My Antigua: Fernando Arias
Fernando Arias is the owner Kaffee Fernando’s. As Fernando says, “It’s the kind of café where you can come and talk to people you’ve never seen before. You can disagree with everything everyone is saying, and still agree that you’re having a nice time.” Qué Pasa visited him there and discussed his thoughts on coffee, chocolate, commodities, and more…
What brought you to Antigua?
I escaped Guatemala City in 2000. I had had a café in Guatemala City, but to succeed there, you didn’t really have to have good coffee. You just had to have a flashy store, and that’s not my thing. My wife had been listening to tourists – she’s in that field – complain that they had come to Guatemala with really high expectations about the coffee, but that sometimes they were given instant coffee or something worse! So I thought, “OK, I’m wasting my time in the City. There are a lot of disappointed tourists, and if you have to pick one place for tourism, it’s Antigua.”
How did you get into the coffee business?
When I was coming of age and I would go to business meetings, I’d be offered coffee. Of course that coffee came from what I call a coffee killer or it was plain instant coffee. But I wouldn’t say no because I had a baby face and I wanted to be perceived as someone serious, but I really despised it. And since that was coffee to me, I assumed that I didn’t like it. Then in 1997, a book by Kenneth Davids about roasting coffee at home came into my hands, and that changed everything. I learned how to roast for myself, and I liked it so much that when I had the opportunity to change everything in my life, I thought: coffee.
I’ve heard that, in the past, it was very difficult to find good coffee in Guatemala because all the good coffee was exported, but it seems like that has changed. Is that true?
I think you’re right. When I was younger, it was next to impossible. Even if you had a coffee farm: coffee farmers would take the worst for themselves – at least the ones who I knew and I knew many. Since I started in the business, I’ve never been unable to get extremely good coffee, but I have to pay for it. The difference between the coffee that I buy and the ground coffee at the super market is amazing. Sometimes I pay more for my green coffee than you would for ground roast. So you can imagine what’s inside. That’s why it’s ground, by the way. But yes, the quality of coffee has changed a lot since I started and that’s good because that encourages me to keep pushing myself to be better.
What are you doing with chocolate?
Well, it’s basically the same. We roast the cacao beans. We process them into cacao paste, and we transform that into different kinds of chocolate: from 100%, which means no sugar, to 60%, which means 40% sugar. And we have a lot of different flavors coming from essential oils like chili, cardamom, lavender, and seven different citruses. Working with essential oils is something I enjoy very much, because if I can’t do something new, I get bored, and if your mind is not doing something new, it gets old, so anything to avoid getting old!
How did you get involved with chocolate?
Well, I never “discovered” that I liked chocolate like I did with coffee. I hardly eat chocolate, even now. I prefer to eat cacao beans instead – no sugar. No, this was different. I have an informal think-tank of friends, and one of our many conversations was about what we should be doing as a country. We have a high-earning crop for the highlands and that’s coffee. So the question was: what should we grow in the lowlands? Right now it’s sugar cane. Sugar cane destroys the land, causes a lot of pollution, and uses water that is being produced upstairs [in the highlands] where the coffee grows that they should pay for, but if they had to pay for it, they would have numbers in the red. And what does it achieve? Not much. If you check the figures that ASAZGUA [Sugar Association of Guatemala] gives on their website, it’s not much. The last time I checked, the average was roughly 500 million dollars. We are like the fifth country in the world exporting sugar cane, so why not more? Because it’s the ultimate commodity and there’s no money in commodities for the producers.
