Coffee Lore Presents El Café by Primera Taza
We got a chance to catch up with owner/barista Chuy Tovar about his newest project called El Café. Check out our conversation below!
Matt: So let's start from the beginning. Tell me about where coffee started.
Chuy: Well in Ethiopia they had these little goats going up this mountain and the goat herder noticed that the fucking goats were going fucking crazy. What the fuck’s going on? They were eating these little berries. Do you want me to go that far back. Or Yemen..and Mokha…
Matt: I want to know about Chuy. What's growing up like for Chuy? Where'd you grow up?
Chuy: I'm originally from the state of Jalisco, imported at the age of 5 like a extra añejo tequila. Stamp and everything. Eventually you know my parents got their papers and all that shit. We're legal.
Matt: You grew up in LA?
Chuy: I grew up here in projects called Dogtown. Main street. Not too far from what is now Highland Park brewery. I would say about a block away from there. We can go there later if you want. Nick's Diner, also right across the street from Highland Park. I grew up with that stuff going to railway yards just to play around.
Matt: So is that Lincoln Heights? Is that what it’s considered?
Chuy: Nobody wants to claim us. We're neither Lincoln Heights nor Boyle Heights nor downtown nor Chinatown. We're in between all of those if you can picture it.
Matt: What was it like when you grew up Latino in LA?
Chuy: I didn't even know what that word was growing up so. We were just kids. I think we don't get to find out about words that differentiate us until we get older. Back then we were just fucking kids growing up trying to be like the little rascals.
Matt: Oh wow. All boys?
Chuy: All boys.
Matt: Okay. Were you the youngest or the oldest or in the middle?
Chuy: I was the (oldest). So it was we were little kids, so we tried to be like our gang. We were just exploring shit. It was the industrial part of Chinatown and also what's now the Arts District. You know that was barren land. There was nothing here.
There’s literally tumbleweeds going down the street. So we could rollerblade, skate and not even worry that someone’s gonna run us over because there was literally nobody there, especially on the weekends.
Matt: So what was downtown like? Was it kind of like a fraction of what it is today? Or was there still..
Chuy: Well there was a lot of activity. The streets were never empty. Not even on weekdays. Come at night it’s a totally different story. Back then you wouldn’t wanna be downtown after dark.
Matt: Is it dangerous?
Chuy: I mean we never ran into any trouble growing up. But we weren’t there after dark anyway so...
Matt: Makes sense. What’d you do after high school?
Chuy: Worked for TransAmerican insurance company here in downtown.
Matt: Financial industry?
Chuy: Took a year off between graduating high school and college. Worked for a year then in the fall of the following year started college.
Matt: Where’d you go to school?
Matt: How’d you get into coffee?
Chuy: It’s well documented. It’s Nicely’s fault. I was a tea drinker I really didn’t like the taste of coffee. I’m all about taste. You can tell me a pretty story but when it comes down to it, it’s taste. I like it or I don’t like it. Or why I don’t like it or why I like it.
Matt: Do you remember the first cup of coffee that you really liked that didn’t so much taste like coffee?
Chuy: The one Nicely gave me. It was definitely an African coffee. I almost want to say it’s from Kenya. But I can’t be 100% sure. I just know that it was African. I went in there to actually eat Chef Wes Avila Guerrilla tacos. I saw that he was parked right in front of Handsome Coffee.
Matt: Okay. So Nicely worked there?
Chuy: Yeah Nicely was working as main barista there, I don’t know as partner, I mean I don’t know the situation. It doesn’t matter.
Matt: For sure. But he’s the one that served you that African coffee.
Chuy: I remember asking for tea. “What if I make you coffee that tastes like tea?” Fuck it, I mean he wasn’t pushy. He didn’t even charge me. At least I don’t remember him initially charging me. I think I paid at the end.
But yeah first taste of that. He did a pour over. Pretty sure it was a V60. It was definitely a pour over and I taste it and I’m like “Holy shit”. It tasted like earl grey like an English breakfast, it was definitely tea-like. So I was like “Holy shit” and like I said I’m all about taste and that just opened a can of worms.
