Percolating Through the Generations
Zapata Coffee Roasting Company
STORY BY JESSICA SOMMERFIELD
PHOTOS BY TERESA GRASSESCHI
It was the late 1800s. In the midst of the internal violence of Colombia’s Thousand Days’ War, a group of daring muleteers, or arrieros, ventured south from Manizales to seek their fortunes in the unexplored lands bordered by modern-day Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío: the fertile triangle of Colombia’s famous La Zona Cafetera — The Coffee Zone.
A man named Jesus Zapata was among those who set out on this dangerous journey, seeking a better life for his family by staking his claim to coffee-land in the Valle del Cauca region. Today, this area is recognized as the source of Colombia’s highest-quality coffees.
It is here, in a humble Colombian community that later became the town of Sevilla, where Maria Zapata of Bothell traces her roots. It’s where the inception of the dream that became Zapata Coffee Roasting Company started percolating, and where Maria now sources her specialty coffees — directly from her Colombian family’s farm.
Like her arriero great-grandfather Jesus, Maria and her husband, Jorge Rivera made a daring venture to the Seattle area to seek a better life for their family. Along with the challenge of starting a small business in the Pacific Northwest, Maria faced the language and cultural barriers many immigrants face. But with a little dreaming, plenty of hard work, and the support of a close network of friends, her passion for coffee and community became a reality.
In the Pacific Northwest, where most residents are less than a block away from a coffee shop at any given time, it’s especially easy to recognize the importance of coffee. For Colombians, it runs even deeper. “Coffee, in my country, is something you have in your blood,” says Maria. “It’s not just something to produce. It’s culture.” In this case, coffee has percolated through the veins of Maria’s family for five generations.
It was Maria’s grandfather, Honorio Zapata, just three years old when his father ventured to Valle del Cauca, who most influenced her desire to continue in the family business. One of her most distinct memories of him is that he “always smelled like coffee.” The strength of her family’s connection to coffee was evident in her father, who moved to Bogotá as an adult but returned to his roots in Sevilla 20 years later to work in coffee.
“The desire to grow coffee was there,” Maria notes. Inheriting this desire herself, she decided to major in agricultural engineering. “When my grandfather found out what my major was, he asked, ‘Why?’ and I answered, ‘Coffee!’ I could tell he was proud.”
By the time Maria graduated from the National University of Colombia in 1998, the violent struggle for territory and power that raged between guerilla, paramilitary, and government forces in Colombia had started to escalate, and the innocent civilian population was taking the brunt of it.
A few years later, in 2002, she and Jorge were working on the pilot phase of a National Center for Coffee Research project to grow mushrooms from coffee waste at her father’s farm. Maria’s husband, brother, and father were at the farm the day that a band of guerillas attacked. “They took everything,” Maria recounts. They also took her brother hostage, later releasing him with the warning that if his father failed to pay them extortion money, they knew where his family lived. Maria’s father didn’t have the money, so he paid them the only way he could: letting them harvest and sell that year’s coffee crop. The guerillas forced him to abandon the farm for a year, and when he returned, it was overrun with weeds. He sold the land at a loss and moved his farm to Viota Cundinamarca, a safer area closer to Bogotá.
Shaken by these events and concerned for the safety of their children, Maria and Jorge decided it was time to leave the country. When Jorge received a job offer in Seattle, they took it.
At first, Maria was preoccupied with raising their girls, learning English, and adjusting to American culture, but she was also thinking to the future. “As a mom of girls, I had the urge to use my time and give them an example of how we, as women, could do more, give more, and be productive.” She started working on her business idea and eventually shared it with Jorge.
“You want to roast coffee?” he asked her. “That makes sense. Your family grows coffee; you are an agricultural engineer. Why not?” Jorge encouraged her to conduct market research on her idea and helped her present the final plan to a group of friends who they hoped would join them as business partners. In the end, four couples decided to jointly invest in Maria’s business, starting with the purchase of a coffee roaster.
The next step was sourcing her coffee. Coming from a family of growers — which means never seeing where the coffee ultimately ends up — Maria finds it especially rewarding to participate in the “other side of the story” as a buyer and roaster. As a new roasting company, there were many options. For Maria, it was not only important to purchase quality coffee, but also to work with an importer who keeps close relationships with Colombian coffee growers: a connection that makes Zapata coffee unique.
