Around 4 p.m. on a recent Monday afternoon at Intelligentsia’s Silver Lake cafe, a dozen or so folks gathered in the patio of the cafe, chatting, texting, waiting. A MacBook and a television were set up in the corner, also waiting.
Geoff Watts, the coffee company's vice-president and green buyer, arrived a few minutes after 4:00. He took his place in front of the television and looked at the group, which by now had grown larger by about a dozen, not including a dog that was now wandering through the crowd. “How many of you are here for the screening of Inherent Vice?”
Alas, if anyone had confused the coffee shop for a movie theater, the adventures of Doc and Shasta would have to wait. Because most everyone was here for a tasting of three different coffee varieties—a Red Typica, a Yellow Typica, and a Red Bourbon—from Finca Santuario, a farm located about 1,800 meters above sea level in the Cauca region of Colombia. These are the same three varieties currently on offer by our partners at Intelligentsia in a gift box designed by Rohner Letterpress. Fifty grams of each coffee are included in the three-pack box, which, according to Watts, is “just enough of each so you can go home and taste them together.” Indeed, the point of the afternoon’s tasting was to compare and contrast each coffee against the others, to better appreciate how these varieties differ in flavor.
Finca Santuario and farmer Camilo Merizalde will be familiar names if you follow coffee farms and producers the way folks around this time of year follow football teams and coaches. What makes Merizalde’s 85-acre Finca Santuario so noteworthy is how the farm came about: around fifteen years ago, Merizalde decided not only would he build a coffee farm on some barren pasture land owned by his wife’s family, but also that he would invest the time, money, and patience to engineer an environment ideal for producing exceptional coffee. Merizalde set out, said Watts, to make “a boutique farm, designing it as an architect would.”
Thus Merizalde consulted with experts in husbandry and agriculture to figure out how to best plot out his farm and carefully manage the nutrition of the plants. And he chose certain varieties like the Typicas and Bourbon on deck for the afternoon’s tasting, that though low-yielding and fragile, could produce stellar coffees if cared for properly, and picked only when the time was right. To put this all in perspective, this would be a bit like a farmer growing rare heirloom tomatoes in an area where most everyone else is planting row after row of Heinz 2401.
To say that the returns on Merizalde’s investments have thus far been encouraging would be an understatement. Intelligentsia has been an enthusiastic supporter, and the company has hosted several events featuring the farm, including a multi-course dinner a few years ago at its Pasadena shop where dishes were paired with Finca Santuario coffees and wine.
Monday’s tasting was decidedly less formal than that dinner, but no less educational. As baristas passed around cups, Watts noted that Typica and Bourbon are “some of the oldest and most noble” varieties in the world, having made their way across continents over centuries of traveling, trading, and smuggling. Indeed, a lot of world history is tied up in the branches of these two varieties. “Sip it slowly,” Watts said.
Tasting the coffees side by side by side, you could pick out the nuances amongst the three. The Yellow Typica had a hint of spice; Watts recalled that Intelligentsia baristas earlier had uncovered notes of purple basil, persimmon and hibiscus. The Red Typica was especially sweet, while the Red Bourbon was juicy and perhaps the most acidic of the three. The Red Bourbon appeared to be the audience favorite; that said, you could be pretty happy sipping any one of these on a cold (read: 65 degrees Fahrenheit) Los Angeles morning.
As the tasting concluded, who else but Merizalde himself appeared via video chat on screen. Thanks to the miracles of technology and a solid Internet connection, the farmer was able to personally thank the crowd for tasting his coffees and promised other great things to come later this year. Intelligentsia plans to continue to support Merizalde and his efforts, including the more experimental work he’s doing at his newest farm, Café Inmaculada.
Watts, too, thanked everyone for coming, tasting, and learning what terrific coffees could be produced under the direction and determination of an especially resourceful farmer. “Every time someone cares about coffee quality,” he said, “it warms my soul and makes me happy.” You can almost always hear a smile when Watts speaks, but it was especially pronounced at that moment. Then, perhaps with a smile on this side of sly, he concluded:
“Now, go see Inherent Vice.”