A specialty coffee business with family roots

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For many early risers, coffee is a necessary burst of caffeine sipped out of a travel mug en route to work or while checking the day's first emails. Not for Daniel Velasquez, who grew up a parishioner of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax and now attends St. Timothy Church in Chantilly. When he savors a cup of joe - always "straight black" - he pays attention to the flavors and speaks of the brew as a wine connoisseur might evaluate an aged Chardonnay.

"I love the chocolatey, caramel notes, the rich, thick body," said Velasquez, describing one of his favorite Colombian coffees.

The 33-year-old works full time in real estate, but his passion for the beverage inspired him to launch Campesino Specialty Coffee, a company that connects Colombian farmers with U.S.-based roasters. Started three years ago, it's a farm-direct import business that Velasquez structured to "increase the return for the hard-working campesino (farmer), the pickers and their families … and bring the most delicious specialty coffee to market."

The coffee business is in his blood. Velasquez's grandfather left his home in Colombia at age 8 in search of work, and he walked 300 miles before finding a job on a coffee farm. By the time he was 16, he'd become the right-hand man of a prominent coffee farmer. By 17, he'd married the farmer's daughter, and he went on to nurture his own successful coffee farms - and 16 children.

But the coffee business bug skipped a generation, and eventually all his grandfather's farms were sold.

About four years ago, Velasquez visited a cousin in Colombia, who ran a small recreational coffee farm. Taking a sip of his cousin's coffee, he thought, "I've got to get this to the States," Velasquez recalled. "I'd never tasted anything so rich."

Colombian coffee is known for being one of the most flavorful coffees in the world, he said, in part because the climate and altitude create optimal growing conditions.

Velasquez's fledgling company made a first shipment of 1,200 pounds of Colombian beans to the United States in 2013. The projected amount for 2016 is more than 35,000 pounds. Velasquez now works with two farms, El Ocaso in Salento and Villa Bernarda in Jericó, both in northwest Colombia.

Campesino Specialty Coffee's business model includes many of the characteristics promised by fair-trade coffee producers, but Velasquez is quick to point out it is not technically fair trade.

The fair trade certification for coffee "doesn't always work out in benefit of the farmer," said Velasquez. Not only are certification costs often prohibitive for farmers, but fair trade organizations also work through co-ops, which don't always distribute earnings fairly to farmers, according to Velasquez. "Because of corruption and other things, there's a lot of controversy around the co-ops," he said.

Velasquez said he aims to facilitate "authentic fair trade."

"There is complete transparency between the farmers and the roasters," he said, with his company the link between the two. "There aren't other intermediaries or fluff."

Beans are sold nationally to high-end restaurants and hotels under roasters' labels. They also are used by a number of local roasters with cafes, including Swing's Coffee, located in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria and in Washington; Vigilante Coffee, in both Hyattsville, Md., and Washington; Qualia Coffee in Washington; and Blanchard's Coffee Roasting Co. in Richmond. Blanchard's coffee can be purchased at Whole Foods in Fairfax.

Before it makes its way into a to-go cup of steaming java, the coffee starts as a cherry-like fruit. Once ripe, it's taken off the trees by coffee-pickers, de-pulped by a machine, fermented for around 15 hours and washed. After drying in the sun for one to two weeks, the shell is removed, leaving behind the green coffee bean. Workers then hand sort the beans, removing any with chips or mold.

A machine can sort much faster, but Velasquez hires locals to do the work. "I believe in providing jobs and maintaining sustainability, and therefore the quality control is all done by hand," he said.

Once sorted, the beans are shipped to a port in Miami and off to roasters.

With his success and interest in coffee growing, Velasquez is partnering with a farm in Costa Rica. Come March, he'll be moving to Colombia where, like his grandfather, he'll immerse himself in all aspects of coffee farming and processing. He plans to open a coffee laboratory to analyze coffee from other farms and, if all goes well, form relationships with additional farmers.

Velasquez said his faith guides all aspects of his business. "My focus is to grow along with my farmer and roaster partners, not just my company," he said. "I trust in … God to guide me and keep me on a steady and humble path.

"But I'm definitely not giving handouts," he added. "When you're on the farms and speaking to farmers, when you see these older people climbing steep hills at 5 a.m., it makes me glad they're able to get paid (more than) they'd get paid on a commercial farm. Then to see their work being enjoyed in the States … that's rewarding."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016