In Orlando Lemus’ home in Olopa, Guatemala, a TV stand in the living room serves as an altar of sorts where he and his family display photographs of loved ones and other memorabilia important to them. Among the items are a SoZo ceramic coffee mug and two cards, each signed by SoZo customers, to say “Thank you for your awesome coffee.”
We started roasting Orlando’s coffee in 2017 under the name “Esquipulas.” After I met Orlando for the first time, and began to have a relationship with him, Mindy and I decided we wanted to call the coffee by the name of the farmer who grows it, to honor both the farmer and our relationship with him.
The first time I went to Olopa in 2017, I had the privilege of taking my employee, David, who has been roasting alongside me at SoZo. We toured Orlando’s family farm and had dinner with his wife, Renia Marie Pazos Guevara De Lemus, and one of their two daughters (they also have a son).
This is our second year offering Orlando’s coffee and in March I traveled for a second time to Olopa to visit Orlando and his family and tour his 85-acre coffee farm. I was excited to see them again, and they were happy to see me; but the first question they asked was, “Where’s David?” For me that’s when you know you’ve made an impression on someone.
When I presented Orlando with the mug, a bag of his coffee and the cards, I could see that he was struggling to keep his emotions in check. (Like me, he’s not going to let you see him cry!) His brother, Edgar, also a coffee farmer and who speaks wonderful English after spending some time living in New York, served as our translator. Edgar didn’t bother trying to remain stoic. Tears were welling up as he explained the SoZo motto to Orlando.
“Do you understand this?” Edgar asked. “You’re helping Rodney ‘save good people from bad coffee.’”
Orlando told me as he placed our gifts on the shelf in his section of cheer, “When I get ‘down,’ I want to be able to know that what I’m doing is making a difference.”
Also on the “altar” was an award Orlando received for “Top Coffee” in his region. Orlando is a fourth-generation coffee farmer and a member of a local community coop with other coffee farmers. The coop paid to bring in a “Q grader” to sample their coffees. The Q grader is someone who has calibrated their palate to be able to tell the characteristics of a cup of coffee and what notes you should be tasting in it. He selected Orlando’s coffee for the highest award, for its characteristics and exceptional taste.
This is the same lot of coffee beans we are roasting at SoZo.
When we prepared to take a photo of Orlando with his award, he pulled in his family to be in the picture with him. That made so much sense to me. Mindy and I know that the sacrifices we make for our business affects not only us but our kids, too. Orlando recognizes this as well.
There’s an incredible story behind Orlando’s award-winning coffee. Orlando’s farm is in the highlands of Guatemala. The neighbor to the side of Orlando’s land lost his farm because it wasn’t ideal for coffee. He warned Orlando not to waste his time growing coffee on that hill. As I was being told the story, I recognized the term “Orlando’s way,” referencing Orlando’s creative approach to coffee farming.
Orlando knew that the lush, sunny area was ideal for growing coffee, but as you can see from the photo, there is hardly any shade. His thought was to use the thick weeds to keep the grounds moist and stop the sun from drying out the ground. Orlando’s innovation and determination resulted in an excellent product, which is why we are excited to partner with him to help us “save good people from bad coffee.”
Orlando’s worm farm is another example of his ingenuity. He uses worms to break down the remnants from around the bean. As the worm secretes waste, Orlando collects the liquid, mixes it with water and sprays it on his plants as fertilizer. He applies the solids the worms break down to the base of the trees as fertilizer.
Orlando questions the potential fallout from using chemicals on his coffee trees. “If I spray something on my leaves and it’s not natural, how is it affecting the soil?” Orlando explained to me. “And if we don’t know how it’s affecting the soil, how is it affecting our product? And if we don’t know how it’s affecting our product, then how is it affecting you?”
After we walked the fields, I enjoyed a delicious dinner of traditional Guatemalan chicken stew and freshly made corn tortillas with Orlando and his family. I could hear the laughter of their cute and curious children, who were playing as the men had lunch. As we ate, we listened to Orlando reminisce with stories of growing up on the farm.
Edgar, who was happy to speak to me in my native tongue, had shared stories as we drove together earlier that morning of the workers in his community and how difficult it is for them to do anything different than what they are doing now. He told me how hard they work, and that the workers who pick the coffee will most likely be picking coffee for the rest of their lives. On the road that morning we passed an elderly man carrying a machete and a bundle of sticks. He supplies people with wood for their fires to make dinner. That’s his job now and probably will be his job for the rest of his life, too.
The feeling of hopelessness – that there’s no way to get out of it – struck a chord with me, and I wondered, is there anything we can do to help these people? The farmers in their local coffee cooperative get together and share what’s working and what’s not working. They try to help each other out. These farmers know that if they produce a better product, it brings more recognition to their community and increases demand for their coffee. They also hope that this will give the workers more of a sense of accomplishment for their part in that. I want SoZo to be part of that effort, too.
Not long ago, Orlando found me online and emailed me. He told me he knew that Tom, my supplier in Guatemala, brought me a sample of Orlando’s coffee.
“You tasted it. I want to know what you thought of it,” he wrote.
My two- to three-year goal is to work directly with Orlando to buy his beans. I’ve been to his hill, I’ve seen his plants, and I’ve met him and his family. I know when he says, “I’ve got this species I think you’re going to like,” I can trust that. When you work with a middle man – known in Guatemala as a coyote – you can’t be sure where the beans came from, how they were processed, and what variables were in play to impact their taste.
That’s the beauty of this relationship. Orlando is the farmer, I’m the roaster. He knows how all the variables – like where the coffee is grown, the altitude, the conditions, the different species and the flavor they will provide – affect the taste of the coffee. I know how the variables of roasting affect the taste. When we put our knowledge together, we create a great cup of coffee for you, our customer.