Taster’s Choice - Los Angeles magazine
 

Taster’s Choice

Can local espresso maven Angel Orozco compete against the big guys?

8/1/2010

Photograph by Daniel Hennesy

Angel Orozco is a coffee roaster, and he is on the lam. Since entering the trade six years ago, Orozco has found himself leaping from one rented room to the next in order to cook his beans just right. Neighbors keep ratting him out because of the smoke and the smell—a cross between burning s’mores and scorched hair. The work space, his third this year (there’ll be a fourth soon enough), is the back room of a make-do community center in Boyle Heights.

While neighborhood kids listen to a lesson on their ancestors’ customs, Orozco ducks behind a serape the instructor has hung in the doorway and fires up his machine. Steel crackles as 20 pounds of coffee beans drop from the funnel-shaped hopper into the heat chamber. He peers in, the stopwatch on his iPhone counting down. Fourteen minutes and 59 seconds later, when the beans have changed from celadon to chocolate brown, he’ll pull a lever and spill them into a vat to cool, a blade slowly stirring them.

The founder of Cafecito Orgánico, Orozco specializes in organic beans, working directly with farmers from developing nations. A burly 35-year-old with a goatee, he insists on preparing the beans himself 72 hours before making them available to customers, who line up fanatically for his coffee at farmers’ markets. Today’s batch, from a single estate in El Salvador, is Orozco’s favorite because of its “apricot-honey sweetness.” Wearing his customary newsie cap and black-rimmed glasses, Orozco paws the swirling dark pebbles and flicks a dud. “It’s sort of my Zen,” he says, looking over at his girlfriend, Heather Hamilton, who’s typing a school paper, her sandaled feet wedged between the burlap sacks of raw coffee beans.

Orozco began roasting in 2004 after he quit his job at an affordable housing firm. Mama’s Hot Tamales, a nonprofit café that incubates local businesses, let him occupy a spare room. He trained his palate to detect nuances in coffee, took roasting classes, and learned the art of pulling a good shot—how the fineness of the grind, the temperature of the water, even how a particular bean interacts with a particular machine, can make or break an espresso. A San Diego importer connected him with one organic farm to start. In the beginning he’d crank out batches from a dinky roaster that could handle only one pound at a time. When he outgrew the incubator, Orozco became nomadic. He roasted on weeknights in rented spaces around town and sold his wares at the farmers’ markets in Hollywood and Silver Lake: five single-origin coffees and a handful of drinks.

This past March he finally set down roots and opened a coffeehouse called Cafecito Orgánico. It may not be big enough to roast beans, but it’s a few notches above the blue Dodge van that he operates out of at farmers’ markets. Sunny, with brown tile and brick, the café sits on a blank stretch of Hoover Street in Silver Lake, its simple marigold bell tower visible from the 101 freeway. Orozco launched the space with Mitch Hale, his new business partner. Hale worked as a barista in Seattle before managing the Westwood coffeehouse Espresso Profeta for several years. Half a foot shorter, with neatly spiked pearl white hair, he initially contacted Orozco in search of an L.A. roaster to supplement the shop’s Italian beans. Hale tried a sample. “I really liked it,” he says. “I hadn’t had much luck with organic coffees in terms of how they tasted before that.” His boss passed, but Hale kept in touch. “Angel wasn’t doing it like everybody else. He didn’t have 50 kinds of beans or different blends but was very focused on what he did well.”

One Sunday Hale took a turn making drinks at Orozco’s stand at the Hollywood market, a clutch of regulars waiting to get their Cafecito. “Pretty soon I was working every farmers’ market,” he says. “Angel and I decided we’d do better together than we would separately.” So last year Hale scraped together money from relatives to buy into the operation, which now has four employees. Sitting outside the café one afternoon that first week, Orozco surveyed the empty storefronts lining the street. “There’s this thing in urban planning called a ‘growth toll,’ ” he says, “where one business will attract others, and you create this kind of hub.” Orozco wants to be that hub, boosting the block the same way he’s stepped up for the Guatemalan farmers.

