CAMBRIDGE — Three years ago, Gustavo Alfaro first welcomed Silas Moulton of Barismo Roastery in Arlington to his coffee farm high in the plush northwest mountains of Guatemala. The friendship between grower and bean buyer was among the first of the nascent “seed to cup” relationships developing in this country and has benefited coffee connoisseurs in Cambridge, Somerville, and Belmont.
Alfaro produces Buena Esperanza and Pena Blanca coffee beans distributed by Barismo to specialty coffee shops like Voltage Coffee & Art, Dwelltime Coffee Bar and Bakeshop, and Clover Food Lab, all in Cambridge. When Moulton visited Guatemala, Alfaro was a fourth-generation coffee grower who recently repurposed his farm to restore environmental balance and was on the verge of winning an internationally recognized award for one of his coffee lots. Eight years ago, Alfaro was living in Cape Town as a manager for a medical research institution. “I had a lot of respect for what my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were doing, but I was not interested in learning and following that route,” says Alfaro, who was in town for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2013 event in Boston last week. He talked about his farm in “Meet your grower” sessions in local coffee bars, including Clover Food Lab last Sunday.
Alfaro earned a biochemistry degree in Guatemala and a MBA in Chile, where he worked as an environmental mining consultant before studying management at programs in Sweden and Israel. His father died while he was in Cape Town and he returned to Guatemala in 2006 to help run Alfaro Estate Coffee.
“I was really scared,’’ says Alfaro, 47. “I had built my own career and I was thrown into something I didn’t know.” Yet Alfaro had the business and environmental acumen to improve the estate. He asked questions about every step of the growing process, adjusting where needed. “I have no paradigms about the coffee industry,” he says. “I wanted to produce a high-quality coffee for a demanding market [and] not be simply a supplier of coffee.”
Alfaro earned the respect of the farm’s 120 permanent and seasonal employees by resisting calls to deforest his estate in order to increase planting. He built a water-recycling system and, importantly, developed production of specialty coffee beans alongside larger commercial yields of Arabica beans. The more expensive specialty coffee — 1-pound bags sell for about $20 in the United States — accounts for 40 percent of Alfaro’s business.
“Asking what is quality coffee is like asking what is quality pasta. There are so many variations,” Alfaro says. He says the soil, water, wind patterns, sun exposure, abutting foliage, and grazing animals all impact the flavor of the coffee bean.
Last year, Alfaro’s Buena Esperenza beans, grown at the highest point of the estate, earned fourth place in Guatemala’s Cup of Excellence, an internationally recognized standard of tasting. The award is given by an arm of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, cofounded by local coffee guru George Howell. The win reinforced Alfaro’s belief that a sustainable coffee farm is the best business practice for his land, his employees, and consumers. “This is about good business,” he says. “If we don’t protect the environment, we don’t have a farm.”
In January, Moulton returned to Alfaro’s coffee estate to work on the farm. Alfaro says his relationship with Barismo is helping to shape his marketing to other specialty roasters in the United States. When Moulton got ready to leave Guatemala this winter, Alfaro took him to the top of the hill where Buena Esperanza is grown. There he unveiled a bronze plaque marking the coffee lot’s success: The plaque recognizes Moulton and Barismo’s contributions.