There’s A ‘Huge Misconception’ About Latin-American Coffee

With Quintal Coffee, Eduardo Umaña and Otto Becker want to transform the coffee industry. The Colombian-born Umaña invented the state-of-the-art VacOne coffee maker, a system that uses air to brew hot coffee and also makes cold brew in minutes. According to Becker, the VacOne “is the only Latin American brewer in the U.S. right now, and the only brewer that was designed by someone who was Latino.”

While visiting friends in Guatemala, the Miami-based Umaña met Becker, who lives in Guatemala, and joined forces with him. In June 2021, they started their origin-roasted coffee subscription series, Quintal, which mails a monthly package of Latin American-grown and roasted coffee to subscribers. What sets their coffee apart from other roasters, they say, is that the coffee is harvested and roasted in Latin America almost immediately, so in a sense the coffee is “alive,” unlike the typical method in which bags of green coffee beans sit in warehouses for months and “die” from oxidation.

For this edition of Voices in Food, Umaña and Becker told Garin Pirnia what drew them to coffee and how Latin American countries (and Latinos) need better representation in the coffee world.

On how they got into coffee

Eduardo Umaña: I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. And as you know, Colombia is a very important coffee country with a lot of coffee heritage and coffee history. So, I grew up around it, drinking it, enjoying it, seeing the different varieties, different farms, different regions in Colombia that would grow coffee. My grandmother has her own coffee farm in the coffee belt in Colombia. I started engineering, and then I designed the coffee maker. Then, I just slowly drifted into coffee, because it’s been a part of my entire life.

Otto Becker: I was born in Guatemala, and I’m a fifth-generation coffee farmer. So, my grand-grand-grandfather was a farmer here in Guatemala. My father is still a farmer. I grew up pretty much around coffee, going to a farm every weekend. I also studied engineering, and around two years ago, I met Eduardo because of VacOne. We started working together. After a year, we started discussing doing something with coffee. Both of us knew that coffee-producing countries struggle sometimes, even though they’re the ones in charge, or the ones that start the supply chain. And that’s how the conversation of Quintal started. We talked to producers and they told us that their dream is to sell roasted coffee [from Latin America] in [coffee]-consuming countries [like the U.S.]. So, we’re trying to be the channel to make this possible. And what allowed us to do that are these backgrounds, and that we grew up with farmers and talking to them about how to improve the lives of everybody around coffee producing.

On the importance of representing their heritage

Umaña: As a Colombian who comes from coffee, basically, I want to be representing my heritage and benefit from that heritage. Coffee is from my country. I know more about it. I have a deeper, more meaningful connection because it directly represents my heritage. That’s how I feel, to better be able represent my heritage in [coffee]-consuming countries, something that is uniquely ours as Latino Americans.

“There’s a huge misconception that the coffee-producing countries don’t have the infrastructure to roast coffee, or the knowledge. So, people think that we are the ones planting the trees and picking off the cherries and that’s all we can do.”

– Otto Becker

Becker: I agree with Eduardo. It’s something very important in our culture, like, it’s deep in our veins and something we can’t run away from. Yesterday, I was talking to a friend. I was telling her that all my life I saw my father’s struggles. My father struggled to get his money back to the right investments and to make the farm sustainable. So, when I started studying, I really wanted to get away from coffee. I really tried, actually. I used to work for a German multinational company. I sold beauty products. So, I was as away from coffee as you can get. Then life led me to VacOne and Eduardo. The way I see it is, we as Latinos can’t run away from our heritage. It calls us in a very strong way that we have to do something about it. We have to give our best to this heritage and to our culture. It’s a great thing to embrace it. Once you start working on that, you notice that it’s actually very beautiful. Right now, I’m in the process of falling in love with the coffee industry again.

On misconceptions about the coffee industry

Becker: There’s a huge misconception that the coffee-producing countries don’t have the infrastructure to roast coffee, or the knowledge. So, people think that we are the ones planting the trees and picking off the cherries and that’s all we can do. But there really are very elevated people here. People think you cannot process coffee the right way, or that roasters in the U.S. will have better roasting. But in Latin America — Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, for example — these countries have the infrastructure to process the coffee and send the best product possible to the U.S. People don’t really know how this supply chain works. People don’t even know that the coffee’s been roasted in the U.S., for instance. They don’t know where it comes from. They don’t even know if they are benefiting Starbucks or the producers, or where they are buying the coffee from. And that’s also something that we want to get the word out there — that it’s better if you buy directly from the origin.

On reclaiming Latin American coffee

Umaña: Basically, the coffee industry was stolen away from the origin because all the technology and all the value-added took place outside of the origin. You see German roasters, Japanese roasters. With brewing equipment, it’s the same thing. It’s Italian. It’s German. And the people and the companies and the economies that benefited from coffee are outside of our country. So, in our opinion, we should be making Colombian coffee roasted in a Colombian roaster in a Colombian coffee maker.

On their goals for Quintal

Umaña: In our dreams, you will be drinking origin-roasted coffee at a Quintal coffee shop sometime in the future, and you’re going have these beautiful coffees from all over Latin America brewed in the machine that I invented, and slowly representing our heritage in a way that benefits the country where we are. Our attitude is: Let’s get to work and let’s compete, and let’s create better products and better experiences and better everything. Because we have that advantage of being so deeply connected to coffee, we’ll know how to represent it, brew it and sell it better.

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