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A Roaster's Own Story

"On the Continent"
with Jonathan Bell

There are 90 Paradores in Spain. Paradores are an elite chain of hotels known worldwide for their locations, élan, and first class service - the Relais Chateaux version in Spain. Most Paradores, and soon all of them, also offer a coffee, cigars, and brandy post-dinner menu in their restaurants. This elegant little cart presents Paradore dinners with a choice of a half dozen choice brandies and cigars and four highly select coffee origins: Jamaica Blue Mountain 'Wallenford,' Papua New Guinea 'AA Sigri,' Guatemala 'Volcan d'Oro,' and a decaffeinated blend of 100% Arabica under the name of Gran Altura.

What makes the coffee part of this post-prandial menu presentation a success is the quality of the cup that follows it to the table. One can try different origins at the same Paradore, or the same origin at different Paradores, and in this writer's experience the quality of the selection will be far more than acceptable - It will be a delightful surprise. Particularly so given the sad status of foodservice coffee in our times, anywhere and most particularly in Spain. The provender of the coffee is Cafe Castel. Through research, one discovers that the high standard of the cup and the integrity of the origin have been preserved and made possible by use of a pod system. This too is still rare, and again most specifically so in Spain.

There is a story about how the pod came to be used in Spain's Paradores. It tells of a traditional, provincial roasting company that found a new commercial vitality for itself by radically altering its coffee philosophy.

Cafe Castel is located in Malaga, a fabled city on Spain's southern coast. The city is sun drenched and unhurried. Because the people there have a tradition of eating and drinking well, coffee in former times was generally of decent quality, with an emphasis in the cup on Colombia, Brazil, and other Milds. 'Torrefacto' could be found in some bars, but not so much in the home.

Following liberalization of the Spanish coffee market in 1980, however, the national standard began to decline. This was due in part to such factors as concentration in the roasting sector, rising prevalence of torrefacto, fierce competition among multinationals for market position, and low shelf prices that forced the green coffee market toward more and more Robusta in the blend. As a result, the national 'cup' now contains about 60% Robusta.

People noted the difference in their coffee but didn't understand what had happened. The change in quality apparently confused consumers and led to stagnation in consumption. There was no - there still is no - coffee culture in the city or its environs. As a result, many people in Spain have accepted less satisfying coffee, or worse, rejected it completely, thinking there are no alternatives - that this is merely the sorry nature of the drink.

Nevertheless in Malaga, coffee remains a lively part of day-to-day life; for example there are eight terms just for ordering a coffee; they refer to the amount of milk it should contain: one can order a manchado, which is spotted with milk, a nube, clouded with milk, a sombre, with a shadow of milk, corto, short in milk, mitad, half milk, largo, large with milk, cortado, cut with milk, and rarest of all - solo, or no milk at all. But coffee itself was and is generally taken for granted and no tradition exists of valuing or judging coffee by its own merits.

Cafe Castel is an old company, founded back in 1875. It remained in the Castel family until 1975 when it was sold to the Lopez family. Since 1986 it has been managed by Ignacio Lopez Bru whose quest for something better in the cup has led at last to finding espresso pods in use in Paradores.

Lopez had never planned on roasting coffee. In fact, his university studies in the far north, in Bilbao, were meant to serve a completely different career path. Actually, at the time of his father's death, when he was asked to return and take the helm of Cafe Castel, he was serving as commercial attaché at the Spanish Embassy in Senegal.

Lopez began at Cafe Castel with virtually no coffee experience. "My idea of coffee, which is still in my head, came from my student days when my friends and I frequented one of Bilbao's grand old-world cafes, the La Concordia. The cafe was magnificent and the espresso was quite good too - you won't find the same again, although I like to think that the espresso pod may replicate it."

Lopez returned to Malaga during a difficult time for Cafe Castel. Although he inherited from his father a brand new and carefully planned factory that had just been completed, he immediately faced stiff increases in Brazil green coffee prices. At the same time, his local market was locked into a long price war that had tilted it toward Robusta purchasing.

"The only good part to this experience," remembers Lopez, "was that it forced us to quickly learn, by experimenting, how to try and get more to defend cup quality. That crisis was my school for roasting."



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