Buying coffee at a specialty coffee shop can be overwhelming. Between blends and a global array of single-origin offerings, sometimes it feels like fewer choices would actually make the process more fun. While this large array of choices that rotate throughout the year is common, there have always been outliers that focus on a smaller, more focused selection of coffees.
A growing number of cities are home to what you might call “single origin cafes.” In some cases this looks like a company serving coffee from their family’s farm, as is the case with Anticonquista Cafe in Chicago and Cafe Gonzalez in New York City. In others this refers to sourcing coffee from just one country or geographical region, as is the case at Cafe Cà Phê in Kansas City, or Portland Cà Phê and Esperanza Trading Co. which are both in Portland. In these cases, the owners of these businesses choose to highlight the coffee of a specific farm or region, often bringing coffee culture and preparation techniques with them to share with new audiences.
Identity and Opportunity
The idea of highlighting a specific origin appeals to different people for different reasons. For Nataly Gonzalez of Cafe Gonzalez, opening a cafe was a way to proudly showcase the coffee grown on her family’s farm in Guatemala.
“I wanted people to try the unique flavor of one single estate coffee,” explains Gonzalez. “Our coffee farm is located at an altitude of 1,500 meters above sea level in a subtropical region, giving results to a high quality bean. I wanted New Yorkers to have a taste of Guatemala, and most importantly a farm-to-cup coffee experience.”
This farm-to-cup experience can help cafe owners create compelling narratives around their business. For Elmer Fajardo and Lauren Reese of Anticonquista Café, a roastery in Chicago that imports coffee directly from their family farm in Nuevo Oriente, Guatemala, sharing the story of their coffee helps create meaningful conversations with their customers.
“When I meet new customers I explain my story, where I’m from, and the region that our coffee is from,” says Fajardo. “Customers will leave with a bag of coffee even more excited to try it than when they stopped by our market booth.”
Sourcing coffee from family farms is an intimate endeavor and creates a powerful story. Both Anticonquista and Cafe Gonzalez draw on this in their marketing, highlighting the family farm on each bag of coffee and sharing photos and news about the year’s harvest.
While this strong sense of identity has the commercial benefit of deepening their customer’s investment in the company’s mission, Fajardo mentions that it can also help create personal connections. “Almost weekly we have someone stop by one of our booths at the farmers market to say, ‘Soy de Zacapa,’ or, ‘Mis padres son de Retalhuleu,’” Fajardo tells me. “This turns into a conversation about my homeland, where I grew up, our family, foods, and culture. We’ve met many customers who’ve turned into friends.”
For both Gonzalez and Fajardo there is a personally fulfilling element to sharing their family’s coffee. This seems to be a throughline that’s present in many cafes that serve coffee from a single origin. Sometimes this personal interest might look like pride in a family farm, other times it looks like wanting to highlight several producers from a region, traditional practices of preparing coffee, or even a certain variety or species of coffee.
Reforma Roasters, a Portland-based roaster that supplies coffee to local cafes including Esperanza Trading Co., La Perlita, and Electrica, has a history of sourcing coffees from all across Mexico. Reforma roasts multiple single origin and blends, showing the quality and variety of Mexican coffee that they believe is “finally breaking out of the long stigma of what many (mostly white) so-called specialty coffee drinkers believed Mexican coffee was: a chocolatey-nutty bland coffee used for more developed roasts.”
In addition to their desire to show the diversity of Mexican coffees, Reforma also is invested in widening the breadth of flavor notes used to describe their beans. Alongside the anglophone descriptors commonly found in specialty coffee, they also draw on the flavors of where their coffee is sourced with notes like flan, piloncillo (raw cane sugar), or mazapán (a Mexican peanut candy.)
For Kim Dam, founder of Portland Cà Phê, serving only Vietnamese coffee created opportunities both to attract customers interested in robusta coffee, and to create lasting relationships with producers.
“Being able to focus on one region I have been able to put 100% into my relationships with my coffee partners and this has made it a lot more personable,” explains Dam. “I also serve robusta beans, which hadn’t been seen within the Portland specialty coffee world, so people were really interested in that.”
Creating compelling narratives around coffee is an important aspect of marketing, especially when it comes to companies like Café Gonzales, Anticonquista, or Reforma, whose identities are tightly connected to what they serve. However, the success of these businesses is due to more than just their character and unique offerings. In both the fields of roasting and brewing, companies focused on coffee from a single origin have unique advantages.