This led her to Craig Holt from Atlas Importers, a Seattle-based importer who knows his growers by name, treats them like family, and engages with their language and culture. After working with Craig for the past two years, Maria hopes to continue working with him now that the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation has approved the Zapata farms’ coffee for export and granted the permit necessary for it to be labeled with the authentic Colombian coffee trademark. While Maria has always been open to roasting other quality coffees, she says, “I also want my family’s coffee to be part of that pool of good coffee, to get on the map of good coffees.”
Zapata coffee isn’t just Colombian coffee sourced from the Valle del Cauca region, known for its ideal terroir. It’s also specialty coffee, which means it must be graded 80 points or higher during cupping — the equivalent of wine tasting. Maria has always purchased coffees graded at least 85 points (the threshold of the Specialty Coffee Association of America standard for specialty coffee) and has even acquired batches graded as high as 93. “This ensures the quality,” she explains.
Proving the quality of her family’s coffee crop was an important step towards sourcing her beans from their farms, and it was one of the main agendas of her July 2016 trip back to her hometown of Sevilla. She and her family took 15 samples from around their farms to cup with officials from the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, which included Manuel Peña, the 2015 winner of Colombia’s National Tasters Championship.
Out of these 15 samples, two were graded at 84 and above. “That was amazing,” Maria says, noting that her cousins’ generation knows they have room to improve their post-harvest processing. Next to the terroir, processing is a key determinant of coffee bean quality.
During her visit, Maria especially noticed the differences between the older and younger generation’s approach to coffee farming. In the past, Colombian farmers like the Zapatas simply grew coffee and didn’t pay close attention to factors like temperature, moisture, and shade farming, which influence the quality of the coffee and promote biodiversity.
Now, besides implementing more detailed growing procedures, the Zapatas are working with Sevilla’s coffee co-op, which performs the final cleaning process on their specialty-grade coffee. All this led to the opportunity to finally import high-quality Colombian coffee directly from Maria’s cousin Federico Zapata’s farm, which started in November 2016.
The final feature that makes Zapata coffee stand out is the small-batch roasting process. As Maria learned the intricacies of roasting and started experimenting with creating her own profiles, she says, “I felt a connection with my grandpa.”
She admits, with a laugh, that her first few batches were horrible. “You think roasting is just roasting. No. You have all the thermodynamics behind the beans: how time affects them, how temperature affects them.” With a capacity of only 2.5 kilos, Maria’s roaster is considered very small in the industry. She roasts by hand, carefully checking the temperature on the coffee beans every 30 seconds and maintaining a consistent “curve” for each profile.
“The curve is the way you keep the temperature on the coffee beans always the same in every roast, for every coffee,” she says. Because she roasts in small batches on a weekly basis, the coffee is always fresh. This care and attention that Maria puts into her coffee isn’t something always found in every roasting business.
Zapata Coffee Roasting Company currently offers four standard profilesapata Dark (a strong, full-bodied blend of Sumatran and Colombian), Zapata Light (a decaffeinated roast), and the Maria (a single-Colombian-origin medium roast that friends named for its similarities to Maria’s personality: sweet and strong, with soft aromas). The new Zapata-sourced coffee is also single-origin with its own profile.
You’ll find Zapata coffee locally, because — just as it is in Colombia — community is at the heart of Zapata Coffee Roasting Company. From June to September, visit the Bothell Farmers Market, where you can try free samples and purchase Zapata coffee from Maria herself. “The farmers market idea is beautiful, because everything you buy is local, and you’re going to help the community.”
Or grab a cup of Zapata Dark and buy bags of Zapata coffee at Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen, a specialty restaurant in the University District of Seattle that offers authentic Venezuelan and Colombian cuisine. You can also order Zapata coffee online at zapatacoffee.com and have it shipped — or delivered, if you live in north King or south Snohomish County.
“I want to give a good product for a good price,” says Maria. “I want to be fair in every aspect. I want to grow and create jobs. My idea is to have people working for my company who are able to succeed in life and earn a living.”
Future plans include expanding into other farmers markets, establishing a dedicated place for roasting her coffee, and working to grow partnerships with local coffee shops, churches, and restaurants in Pacific Northwest communities.
As for what she loves most about what she does, Maria responds without hesitation: “Talking with people.” Sure, she enjoys the artistic process of creating new coffee profiles and experimenting with the beans, but the greatest reward for her is watching customers enjoy the coffee and share their feedback. Maria thinks of interacting with people as a bridge for building relationships with people. “It’s not just about a product. It’s about building social fabric.”
Jessica Sommerfield primarily creates web content for businesses and organizations in the lifestyle, finance, fitness, and health care sectors. Born and raised in Michigan, she and her husband have spent the last two years exploring the unique cultural and natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest.