Around Seattle, the coffee industry can seem like a small world, where your barista knows your drink, your name, and maybe even your best friend who is a barista down the street—or maybe that’s just me. For Carlos Salmeron, owner and operator of the new Seattle coffee house, Ventoux Roasters, its reach is astounding.
Salmeron’s love story with coffee goes back to before he was born, when his dad, now 84-years-old, worked on a family-owned coffee farm in El Salvador in his early adolescence. It continues now with his coffee shop, Ventoux (pronounced v-ah-n-too) in Seattle’s Bryant neighborhood.
Seattle has a reputation as a city coated with endless corners of coffee shops devoted to fair trade bean sources. However, not many specialty coffee houses are owned and operated by someone with direct family ties to the coffee farms of Brazil, Vietnam, El Salvador or other countries where coffee is grown. Then came Salmeron.
Salmeron opened Ventoux in October in a storefront that houses two coffee business that are separate, but work together: Hart Coffee Co. provides and roasts the beans; Ventoux Roasters prepares your coffee beverage. The cup of pour-over coffee I tried at Ventoux is rich and smooth, with fruity notes that dance alongside the classic coffee flavor; the shop is magnetic, pulling you from the front counter towards the back of the shop, where roasting takes place within eyesight.
Salmeron, 41, grew up in suburban California. His parents, Jose and Argentina Salmeron, alternated between speaking Spanish and English to him on a regular basis, giving him fluency in both languages. But he lacked the Salvadorian culture that his parents came from.
His dad, who had moved to New York by himself at the age of 19 with $40 in his pocket and the clothes on his back, didn’t talk much about his past. He had moved on from this lifestyle, and wanted to let it go, Salmeron said.
In 1982, when Salmeron was in the second grade, he spent three months traveling through El Salvador visiting his mom’s family. Culture shock was overwhelming.
“I literally got off the plane with an Izod shirt — an Izod Polo — a pair of slacks, and, like, a pair of K-Swiss,” Salmeron explained. “And my cousins, who I had never met, looked at me and they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy? He’s not our—there’s no way this guy is our cousin.’ “
It was during this time in his life that Salmeron realized both his love for Salvadorian culture and desire to give back to it. He also got a first hand look at the prominent role coffee plays in the economy and culture of El Salvador.
“The first thing I noticed was for breakfast, my aunt was making the kids espresso,” Salmeron said, “It’s totally a part of the culture for them to experience coffee.“
What started out as a domestic beverage in El Salvador became an important commodity to the country by the late 20th century, but according to Euromonitor’s Country Profile, that has decreased over the years. While coffee used to provide more than half of the country’s export earnings in 1988, it only amounts to 3 per cent as of June 2014, replaced by things like textiles and shoes.
Export coffee can be transferred internationally through a variety of ways. One way is through cooperatives. Farmers can also sell directly to importers, or to small roasting companies like Hart Coffee Roastery.
“When [the farmers] know the crop is sold, it raises the quality,” says Scott Richardson, co-owner, coffee sourcer and roaster of Herkimer Coffee in Seattle, “because they don’t have to worry about selling it anymore.”
Richardson explains that it’s beneficial for everyone involved to source through small, hand-harvested farms. Working directly with farmers improves the product and also cuts out the middleman, making it easier to ignore the market price of coffee and stabilize the farmers’ incomes.
The hardships Salmeron witnessed while visiting El Salvador, which at the time was in the midst of a 12-year civil war, and the joy the people maintained despite this, struck him as important. He thought coffee seemed to be at the center of all of this.
“They were in the middle of a war zone, and still, every night and every morning, the family gathered together and they always had coffee,” Salmeron said. “It was almost like coffee helped them deal with the stress of war.”
Over time, Salmeron lost his connection with his extended family. His half brother, Mauricio Mayorga, however, has cousins that own and run a coffee farm in El Salvador. It’s Salmeron’s goal to connect with these distant family members, and give back to his country of origin by sourcing directly through farms — his half cousins’ farm, specifically.
Chris Davidson, the Coffee Trader and Relationship Coffee Specialist for Atlas Coffee in Seattle and co-founder of the Barista Guild of America, said people from coffee-sourcing countries can help U.S. roasting companies source directly with farmers. He also cites Mayorga Coffee in Maryland as an example of a roasting company with family roots in coffee sourcing countries like Nicaragua and Peru.
This genealogical link to coffee that Salmeron and Mayorga Coffee have is a rarity in Seattle, though, he said.
“The trend seems to be — for better or for worse — late 20s to mid 30s, usually white, usually male [coffee shop or roastery owners],” Davidson said of Seattle’s coffee culture.
While ties like these are scattered throughout the U.S. coffee industry, Salmeron’s ties are unusual in Seattle coffee culture. The history pulls coffee consumers a bit closer to the origin of their beverage, just as the Bryant coffee shop pulls them towards the back of the store, where the beans are roasted and the making of their beverage commences.