***** 

Starbucks may have introduced the masses to better-tasting coffee, but L.A.’s penchant for cappuccinos and lattes began with the shabby-chic coffeehouses that cropped up in the early 1990s, places like Highland Grounds, Big & Tall, and Lulu’s Alibi. As accommodating as they were, few could produce a decent cup of anything. One of the exceptions was West Hollywood’s Urth Caffè, which thrived selling fair trade beans even as big chains pushed other independent vendors out. In a way, Urth served as a bridge to the other artisanal purveyors who would emerge in the late aughts. When Chicago’s Intelligent-sia landed in Silver Lake in 2007, eschewing flavored syrups and detailing the altitude and soil nutrient levels of its farms, it introduced the city to a new level of obsessive coffee making. By the time local roaster LaMill opened a café in the area the next year, its $12 carafe of precision-brewed coffee didn’t seem all that ridiculous.

Orozco’s signature drink is a $3.50 concoction he calls “Global Warming.” Made with raw cane sugar and milk, it’s sort of an update of the café con leche of frothed milk and powdered grounds he drank growing up. Orozco was four years old when his mother came alone to Los Angeles from Guatemala. It was the early ’80s, and the country’s dormant civil war had flared again. She got a job dressing and feeding seniors at a nursing home. When Orozco was eight, she brought him in on a temporary visa to join her in El Monte, where she lived with her new husband and their infant daughter. Orozco says they were given amnesty, but his home life combusted again when he was 13. His mother traveled to Guatemala for a funeral. “As soon as she left, my stepfather said, ‘You’re out,’ and put all my stuff in a plastic bag,” he says. He moved in with an uncle in San Gabriel.

Orozco was studying anthropology at UCLA in the late 1990s when he began visiting Guatemala’s northern highlands each summer. Snapping photos of archaeological sites came to seem trivial compared with the deep poverty of the Maya K’iche, a cultural tribe he spent time with. “The whole thing about archaeology is to learn the past to inform the future,” Orozco says, “but we weren’t really paying attention to the present.”

He was pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning in the summer of 2001 when he partnered with an exporter to bring yerba maté to the United States. Orozco expected to turn the bitter herb into a cash crop for locals, but the plan fizzled. Before he headed back to school that fall, a co-op farmer pressed into his hands a sack of green coffee beans and asked if he knew of any buyers in L.A. It turned out many of the villagers had become coffee farmers by accident after the new government confiscated coffee plantations and divvied them up. Most of the farmers struggled to grow, let alone sell, their beans. And the quality was pathetic: The farmers had no idea what good coffee tasted like; the only kind they drank, Oroz-co realized, was the instant variety.

One night that fall, Orozco borrowed a home roaster from a friend and arranged it on his kitchen table. He had recently moved into the Eco-Village, a communelike cluster of buildings near Vermont and Beverly where bicycle-toting residents arrive at management decisions by consensus during weekly potlucks. He unsealed the pack of raw beans and slid them in. His living room filled with dank smoke. The smell was wild and earthy. Sitting in his kitchen, the table riddled with coffee husks, Orozco knew he could sell the Guatemalan coffee if he learned how to tease better flavor from it during the roasting process.

He bought some brown paper bags, stamped them with the logo he’d created—“Grown on Earth by Humans, Certified by Cafecito Orgánico”—and started selling. People immediately took to it. Liz Garo, who owns the Echo Park bookstore Stories, ditched a well-liked Seattle company to carry the beans. “Our customers love the coffee, and they’re surprised,” she says of its subtle fruity, almost herbal, flavor. “We liked the idea that the beans are roasted in the neighborhood.”

Though customer traffic at Cafecito Orgánico creaked along at first—the café made $75 on opening day—things have picked up. Orozco is roasting twice as much coffee since those early days, one reason why he’s moved his roaster from the community center to a warehouse in Boyle Heights. He and Hale are even considering an offer from an Orange County developer to open a second café. Along with the farmers in Guatemala and the single estate in El Salvador, he’s been working with a cooperative of four or five farms in Peru and another cooperative in Costa Rica.

Last August, while L.A. toiled under a heat wave, Orozco and his girlfriend boarded a plane to San José. It was his first chance to explain to the Costa Rican farmers exactly what he was looking for. The couple drove through the bright countryside, visiting the farms and walking the rows of squat trees. After several days of taste comparisons, Orozco settled on a new variety called La Candelilla from the Tarrazu region. “It had a very prominent honeylike sweetness to it, like raw cacao,” he says. Orozco bought 10,000 pounds, which were sent by ship to Oakland. Every couple of weeks a batch heads by truck to the warehouse in Boyle Heights, where it’ll be roasted for 15 minutes and not a second more.

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