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Next to water, Americans probably drink coffee more than any other drink, but they know very little about brewing, says Karel Leon, co-founder of a Ballston-based coffee company.
He and his co-founder Javier LLano want to change that through their company, Black & Brown Coffee House, based in Ballston (4075 Wilson Blvd). It has the ambitious goal of tackling the alleged unhealthy physical side effects of commercial coffee and the unethical treatment of farmers and unsustainable practices, while giving back to DC’s poorest communities.
“When you have a product, any product, and you know your food is unethical, unsustainable, and bad for the health of the consumer, I would quit that job. “, did he declare. “Why should I do this?”
Unhappy with his work at the World Bank Group, Karel – who grew up on a coffee plantation in Colombia – wanted to do work that had a direct impact on people living in poverty. He started Dignity Coffee in 2018, supplying coffee offices to growers in his hometown, and then turned to LLano.
But the pandemic has struck and slashed Dignity’s profits by 90%, he said. Karel and LLano, who are Latino and black respectively, changed their names following the 2020 social justice movements to draw attention to inequalities in the commercial coffee industry and provide an alternative for consumers.
They decided to start where poor quality coffee hits people the most: their stomachs.
“The most important thing for consumers is to educate people about what ‘healthier black coffee’ means and why it matters,” Leon said.
Leon needed coffee in the office to stay alert, but it gave him indigestion, so he tried eating bagels and adding milk and sugar to calm his stomach growls.
He realized he was not alone. Additionally, he learned that the common side effects of diarrhea and acid reflux can be attributed to where coffee berries are grown and how they are picked and processed.
Most commercial coffee berries are grown in flat areas with constant sunlight. He said coffee trees should grow on the slopes of tree-covered mountains, where the berries are exposed to fluctuating hot and cool temperatures that balance acidity and fully develop their natural flavors.
But farmers use flat land because their machines – which don’t distinguish between ripe, unripe, and rotten coffee berries like a picker in the mountains would – to increase their harvests, he said.
The berries continue to develop their flavors during a fermentation process that underpaid farmers operated by big companies tend to rush, he said.
To extract the flavor from the underripe coffee, the beans are caramelized – or burned – over high heat, which produces oils that the body also cannot handle effectively, he said. Cafes and fast food restaurants fight the burnt taste by serving the coffee very hot, with additives or in the form of “Nitro coffee” infused with carbon dioxide.
“This is one of the more unknown stories out there,” he said. “If people knew better, they would make better choices. “
Black and Brown Coffee House produces “healthy coffee” by paying fair wages to Colombian coffee farmers and distributing the work, he said.
Typically, farmers are paid pennies on the dollar to produce the nutrient-deficient berries and rush through post-harvest processing while roasting companies and retailers in the US and Europe profit from the industry. lucrative, he said. This continues because Colombians need to export coffee in order to survive.
“[About] 550,000 families in Colombia depend on coffee, ”he said. “We don’t have a cafe, we don’t have a social network.”
In contrast, Black and Brown Coffee House pays farmers to grow it and pays other community members to process the berries.
Leon says the farmers in his business are different – they don’t look poor.
“Our farmers don’t look like a lot of Latin American farmers with shabby clothes, which don’t fit well,” he said. “After a few years of paying them better, they feel better, they send their children to higher education, and their children come back to the farm because they see their standard of living.”
Maintaining processing and roasting in Medellin means Black and Brown Coffee House uplifts the community while reducing its ecological footprint, Leon said.
“We are cutting the supply chain in half by roasting at the source,” he said. “Direct trade with consumers where there are no intermediaries is the best choice for consumers. You are not part of the story of inequality.
To fight against local examples of inequality, the company donates 5% of its profits to organizations helping children in neighborhoods 7 and 8 of DC
Leon aims to prevent the social goals of Black and Brown Coffee House from being lumped into one political camp.
“Our brand aims to reconcile the differences we have in this country. Everything has become so polarized, ”he said. “It’s just the way many consumers are, especially educated consumers. They want to know which way you are leaning.