Matt: So from that moment to Boyle Heights, how’d you get to Boyle Heights? Why Boyle Heights out of all of the different parts of Los Angeles?
Chuy: Well I mean one I have a childhood connection to it. Had cousins that live here so we were always going back and forth. And the coffeeshop that I took over was one of my friend’s that owned it that I never thought would sell that coffeeshop.
Matt: So what’s the main focus right now of El Cafe? I know that you guys really hone in on Mexican coffee and I don’t see a lot of people doing that. So what’s El Cafe right now? Like how would you describe it to somebody?
Chuy: It’s still in its infancy as far as what we’re trying to do. Right now I’m just focusing on having a greater relationship with our producers which I think are the most important link in this chain. And of course maintain the relationship that I have with our roasters - Cafe Sublime in Guadalajara.
Matt: So I know very little about Mexican coffee. How would you explain, there’s so many regions and states and so if someone drinking mostly Columbian or Guatemalan or Burundi or African coffees how do you usually break the ice with Mexican coffees and explain it to people?
Chuy: Mexican coffee is like you just mentioned, it’s very diverse. That’s because of the diversity of those regions. From the south to the northernmost coffee producing states which would be like Nayarit and Hidalgo. Parts of Mexico is also the region where it grows very close to the northernmost latitude. As far as coffee regions it’s a big expanse.
...compared to a lot of the coffee producing countries in Latin America. And it has different climates.
Matt: So traditionally some people might think Mexican coffee is like one flavor. Kind of like where they try to think oh Mexican coffee tastes like this. Tasting some of the Mexican coffees that you guys provide, I’ve tasted like many different flavors that didn’t taste like anything from even Latin America. Do you see a lot of people being surprised by all of the different characteristics of these Mexican coffees that you bring in?
Chuy: Not surprised ...I do get pretty pumped up when someone can get pinpoint the flavor and that’s because maybe they haven’t had that fruit.
Matt: How did the relationship with the roaster you’re working with come about and how did you get to know them?
Chuy: I just became their customer from the beginning, from when they first opened their first coffeeshop which was PalReal.
Matt: What separates them from other roasters in Mexico in your eyes?
Chuy: Definitely their attention to detail. I don’t think that in itself separates them. They’re really not complacent with just the way they’re doing things which I think suits my personality. Not that you’re never satisfied, but you’re always trying to get better. I know, like the Japanese mantra “reaching for perfection even though you’re never gonna get it”.
Matt: Yeah. That’s good. So what coffee are you most excited about that’s coming up that I think we talked a little bit about it. Tell me about that lineup coming up.
Chuy: Like the latest?
Chuy: Well the one that I was most excited lately was the one from Guerrero. The first time I had a coffee from Guerrero that’s what opened my interest into Mexican coffee. Before then I thought that most of them were pretty bland.
One flavor, high acidity, and I wasn’t really impressed until I had this natural, naturally processed coffee from Guerrero. Where they process from Atoyac de Àlvarez, Guerro, Mèxico.
Matt: What’s that mean?
Chuy: Atoyac is the name of the town.
Matt: Oh okay.
Chuy: More towards the east, near the Sierras.
Matt: Yeah. So is it set up like other places where there’s the fincas and then there’s like a coop that does the processing?
Chuy: In some places yes. I can’t confirm...no one in Guerrero for sure. No because the fincas are so small.
Matt: That’s how it was like when I went to Costa Rica. There’s a bunch of different farmers and they bring it to the beneficio. And then they process and everything. They pay them a specific price. And then they help them sell it or the farmers will do that or they’ll do it just on their farm independently.
So what about - I already went to a fermentation class - how was that experience?
Chuy: It was amazing.
Matt: Where was it?
Chuy: In Oaxaca. The nearest little town to the fincas called Candelaria Loxicha. I’ll spell that out for you haha... But yeah I would say the guy driving the van…I mean you might think he’s crazy if you’ve never driven in a bus or you’ve never been on a bus, especially in Mexico.
These guys just floor it man. On curves and everything...
Matt: So it’s kind of like driving up like the Inca Trail in Peru or something where it’s just like cliffs?
