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Back to the Grind

The day was Friday, March 20th, of 2020. I arrived at Portland International Airport to what can only be described as a ghost town. The plane I was just on had maybe 20 passengers in it, including myself. As I got off the plane, I looked around and noticed there wasn’t anyone waiting at the gates. The TSA agents were standing around scattered, as if they had lost all purpose in life. Most of the shops were closed, but oddly enough there was a piano player in the middle of the room, ironically playing “My Sweet Lord”. On my way out I saw a few folks going through TSA, some wearing masks and keeping a distance from one another, the others, well… the others were probably just Republicans. All however, shared a concerned look on their faces, as if they were about to walk into a lion's den. I wasn’t quite sure of what to feel. Seven days prior I was living in Mexico City in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Roma Norte. That Friday, March 13th, 2020, (Friday the 13th), I got a phone call from one of my clients in Miami telling me that they were going to stop all work for an indefinite amount of time. 20 minutes after that, I received a call from my show-runner. Netflix had just informed him that all ongoing production was to stop - effective immediately. This was 2 weeks after “Las Alturas”, a coffee docu-series began production in Mexico City, and I was the Talent, Writer, and Producer.

By midday I received a third phone call from the only client I had left, a roasting company in Maryland. Like the rest of the world, they decided they would stop all contract work effective immediately. Instantly, I decided I wasn’t going to stick around. In 3 days, I gave away all my plants, most of my sneakers, and all of the food in my pantry to the few friends I made in the city. By the 17th of March I boarded a plane to LAX where I spent 3 days with my family before getting on a plane back to Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t really sure of what I was supposed to do next. The world, after all, had just come to a full stop. Nine months prior, I had done away with the little I owned, swearing not to come back to Portland until I accomplished something meaningful. As I stood there in the Portland Airport waiting for my luggage to come out on that conveyor belt, I took in all the panic and all the confusion in people's faces and thought "I’m going to apply for a job with FEMA”.

I grabbed my bag, made my way to the curb, and walked over to my ride who was already waiting for me outside, Olivia.

Four months prior, Olivia decided she was going to pursue her life's passion of becoming a renowned Pastry Chef, in Australia of all places. To be fair, she didn’t actually say that she was trying to become a renowned pastry Chef, she would never admit to that, but with Olivia there is no in between. Her time there was short. When the numbers began to spike globally she decided to come back to Portland to be near her family. Like me, she didn’t really know what she was supposed to do next, so we decided to meet in Portland and quarantine together until we figured it out.

We rented an Airbnb for what was supposed to be a week, but quickly turned to two, and eventually turned into two months before we finally decided to get a place of our own.

Seeing her for the first time in months was emotionally overwhelming, mostly because there were so many things going through my head. We drove straight to our Airbnb, a beautiful 2 story home in deep Northeast Portland, a gem of a Guest House, fully furnished with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and cable TV. As soon as we checked in we rushed over to the grocery store and bought enough food to get us through a month. That night, we cooked dinner, we drank wine, caught up on life, watched a lot of news, and commiserated over the fact we weren’t really sure what our plan was for the days to follow. The next morning I woke up and drove to La Perlita. By this time, Axel had already shut it all down, storing away everything of value. When I opened the door to the storage unit, it looked like a tornado had blown through the whole place. It was a fucking disaster. What’s more, everything in that space felt strangely like a distant memory. On one side of the room there were boxes of personal items I never had the chance to part with - pictures and art from my past life, boxes of DVDs collected over the years. The other side was filled with all kinds of wonderful coffee equipment that belonged to the shop; grinders, ceramics, kettles, pour-over tools. After looking it all over, I grabbed the things I knew I needed at home for a proper coffee set up, and then I got to work. It took me about 4 hours, but I reorganized and cleaned out everything. When I was done, the whole thing felt more like a remote bunker office rather than a storage unit in a basement. Later that day, I went to the closest FEMA site and applied for a “Disaster Coordinator” position. In my head it made sense that if the whole thing was going to get any uglier, I might as well have insight into what “uglier” really looked like. After submitting my application, I cooked dinner, drank more wine, watched more news, and sat with Olivia who had spent most of the day at her mother’s house. We didn’t really have much to talk about by Day Two. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure why she stuck around with me during that time - there was so much uncertainty, not just because of the pandemic but uncertainty between the two of us, about where this was all going. But we had the Airbnb, so we just went with it. Day 3, we found a church with a basketball court and went out to shoot around. We needed it. Later that day, we talked about our purpose and what the hell we were going to do so that we didn’t go crazy. Her plan: find a place to volunteer and do some good. My plan: eventually get back to Mexico and hopefully continue shooting the docuseries. The next day we started that whole routine again. Wake up, make coffee, cook breakfast, watch the news. By the time Governor Cuomo was done with his daily briefing I was ready to go and take advantage of the little bit of sun that was out. As I got dressed I got a text message from the facilities coordinator at Ecotrust. Apparently there was a large heavy package that arrived for me that needed to be picked up from the atrium. Not really sure what it was, I quickly changed my plans and drove down with immense curiosity. When I got there, I saw 4-50 pound boxes from DHL from a sender in Puebla. I pulled out my pocket knife and cut them open carefully. Inside of it was an enormous bag filled with green coffee along with a note detailing its contents. It took me a minute, but then it came to me. Just over a month before all this happened, I traveled to a city named Huitzilan in Puebla and made friends with a Producer whose family grew coffee in both Puebla and Veracruz. During my visit there, I tasted a number of beautiful coffees that blew me away, so much so that the next day I sent the Producer an advance for 200 pounds despite no longer having a coffee business. My plan was to have it shipped to Axel back in Portland, who would then give it to someone to roast, and eventually he could sell it at La Perlita. Since I didn’t have access to a coffee roaster, I quickly made my way down to the basement and pulled out my first roasting machine, the Behmor! That dumb little half pound roasting machine was how I got started with coffee in the first place. Think of it as a toaster that looks like a rotisserie but functions like an oven… only prone to catching on fire if you overuse or modify it in any of the ways I had in the past. In that moment, none of that mattered. I grabbed the box with the Behmor, the boxes of green coffee, a couple of sample bags, and made my way back to the Airbnb. 2 hours later, I had 3 pounds of roasted coffee and no plan as to what I was going to do with it next, aside from drink it of course.

