The Tijuana Coffee Fix
Everyone who visits Tijuana leaves with a story. Some are tales of racetracks, whiskey and late night tattoo parlours with twitching neons of the Virgen de Guadalupe soaring above their doors. I once drank five coffees in a row in Tijuana and lived to write about it. I remember them nostalgically now, each one by its distinct, freshly brewed aroma.
The first was an espresso. The second was an espresso, the third a flat white. After the flat white came a third espresso, and I finished the sitting with a long black. It was Nestor Graciano – local coffee intellect and head roaster at Dinastia 12 – who got me into such a hyper-caffeinated condition.
Nestor gave up a marketing job to become a barista and coffee roaster, precisely with this kind of outcome in mind. “The smell of coffee, the taste, and the people – their faces, their stories, their vision – all appeal to me,” he says, pouring textured milk into a coffee cup to make a concentric heart on top of a flat white. I’m three cups of coffee in, and quietly ecstatic to have a flat white in my hands in Mexico. Nestor himself started drinking coffee young, in the form of Mexican-style café con leche, prepared by his grandma using instant coffee and “tonnes of sugar”.
These days he prefers the French press, and works with Mexican coffee beans sourced from growers in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Nayarit, Chiapis, Puebla and Guerrero. It’s all part of a conscious revolution happening in Tijuana, with food and drinks at its core.
“Tourists used to cross the border into Tijuana for the hedonistic nightlife and souvenir sombreros,” says Nestor. “Now more and more they come for great food, local wine and artisan beers. Coffee is closing this great gastronomic and hedonistic puzzle for the city.”
Nestor roasts coffee all day, everyday except Sundays, in a roasting room above Dinastia 12’s flagship cafe in downtown Tijuana. Simultaneous aromas of roasting beans and brewed coffee bump together on the cafe floor, pure and compelling. “We use a Sivetz roaster here, which is an air roasting system,” explains Nestor. “It helps us produce beans with cleaner aromas and tastes because during the roast, the beans only come into contact with hot air, not the surfaces of the roasting equipment.”
Watched closely, the roasting process is loud, hot and essential to bring out the aromatic characteristics of coffee. Nestor tips a batch of green beans from Finca de la Vequia into his Sivetz and – hot air rising – the beans start to bounce and crack like popcorn, changing colour under the twin influences of time and temperature. “You rely on your senses when you roast coffee,” says Nestor above the sound of the machine. “You need to watch for colour, hear the crack and smell the changes as the sugars in the beans caramelize. It’s an empirical process of learning how to bring out the best in each coffee bean.”
The beans Nestor is working with today are from outside of Huatusco, Veracruz, one of Mexico’s most important coffee growing zones. The roasting time coaxes a signature caramel aroma out from within the beans. To drink, they’re chocolate-like and smooth. “I don’t want to tell you what to think,” laughs Nestor as I work my way through an espresso he’s made with freshly ground Finca de la Vequia beans. “But you might find that it’s sweet on the top part of your tongue, with bright apple acidity on the sides.” The description is right of course.
“Each of the coffee beans we work with here will have, or develop, a different personality or profile,” explains Nestor. “In Mexico, we have that all-around sweetness in a bean from Chiapas, with tones of vanilla, brown sugar and hints of a citric acidity and even maple when it’s served with milk. We have a natural, full-bodied bean from Guerrero, with berry-like sweetness and a dark chocolate aftertaste that turns into honey when you add milk. And we have those classic profiles of beans from Veracruz and Oaxaca.”
It’s easy to taste – and smell – what Nestor is saying;
Aroma is coffee introducing itself and it’s commonly a great first impression! As a barista I simply try not to mess that up. I want to pay tribute to all the meaningful and beautiful history behind each origin, blend or coffee bean. For instance, when I tried our Guerrero beans for the first time, I smelt the fragrance of bananas in them. Afterwards, when I visited the plantation, I discovered they intercrop coffee and banana plants, so strangely it made sense.
The smell of coffee makes you close your eyes and focus. It jogs your senses – particularly in the morning. “Decoding the aroma of coffee makes you aware of what you’ve lived or experienced before,” says Nestor. “I mean, you know the smell of roses, strawberries, vanilla and when you make that connection with coffee it’s mind blowing.”