Chuy: I’ve never been there but yeah they’re cliffs. Especially when you hit the Sierras.
Anyway, we landed in Oaxaca. I had already done my research about the coffeeshops I wanted to hit down there. We took a little tour through about 3 or 4 coffeeshops. Really liked one in downtown Oaxaca.
Chuy: They’re working with, of course local farmers.
Matt: Would they serve their cafe is it mostly Oaxacan coffee or do they do other regions as well?
Chuy: No they do other regions as well. But for the most part they try to concentrate on Oaxacan. They can support the local communities that are growing coffee in the region.
Matt: So you go and you go to this coffeeshop. And then you hit up all the other coffeeshops.
Chuy: Everything in Mexico is espresso based. Either that or pour overs.
Matt: They’re doing pour overs? When I was in Chihuahua they, if I wanted a filter coffee or that, it’s just americanos. That’s it, because it’s espresso based.
Chuy: No but in all the (bars) that we went to they were doing pour overs. You’re not going to find drip coffee there. It was espresso based and then pour overs only. So for the most part wherever you want to, at least for me, if I wanted to try the coffee espresso then pour over. That’s what I would usually get.
Matt: So once you left the downtown area, you went on this crazy van ride up to the fermentation part. What was it like? Was it like a multiple day class or how did they have it set up?
Chuy: It was a two day course. The first day of course you get there…I think we left Oaxaca city at 4:30am. Something like that. And we got to Candelaria Loxicha around 10 o'clock. So like a 5 and a half hour trip. But like I told you this guy was hauling ass.
Matt: Oh man ...and that’s like before the sun comes up.
Chuy: I mean initially it’s mostly plains and you go through these you know little towns from Oaxaca until you start going up to the Sierras. Then that’s when it gets interesting. If you have motion sickness you’re definitely going to chunk. Unless you’re driving yourself.
Matt: So once you’re up there, the class format was...what was the biggest takeaways that you got? Were you surprised about the processing? I don’t know too much about...what’s fermentation process?
Chuy: Fermentation is when you let the beans basically ferment like you would grapes when you produce wine. And you need that fermentation before you dry the beans to bring out the flavor out of that variety or out of that cut or out of that lot. And there’s various fermentation processes.
Matt: Which one?
Chuy: Most of them are washed. That’s the most common one. And now there’s different types of washed also. Some they add vitamins, they add yeast, some of them they lower the pH on the water so they can ferment longer. Usually beans are fermented normal pH which I believe is between 6.5 or 6.6 according to the notes I took.
We were taking notes, especially me, I mean I thought I knew coffee until I got to that class. Then I felt stupid. But it was so awesome picking up knowledge from everybody that’s answering questions
Matt: Was it all in Spanish?
Chuy: Yeah it was all in Spanish.
Matt: Were you the only person from America or was it mostly Mexicans?
Chuy: I was the only one from the US. And the rest were from Mexico.
Matt: Different roasters and shops? Or farmers? Producers?
Chuy: Roasters, producers. It was a mixture of everything. So you’re picking up, especially me, I just shut the fuck up.
Matt: You’re just like a fly on the wall. Just trying to soak in as much...
Chuy: I’m soaking in as much and the roaster will have a different perspective from the barista. And there was like the top baristas there. Champion from Mexico was there.
Just listening to her (Barista Champion of Mexico) sometimes when we’re having coffee. There’s a lot of people of course brought beans so in the morning the first thing we would wake up is….
Matt: Just try a bunch of coffees?
Chuy: You knew the coffee was ready because we were the first ones in the kitchen. And we’re all you know sharing and talking about coffees and that...just doing it twice with them you know when we woke up in the morning was amazing.
Matt: How was that experience? Just like bonding in a community like that? And just all of these areas of expertise.
Chuy: Our culture in Mexico, we’re very welcoming. Especially after you basically are received within the family. A lot of us come from different backgrounds at that place but it felt like family. Towards the end of the two days it’s like...
Matt: Do you still keep in touch with anybody?
