy freshly harvested coffee directly from farmers, mill, hand-sort and roast it ourselves while it still tastes fresh. The second it’s cool enough to package, we seal it up and air ship it to different cities around the world, where we’ve partnered up with people that know and care about coffee and that can get it to their clients in the shortest time possible – delivering a coffee that’s not only freshly roasted, but farm fresh as well.
By transforming the coffee close to its source, we adhere to a philosophy that my partners and I created called “V.A.S.,” which stands for “Value Added at the Source.” That means that all of the employment, research and development, knowledge, taxable income, etc. that goes into the production of this specialty coffee goes to the benefit of its producing country, whereas in the past those kinds of things have almost always contributed to the economy of consuming countries. When we started Azahar, we wanted to explore different possibilities for commodity producing countries to increase the value of their exports, while at the same time streamlining a congested supply chain and freeing up more value for what we viewed as the most important players in the specialty coffee industry: the farmers.
Currently, it seems to be working, as we’re delivering Farm Fresh Roasted Coffee to clients on four continents and distributing more and more in Colombia as well. Doing the work ourselves in the producing country has allowed us to pay our farmers more than sustainable prices, while at the same time providing our customers with bag-by-bag traceability that shows them exactly which little plot of land and which human beings are responsible for the beans they’re enjoying. We never blend two different lots of coffee together, preferring instead to deliver unique experiences to people that are looking for just that – people that understand that coffee is a lot like wine, no vintage (or no harvest, in our case) ever being the same.
2. Can you explain the name Azahar and what it means?
Azahar is the Colombian word for the coffee tree’s flower. It is also the orange tree’s flower and has its roots in Moorish Spain. Like other fruit blossoms, it marks the beginning of a coffee cherry’s development. It is also indicative of one of the 36 essential aromas Jean Lenoir identified in coffee when developing his famous Nez de Café – the coffee blossom.
3. Where did you learn so much about coffee?
After Keith and I decided to start Azahar, I embarked on a long process of learning about coffee from the ground up that involved a lot of time on farms and at the dry mill and roasting works we built. I have been involved in the purchasing, processing and selling of our coffees ever since. Spending ungodly amounts of time in the most unlikely places with our head cupper and director of quality, Jayson Galvis, has also helped a lot. We have cupped thousands of coffees together and travelled all around the country meeting different farmers and learning about their processing methods.
I still feel like I have a lot to learn about preparation, which is really what I’m starting to focus on these days, as we are planning to open up our first coffee bar in Bogotá next month.
4. What is so special about Azahar? What makes it different than the other gourmet coffees and coffee roasters?
While there are a lot of other good roasters out there focusing on single origin coffees, I definitely think that what makes Azahar different or special is the fact that it’s Farm Fresh and not just Fresh Roasted. And that it’s completely processed in Colombia.
Just to elaborate a bit on the process, we literally buy each coffee directly from its farmer, meaning that we receive sacks of what’s known as parchment coffee (green beans with their hulls still on them) at our factory in Armenia, Quindío, in the heart of Colombia’s “Coffee Axis.” There, we mill the coffee (get rid of the hulls), separate it by bean size, hand sort each batch and carefully roast them in either our re-built Colombian El Granel or our new 30-kg Joper, a nifty piece of Portuguese machinery.
Before roasting a full batch of coffee, we dial in on what we’re looking to achieve by roasting and cupping samples. We design a unique curve for each lot of coffee, which is really just a simple relation between time and temperature. At different points along the curve, we look to bring out the kind of acidity that’s known in the industry as “brightness,” and to caramelize the coffees’ sugars, creating a bright, sweet, balanced cup with good body and lots of flavor. Each coffee tastes different and we do our best to embrace that rather than cover it up by roasting on the dark side.
5. Where can you find Azahar in the US?
You can get it on our online store at www.azaharcoffee.com. However, rumor has it that Azulina’s going to be offering some very special lots at some upcoming trunk shows in Texas this month. (That is a true statement! - Melissa)
6. What is your dream for Azahar Coffee?
I would like to see Azahar change the specialty coffee industry standards by bringing more attention to the importance of the freshness of the coffees we roast and by showing the world that adding value to coffee at its source is not only possible, but a viable alternative for members of producing countries.