Three years ago, Blas Alfaro strolled the fields of his family’s coffee estate in the Costa Rican province of Alajuela to survey the season’s harvest. Alfaro’s brother-in-law, who tended to the farm, had almost given up on coffee farming altogether, wondering if he should sell the lots since business had become challenging due to rising costs and the difficulties of growing crops in increasingly volatile weather patterns. A neighboring farm had already pulled its coffee plants out, trying sugarcane instead. But the Alfaro family was growing some new coffee trees.
As a camera crew followed, Alfaro pulled back the branches in a thicket to reveal the ripe red cherries growing underneath. He plucked one and chewed the outer shell approvingly, marveling about how the plants had shown full production much sooner than expected. Alfaro knew such a development was potentially a gamechanger for the land where his family had grown coffee for five generations.
Alfaro is the vice president and partner at Fulcrum, a nine-year-old Seattle roaster with spacious headquarters in SoDo and 30 employees. It’s rare for a roasting company to have an actual coffee farmer in a leadership role (Portland’s Augusto Carneiro, founder of Nossa Familia, is another example in the Pacific Northwest). But Alfaro’s knowledge and experience has helped Fulcrum build close relationships with quality coffee producers around the world, and it’s the reason why Seattleites often see Fulcrum’s bags in some of the city’s best shops, such as Hood Famous Cafe and Bar in the Chinatown International District and Greenwood’s Preserve and Gather.
Perhaps most crucially, Alfaro’s deep understanding of farming, and his involvement in every step of the coffee-making process, has positioned him to identify potential innovations to address the biggest threats to the industry, including the impacts of climate change and the market forces that can crush small producers. Under Alfaro’s guidance, Fulcrum is attempting to solve a puzzle confounding many top roasters: how to make a great cup of coffee sustainable.
Alfaro grew up surrounded by coffee, and preserving farmers’ livelihood has always been a crucial part of his life. He was just six years old when he started working the fields at his family’s coffee estate, harvesting beans to put in a small basket. The land had been farmed as far back as the 1800s, when Alfaro’s great-grandfather jotted notes in a small weather-beaten notebook, documenting the plots he purchased.
While Alfaro eventually discovered a knack and love for roasting, the field labor became more challenging, and the male members of the brood were expected to cull grass with a curved machete. When such duties fell to him, Aflaro believed he had a pretty solid out — he was left-handed, and pretty much all machetes made at the time were for righties. “I just told my dad, ‘Oh, sorry, can’t do it,’” he says.
One Christmas not long after, Aflaro remembers there was a gift underneath the tree, impeccably wrapped: a machete that his father had reconstructed to accommodate a left-hander. “And he said, ‘See, now you can cut the grass,’” Alfaro recalls, laughing.
Decades later, Alfaro’s family background influenced his business approach when he moved to Lynnwood in 2007, landing at local small batch roaster Silver Cup. Like many of the best PNW roasters, he sought to establish more traceability — knowing exactly where and under what conditions coffee beans are grown and harvested — as a top priority at the company. “We were just buying coffee from importers based mainly on whatever was a good deal — still good coffee, but not traceable,” he says. “I wanted to change all that. To me, it was super clear, going back to my upbringing, that there was an opportunity.”
The first traceable coffee Alfaro developed was Quatro Mujeres, made by four Costa Rican women farmers that were his family’s neighbors. “It was the first coffee that I bought direct and I knew the farm,” he says. “So I’m like, I want all our coffees to be like that.” But meeting that goal required more money, capacity, and time.
Soon, Alfaro hooked up with other entrepreneurs and Fulcrum was born, combining the resources of Silver Cup and Urban City, another smaller Seattle roaster that dated back to the 1990s. Along with partners Brian Jurus, Lee Falck, and Bobby Holt, Fulcrum produces three lines of coffee, representing different developments of the city’s tastes over the years. Urban City features dark, chocolatey roasts that won over many coffee drinkers decades ago, not long after the prestigious Italian espresso machine maker La Marzocco set down roots here. Silver Cup focuses on more medium-roasted blends with bright graphics on the bags, while Fulcrum’s namesake products are mainly single-origin roasts, often on the lighter side.
By heading up the main roasting program for Fulcrum, Alfaro brings a sensibility that attempts to address the needs of smaller producers, whether it’s how a Brazilian family-run farm can more efficiently reach the desired 11 percent humidity level for beans resting in its silos, or the specific coffee pulper Fulcrum donated to a Ugandan grower to help it better process its harvest. “If you listen to Blas and why he selects a coffee, he listens to what the farmer is telling him, most of which would go over a coffee roaster’s head,” says Falck. “Why they pruned trees the way they did, why they set up their farm the way they did, where the shade comes in. All that means something to him.”
When discussing his coffee finds and how they relate to farming improvements, Alfaro gets especially animated about hybrids, coffee plants mixed with different genetic lineages. The ones he was marveling at three years ago, the trees with those ripe cherries sprouting early, are called Obata, first bred in Brazil and introduced to Costa Rica in 2014. The beans they produce are derived from varieties of arabica (the most common coffee species in the world) and robusta, which is typically more bitter-tasting, but can grow at higher temperatures and are more resistant to diseases that impact trees. Alfaro was excited about these hybrids because they combined the flavor profile of the former variety with the hardiness of the latter.