Matt: What do you think...for someone who's never been…
Chuy: I’m always sending customers to you know where they’re at, especially in Mexico. There’s a couple of top baristas there, top coffee shops in Tijuana there. Oxaca had coffee just everywhere man. Vera cruz...I’m actually meeting with one of the producers this Saturday in Tijuana.
Chuy: Anybody interested in taking a day trip we’re coming back the same day.
Matt: I would. I’m taking my dad up to San Francisco or else I would jump on that opportunity.
Chuy: Yeah it’s gonna be pretty interesting. Nerd out on coffee. This year’s crop from Mexico is really really good. They got a lot of water this year. I mean Oaxaca doesn’t need it.
Matt: It just rains all the time right?
Chuy: It’s just water everywhere especially where we’re at. Other fincas you know you go to different fincas where it’s different. The struggle’s real. To get water. Plants need water.
Matt: So on that topic. Where places are more drought stricken where there’s not as much water, do they focus on processing the natural way, just because there’s not water to wash the process or do you think it matters on the farm and what flavors they want to bring out?
Chuy: I think you hit the nail on the head there. I tend to see where there’s more arid you would say, they do tend to ferment naturally. Which means leaving the skin on and letting the beans ferment after they’ve been selected of course. They still get thrown in water initially so the bad ones will float out and you take those out. So initially all the beans get washed.
Matt: But not as much to remove everything?
Chuy: Just to select the best ones. Initially. Then after that you can decide to wash them and ferment them in water. Optimally, our guru told us because you would want to have a circular pool to ferment.
Matt: Why’s that?
Chuy: Because they get an even fermentation when it’s circular. Usually they’re rectangular or square. But optimally, I think it was his opinion - he’s very opinionated. You know he knows his shit. And he’s like me he’s a late bloomer. As far as his coffee game is – his dad was a producer in Chiapas. So he was in the game for a long time but he didn’t drink coffee.
Matt: When was the first time you drank coffee?
Chuy: It was 6-7 years ago when ...well I mean…
Matt: Like that kind of coffee…
Chuy: Like premium coffee. Before to me coffee was instant coffee.
Matt: Just that coffee taste.
Chuy: I just didn’t like it.
Matt: What was the instructor’s name? The one that…
Chuy: Enrique Lopez. He’s a finca owner too.
Matt: So what are some similarities and or differences in coffeeshops in the US compared to Mexico? I think we talked about it…
Chuy: I speak in general terms and this is taking away the big chains. Those don’t…I’m not saying they don’t count as far as customer service. They’re there for…because of their customer service; I don’t think it’s because of the product.
Generally speaking I think the baristas and the owners tend to be how - when I first initially got into coffee in LA and how the baristas are really active, they would know their beans, they would know the producers, I think that has been lost and that still continues in Mexico.
They’re really knowledgeable for the most part about what beans they’re using. What the producer is, the roaster, I mean they could start nerding out man…of course they’re gonna nerd out in Spanish mostly but a lot of them speak English.
Matt: Do most coffee shops in Mexico only focus on Mexican coffee?
Chuy: For the most part, yeah.
Matt: Ok so it would probably be rare for a coffee shop in Mexico to bring out an Afican or Asian coffee?
Chuy: Sometimes they will. We went to a shop in Tijuana where they focused on Africans.
Matt: That’s true. But most of the time it’s different states and regions?
Chuy: Different states, especially now where Mexico is becoming a popular coffee bean. So people are pumped up about the region. You have a barista that’s working in Mexico City but grew up in Vera Cruz. They’re gonna wanna have something from their home state.
Matt: Café de Olla. I love this story that you tell about Café de Olla. When someone first comes into your shop and doesn’t know about Café de Olla. What’s that story like?
Chuy: If it’s not the first instance of grab and go coffee. This was made spiced I guess is the word that people are using today – spiced coffee. It’s becoming really popular. It was created during the Mexican revolution by the Mexican (Soldaderas/Adelitas) or as they’re commonly known. And it was created for a purpose because of the ingredients that went in. Of course it has coffee.