“Only carrying coffee from one origin allows us to create a business identity and brand rooted within that, but also hone in on making a product with great quality,” Reese notes. “We know exactly how our coffee is going to act when roasting and brewing. We can quickly notice differences from season to season within our harvests, and since we grow it we generally can anticipate those differences.”
Making a Menu
At first it might seem difficult to keep up with demands for variety when brewing coffee from just one region or farm, but aside from the small proportion of coffee drinkers who are constantly in search of new varieties or innovative processing methods, many people who drink coffee are more interested in just a consistently good cup day after day.
“I believe there is a niche for every business, there are people that prefer flavored coffees, dark roast, and there are the ones that enjoy specialty coffee like a Grand Cru wine,” muses Gonzalez. Meanwhile at Anticonquista, Fajardo and Reese are equally confident that finding a niche and connecting with customers is more important than offering a dizzying array of coffee.
“After meeting with customers and sharing our business model and my story, many do return knowing that what we roast is limited to what we grow,” says Fajardo. “The customers who are really interested in coffee will ask about the different varieties grown on our farm, and express interest in wanting to taste different varieties, but we don’t really get asked if we offer beans from different origins.”
Of course, there’s also more to making an exciting menu than just the coffee. Anticonquista offers cold brew mixed with horchata or spiced with cardamom also grown on the family farm. Esperanza Trading Co. ties in traditional Mexican flavors to their drinks, like iced coffee with hibiscus, piloncillo, and lime, paired with takes on traditional pastries like conchas or empanadas. At Vietnamese cafes like Portland Cà Phê or Cafe Cà Phê, sesame, ube, and other Southeast Asian ingredients abound, alongside drinks like Cà Phê Sữa đá (Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk) made using the traditional Phin coffee brewer.
“I added a lot of flavors that I grew up enjoying onto my menu, so you can find a lot of fun flavors in our seasonal drinks or specialty drinks, including ube, pandan, and black sesame,” says Dam. “We also currently have a banana matcha that reminds me of bánh da lợn, a pandan mung bean pastry.”
Does Limited Supply Mean Higher Risk?
In coffee consuming countries like the United States, businesses can be slightly more insulated from the fluctuating coffee market and environmental challenges. Once connected more closely and directly to a single farm or coffee producing region, however, these risks begin to grow. Factors such as one-off natural disasters, disease, or even the gradual effects of climate change can jeopardize the crops of entire regions. There’s also economic and political risks, such as changing shipping regulations or events like the dissolution of The Mexican Coffee Institute and the International Coffee Agreement which both occurred in 1989 and deeply impacted small scale coffee producers in Mexico.
“Extreme weather, excessive rains, not enough rain, and fungus like La Roya (Coffee Leaf Rust) can cause loss of harvests, which means for us less beans to roast, or no beans to roast in the event of a total catastrophic loss,” explains Reese.
This risk means it’s important to constantly be thinking of the future. For a business like Reforma Roasters or Portland Cà Phê that might mean talking to coffee farmers and understanding how they plan to endure possible setbacks before signing forward contracts.
“At one point when I first opened in 2021, I almost ran out of beans because there wasn’t much to offer in the states and COVID had shipping containers backlogged,” Dam writes. “ I simply don’t have the option to pivot to another region, so I really hone in on my relationships with my current coffee partners to ensure I can contract enough coffee to last me throughout the year.”
For Anticonquista or Cafe Gonzalez, who produce their own coffee, managing risk means understanding how to consistently produce a harvest year after year. After all, they don’t just buy spot green coffee if there’s a problem with production.
“We strive for good quality tasting coffee, but given the conditions that face us and our farms, it’s always sustainability first,” Reese states.
It’s unlikely that every coffee shop in your town will eventually choose to become a single origin cafe; it’s a model with distinct challenges that doesn’t appeal to everyone. However, there is a history of cafes with coffee from a single farm or coffee producing region, and the successes of these companies shows there’s room for more newcomers to make their mark.
Of course there are advantages and unique possibilities that come along with serving coffee from just one country, region, or farm, but after even one conversation with the people who own these businesses it’s clear that their motivations are deeper than achieving commercial success. The work they do comes from their love of coffee, pride in their identity, or desire to share their coffee and culture with others who otherwise might never experience it.
Marco Dregni is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Read more Marco Dregni for Sprudge.