The next day, I went through that whole morning routine all over again, only this time I was brewing the coffee I roasted the day before. 20 grams of coffee brewed with a water temperature of 201°, a 15:1 water to coffee ratio, 5 pours, and a final draw down time of 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

It was beautiful, all of it. Almost as if I was reciting poetry to a person I love. Even the simple act of opening the bag of coffee brought me back to the time when I first fell in love with it, the days when I would head to Barista on my day off to pick up a new bag of Roseline, freshly roasted by my coffee idol, Marty Lopes. The smell coming from the bloom took me back to a particular moment when I was standing around at the bar at Coava waiting for my coffee to finish brewing. It was the most beautiful fruity Ethiopian from the Kochere region which comes into rotation once or twice a year, and when it does I always make sure to snag a bag to brew. Man, I was a fucking coffee nerd during a time when specialty coffee and pour overs mattered. When roasters still roasted light not realizing that model was unsustainable. Coava, Roseline, Stumptown, Heart. What a time to be alive. Eventually, I finished my pour and sat back at the table. As I waited for it to cool a bit, I thought of the time I purchased my very first sack of green coffee and wondered how I was going to go through it all. I didn’t have a coffee shop yet, just an obsession and a will to change the face of coffee in this city, as crazy as that may sound. I remember that coffee so well, I paid $4.25 per pound for an Ethiopian coffee from the Limu region. It tasted like jasmine tea and peaches. Every time I roasted it, I felt like I was getting closer and closer to being a real professional and not some poser with a hobby. It took me years to get over that imposter syndrome. At last, there I was. Two cups of coffee, one for me, and one for Olivia. We took one sip. We both smiled at each other. I believe I was more emotional than she was. That taste brought me back to earth. No really, that’s not an exaggeration. That coffee gave me life. It gave me purpose. It gave me a reason to pull out a pen and pad and start drawing up a plan that went far beyond just roasting coffee. I literally went back to the table, I started writing down ideas of how I was going to do this. When I finished that cup of coffee, I made a second one and shared my thoughts with Olivia, which at that very moment were all over the place. She sat there, drinking coffee, listening to me ramble about a greater purpose and a different message. I was going to start all over again, only this time I was going to focus on roasting coffee from the people who I met through my travels in Mexico, and in some way I was going to make sure I was looking out for everyone in the entire chain, not just the Producer. She humored me, just sort of sat there and smiled. She paused for a second, took one more sip of coffee and said “I have questions”.

2 days later, Olivia built the website and subscription model for what is now Reforma Roasters. I spent those 2 days roasting more coffee and designing labels for the brand. A few days later the website went live, and that was the start of it all.

Just like that, our pandemic got a little less scary, and even though we hadn’t quite figured out our own lives, she agreed to help me get this off of the ground. It was a start.

Oh yeah, FEMA called me back 3 days after my application to schedule an interview. The job required me to move to DC for a few weeks before being deployed somewhere else.

I turned it down, obviously.

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