Coffee is basically a fruit – a tea. Coffee’s a fruit. And you are getting caffeine, which suppresses your hunger. And it also has vitamins. They would put Mexican chocolate with cacao. And cacao is high in antioxidants. They would put (canela) – cinnamon - which controls your blood sugar in times of stress. They would put cloves, clove tea is really good for everything, including parasites.
And then they would use piloncillo. Piloncillo is also known as sugar cane jaggery, panella in South American or Central American countries. That’s the rawest form of sugar. It has molasses, which settles your stomach. Those five ingredients were used for specific purposes. I think there were introduced that way because they worked in parts of native areas of Mexico. They put those ingredients for a purpose. That’s to have the soldiers get up and go without really having anything to eat. It wouldn’t mess with them. You wouldn’t get diarrhea. If you ate something you shouldn’t have the cloves would have taken care of that, as far as parasites.
And that’s the reason why it was created. It became part of a tradition.
Matt: When was the first time you had café de olla?
Chuy: With my grandma.
Matt: What do you remember tasting?
Chuy: I like cinnamon tea and canelas. As they call it over there. Los canellitas. As you grow as an adult you know it as canellitas. You spike it up a little bit. And because of that I used to like the way my grandma would make coffee. I think that as a kid that’s the only place I remember that I actually liked it. Or would drink it. But I never liked it with milk.
Matt: Just straight?
Chuy: I just wanted it straight.
Matt: So what’s up next for El Café? What’s on the horizon for you guys? Talk a little bit about that and maybe like how people can find you where you’re located, that kind of stuff.
Chuy: We’re hidden so nobody can find us.
Matt: So you have to do your work.
Chuy: Only the true troopers. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of my older customers, older generations 60 and above, coming in. “We've been trying to look for you for like 3 months!” “Nobody makes café de olla like you!”. That or the coffee cake is what they seek the most. At least the older generation.
Matt: The coffee cake is from Homeboy Industries?
Chuy: From Homeboy Industries. I think what I get most excited about, the thing that keeps me going is probably the customers who get excited about some flavors like you mentioned before that you haven’t tasted before.
And still because, I could talk about all the fermentation from Oaxaca. On a tangent on that because that’s the biggest discussion I’ve been having with one customer in particular. He drives almost every day from La Hacienda Heights. He goes, “You’ve ruined it for me. You go here, here, here. No I can’t. I go…I taste it and I go. Hell no! And I thought they were good…”
And he mentioned some really good coffee places out in San Gabriel. And I’m not gonna mention the places not to throw dirt on them. Because I support any small coffee shop. You know do your thing. There’s plenty of room.
Matt: If there was one piece of wisdom you could give yourself the first day you started in coffee what would you tell yourself? That you know now? Just one thing.
Chuy: Don’t open a coffeeshop.
Matt: Stay away?
Chuy: There’s no one thing. I’d slap myself up and down. Just because you learn so much. I don’t even consider myself a barista because a barista is someone who has been working the espresso machine for over six years. Which is cool.
I look at the Japanese. You wash the dishes for 8 years before you can even touch the rice. Or whatever it is. 10 years, 11 years. But titles and shit, to me it really doesn’t mean anything. I’m just a coffee (pourer) and I try to do it as best as I can. Damn, what would I do? A bunch of shit.
I mean, you’re constantly learning.
Matt: So that would probably be the one thing is just encourage yourself – you’re always going to be learning.
Chuy: Even when you think you know, and if even if you reach a certain title or whatever. To me I hope that I never stop learning about coffee. I don’t know if I can say it’s life changing. But it’s definitely fucking gotten inside of me.
Matt: You got the bug.
Chuy: I definitely have the bug man.
Matt: When you’re not drinking coffee here, where else are you drinking coffee?
Chuy: Usually down south (Mexico). And it’s not because I don’t want to try shops in the LA area. Because I am doing everything myself, I hardly ever get a chance to go somewhere else. But I have to start doing that. I swear I gotta make it a point to go to at least go to a place at least a month. I haven’t even been doing that. I don’t think that’s cool.
Matt: So down south, Tijuana south? Not like Long Beach south? Way south, like you keep going?
Chuy: No, I hardly leave downtown LA so…
Chuy: Wanna go have a beer?
Matt: Let’s do it.