Mexico is one of the most important producers of coffee in the world—and yet it is still really hard for us to differentiate a good cup of coffee from a really bad one.
But that is beginning to change, thanks to a handful of people who are committed to educating coffee-drinkers and making high-quality coffee using the great beans that we cultivate here. One of these people is Lalo Perez Varona, owner of Buna, a Mexican business dedicated spreading awareness about the importance of drinking delicious coffee.
We visited him at his studio in Colonia Doctores in Mexico City. There, workers grind, roast, and prepare different bean blends that are served in coffee shops all over the city.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Lalo. So, how did you decide to dedicate your life to coffee? Lalo Perez Varona: I started out of curiosity—I didn't drink coffee. By coincidence, I started to work at a place that required that I know about coffee. They served me a cup, I tried it, and I said, "This isn't coffee. You have no idea what I'm used to drinking." I was astonished, because if you ask anyone [in Mexico] what coffee tastes like, they would tell you that it tastes bitter, strong. But no one will ever tell you that they can smell chocolate in it.
Why do you think that we have great beans and bad cups of coffee? What makes a great cup of a coffee? We are used to coffee that smells acidic at first and then bitter. The interesting part is that there is no factor that makes it smell that way—it's not the land, the water, the way it's toasted, the plant, nor the producer. It's a bit of everything. Commercially speaking, coffee has a very complex cycle. For a cup of coffee to get to you, it needs to go through a lot of hands first. Each of these hands has the possibility to make it great or completely ruin it.
For coffee to smell and taste great, it depends on each person who interacts with it in the production cycle. Everyone should have the same goal. Coffee shops usually buy their coffee from a roaster, and the roaster gets it from the importer, and the importer from an exporter, and the exporter from a benefactor, and the benefactor from a producer. It's a super-long chain, and that is why—even when the beans are always good—you can still find good and bad cups of coffee.
What are the indicators of a good cup of coffee? To us, it's important that the producer knows how their coffee is going to taste. To us, a good cup of coffee means that the journey from the field to the cup is shorter. We know every producer we buy beans from. We roast everything and process it ourselves. In our coffee shops, Tercer Lugar and El 42, we prepare it ourselves, too.
As far as the blends and preparation go, we are still experimenting. We do have techniques that we know work better than others: We know that we need to grind the beans and roast them when they are fresh. But other things are less clear. Now we have a recipe that we like, but we think that it's tied to the equipment that we currently use, and we are not sure yet that it's the best version.
In Mexico, many people still don't know how to recognize a good coffee. How do you educate people? I always ask people how they like their meat—well done, rare. We can talk for hours about the right way to eat it. Our impression is that there is no right way, psychologically speaking; the version that you enjoy the most is the one that makes sense to you. But we do recommend not adding sugar to it, and suggest using honey instead. Each of the elements—like sugar, the cup, or the place—contributes to the overall experience.
I've had many cups of coffee in unexpected places. I believe that people don't appreciate the coffee when they are in a place where they are not expecting anything special, so they are just like, Oh, it's just coffee! To us, it's really important: coffee is an experience and not an everyday thing. That is why we decided to open Tercer Lugar, which is designed to be a coffee shop of experiences that looks to be a change from the routine.
Is it hard to convince the restaurants that your coffee is good? It's a challenge, because in El 42 or Tercer Lugar we are in charge of curating that experience. In other restaurants, even when we give them advice, it is not up to me how they share that experience with their clients, and usually coffee is perceived as just another thing in those places. Even to those who care, they don't care enough—they have this romantic idea of offering a delicious coffee, but then they realize how hard it is to do it right. That's why they reach a point when the financial gain and the reactions of their clients don't match the effort that goes into making a good coffee.
That's why we only want to be in places where they can invest the time and energy that coffee deserves, and sadly those places are very few.
What sorts of places? There are only a few places that are really committed to it, like Dulcinea, Punta Arena, Pujol—which is curious, because they were the first clients that we tried to get and it was hard for those same reasons. Then one day, I arrived with my machine and told them: "Today, you are going to start serving great coffee." Another place that has a great coffee program is Padrinos in Downtown.
What does your "coffee program" for restaurants entail? The coffee program has three pillars. The first is the equipment that we import and sell to the restaurants. The machine is really important for making coffee, and we teach them how to use it. Another pillar is the recipe that we use at each restaurant. We have to talk to the customers and ask the restaurant about its concept to determine how we are going to prepare a cappuccino or latte. And the third pillar is the training of the staff—we tell them where it came from and why it's different so that they can talk about it.
Are we on the right track? Yes, I think there are more people drinking delicious coffee, but I don't think that that all restaurants are going to commit to serving good coffee overnight. Everything takes time.
Thanks for speaking with us, Lalo.