Hybrids have been around for decades — in fact, a lot of specialty coffee produced in the world uses hybrid cultivars, particularly because of the impacts brought upon by climate change and other disruptions. One recent study in the journal Climatic Change estimated that around 50 percent of the world’s arabica could be gone by 2050, and another paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the number could be as high as 88 percent in Latin America. Meanwhile, Colombia invested more than $1 billion in disease-resistant coffee plants when it lost more than 40 percent of the country’s coffee crops to a plant-killing fungus known as La Roya between 2008 and 2012.
Despite the dire outlook for conventional coffee growing in the decades to come, breeding and growing arabica-robusta hybrids weren’t always embraced in the specialty coffee industry, primarily due to concerns that introducing the more bitter robusta would turn off coffee drinkers’ palates. That thinking is changing a bit, particularly with the rise of prominent roasters from Vietnam that primarily use robusta beans, but entrenched opinions are hard to shake. “You mention the word ‘robusta’ to people in the coffee world, and they’re like ‘Oh, no,’” Aflaro says.
But when Colombia introduced the hybrid Castillo coffee varietal in 2005, the flavors derived from that plant compared so well to pure arabica that even the most experienced coffee cuppers in the country could not tell the difference in blind taste tests. Fears that robusta would overpower arabica in roasts derived from such hybrids seemed unfounded. “And that really blew my mind. I was like, ‘What am I thinking?’” says Alfaro, who attended one of those tastings. Seeing what a huge difference one variety could make, without sacrificing quality, Alfaro got to work introducing Obata to Fulcrum.
The Obata MariaJose is a citrusy, light roast made (and named after) those plants grown from Alfaro’s family farm. Not only are hybrid plants more resilient in warmer temperatures, withstanding environmental factors such as drought and frost, they are more resistant to diseases like La Roya and don’t have to be sprayed as often for pesticides (one round of fungicide per year versus five or six). Small farmers can thus build more sustainable livelihoods by growing the hybrid plants, avoid the danger of water contaminated with pesticides, and still have beans that produce appealing coffee. “It gives them hope, it gives them excitement,” says Alfaro.
Success still comes down to the quality of the coffee, and in this regard, the hybrids that Alfaro chooses to grow for Fulcrum hold up to the exacting standards of specialty coffee, which traditionally require a grade of at least 80 on a scale up to 100 (MariaJose grades into the mid-to-upper 80s). Part of that comes from the quality of the original hybrid varietals, and part comes from Alfaro’s somewhat obsessive approach to roasting, in which batches can go through months of testing and retesting to arrive at the optimal flavor. It’s a lesson he took from his grandfather, who was a methodical roaster himself and a master at identifying the subtleties of various coffee varieties — an ability he passed along to his grandson. “Sometimes Blas drives us crazy, especially when he’s creating a blend with four or five beans, because he’s just roasting, roasting, roasting,” says Falck. “But he’s got to kind of push the boundaries.”
Fulcrum’s wide range of coffees (sourced from Nicaragua to the Philippines to China) often rate well, and discerning Seattle specialty shops, such as Othello’s Cafe Red, partner with the roaster. But instead of constantly chasing increasingly higher grades (award-winning roasts are graded in the mid-90s) and more production, the search for sustainability continues to take priority. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Costa Rica started planting super dense coffee plantations [to make more money], and that was something my grandfather was against,” Alfaro says. “He explained that the [non-coffee bearing] trees around the farms provide food to animals and produce fruits for the locals in the town, so eliminating those was a terrible decision.” On Alfaro’s own family farm, those non-coffee bearing plants remain.
Alfaro also works with farmers who understand the importance of maintaining such an ecosystem and are thoughtful stewards of the environment. One such partner is the Ceciliano Solano family of Rio Conejo, a coffee estate in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica, which grows a Centroamericano hybrid composed of a rust resistant arabica called T5296 and the Ethiopian arabica varietal Rume Sudan (for flavor depth). The plant not only produces a high yield; but since more coffee can be produced in less space than usual, the farmers’ efforts result in a 77 percent reduction in carbon emissions over the average cup of coffee. Another Fulcrum farming partner, Peru’s Eudes Fernandez Vásquez, practices organic farming by using the coffee cherries’ skin and pulp as a natural fertilizer.
In the end, though, Fulcrum’s ambitions to improve the coffee industry boils down to trust with producers and Alfaro’s understanding about what farmers have to go through, harvest after harvest. He says that he doesn’t like the way some coffee buyers operate, demanding that certain farms make adjustments to their operation before they purchase lots. “I was a critic for a long time about coffee hunters who go to places without any background in farming, without any knowledge on how costly it is for a farmer to do changes,” he says. “They say, ‘Well, if you do this one change, I will come back and buy from you.’ And what would be the change? ‘Well, you have to buy stainless steel tanks that are worth $9,000,’ which is a lot of money for a farmer. [The coffee hunter] comes back the following year, he wants something else. That’s not a relationship.”
Alfaro, who often talks a mile a minute, ponders the thought for a moment, looking through some of the artifacts from his family farm that he has collected at the Fulcrum headquarters. His great-grandfather’s notebook. An old photo with some of the older generation of Alfaros, his grandfather sitting in the middle of the frame, impeccably dressed in a white suit. A machete his father used. “A relationship, it has to be sustainable,” he says.