Once I got really annoyed. I was roasting coffee in my little machine, and some guy was sitting there, watching me for maybe an hour, drinking coffee and eating. He finally talked to me and said, “So, that’s what coffee looks like at the beginning, before you roast it.” That was an everyday question; it was nothing new until he uttered, “I sold millions of that when I worked at the commodities exchange in Chicago.” That’s one of the problems in the world: people can make money they don’t deserve on something they don’t even know. That’s why we fall into this mediocrity. People should be doing business with something they really know because then we have quality. I really did get nasty with that guy I’m afraid…
Instead of commodities, which are common – something you can exchange, we should be producing added-value products like roasted coffee and chocolate. If we ship cacao beans, that is a commodity, but if we ship chocolate, that has added value. So that’s how the idea started: the crop for the lowlands should be cacao, but then we have to process it here and make it into chocolate because that is a highly coveted added-value product. And chocolate has one big advantage over coffee. Coffee can be sold two ways: roasted with added value or green as a commodity; there’s not much in-between, so that limits your market. Cacao can be shipped in lots of different ways that are not commodities: cacao liquor or paste, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter at the base of the pyramid; in the middle, high quality culinary chocolate blocks; and at the top of the pyramid, confections, bars, bonbons, truffles, and what we designed right here at Kaffee Fernando’s: chocolate covered cacao beans. That is one confection that cannot be duplicated in any industrialized country without us winning the competition, because to get the whole cacao bean you have to peel it by hand. There are machines that can crush the bean to separate the skin, but then you have cacao nibs. You don’t find the whole cacao bean covered in chocolate because it would be extremely expensive to do in any industrialized country. So that is one confection designed to export almost free of competition. If we had cacao growing only in the area that ASAZGUA cultivates on the Pacific, and we sold according to this pyramid, Guatemala could be selling close to 17 billion dollars of added-value cacao. And guess what? Chocolate is not affected by recession. In reality the price might go up during a recession because people are depressed and they want to feel better, and chocolate does that.
That and alcohol!
Yeah, but alcohol is a thing that you don’t want to go to unless you’re in a happy mood and always in moderation. Of course chocolate in moderation too, but look… try to abuse this chocolate [that you’re eating right now]. You can’t.
Oh, I think I could.
No, you’ll see that you can’t because it has a lot of flavors and your brain says, “Stop!” It’s like this: you can abuse processed cheese, but can you abuse blue cheese? You can’t. The same will happen with good quality chocolate. You can abuse Hershey’s chocolate or something like that because it’s bland; actually it’s designed to be bland, that way your brain takes longer to say, “enough,” but with full-flavored food, you’re bound to eat a lot less.
You know, one thing I do acknowledge here is that I don’t produce quality.
OK, what do you mean?
I cannot produce quality. Like with the chocolate or coffee you just had, I didn’t produce the quality. The quality came here from the farm because you cannot make a great coffee if you buy bad quality green coffee. And if you buy bad quality cacao, there is no way you’re going to get good chocolate. If I’m lucky, I can transmit 100% of the potential of the coffee or cacao bean to the final product. But, without the farmer there is no way to make something great. Do you think a chocolate mousse made with Hershey’s is going to taste like the mousse we made for Noche de Los Chefs? No way! I’m very demanding of the farmers, but I pay dearly and gladly for high quality. Finding good quality cacao is a lot more difficult than finding good quality coffee, though.
Why is that?
Because, of course, being a country that is used to exporting commodities, a lot of cacao was chopped down during the crisis in 2001 and 2002 when the price of cacao beans went below the price of production. And guess what? It was replaced by sugar cane. So, it’s hard to find good quality cacao here because the industry is less developed. And basically, during the last 60 years, only two companies were buying the cacao, and they were not demanding quality, they were demanding a good price. Since they were pretending to pay, the farmers pretended to give them good quality. But, instead of fermenting the cacao, they would just open the fruit and dry the beans. That’s the perfect recipe for low-quality chocolate.
Look at what we’ve been talking about: drugs! Psychotropic drugs. From psycho: mind, and tropos: turning – they move our mind! Coffee makes you alert and optimistic. And chocolate has a lot of different mood-altering substances. They are both extremely complex and should be treated with respect. So that’s our slogan: “The finest drugs on earth are not illegal.” At least not now; both were illegal somewhere, at some time or another, but now they are legal.
So, enjoy them while we can?
What advice would you give someone who has just arrived in Antigua?
That’s easy. You should use Antigua as your home base to visit the whole country. Especially if you’re traveling for a long time without a fixed itinerary because you can start to get homesick, and Antigua is like home. It’s something special. How many times have you met people that said they were here for three days, and two months later they’re still here? And guess what? I know people who are still here 22 years later!So, any advice for them while they’re here at their home base?
The key to Antigua is to wander. Wander about. Antigua has friendly people – most of them anyway. Don’t be afraid to enter places. Antigua is like the box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get!
Kaffee Fernando’s offers a 7-day-minimum chocolate-making course. You’ll learn how to make chocolate from the cacao bean to the final confection. It’s a course for serious chocolate lovers with a mind to take this new skill home and expand it.
For more information, stop by Kaffee Fernando’s (MAP A5), call 7832-6953
or visit www.fernandoskaffee.com