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Partner Spotlight: Third Coast Coffee

Joe Lozano was never really that passionate about coffee. Sure, he liked to drink it. But he didn’t know much about the stuff other than it helped him work long shifts as a restaurant chef, which he did for 20 years. But then a group of friends in the business approached him about joining them in a new venture in Austin that would roast coffee. Lozano was curious and he figured the skills he had acquired over the years might come in handy. Plus, he needed something new to do. “I got into the coffee business because I needed a job,” says Lozano.

As it turned out, that first venture never really got off the ground. But Lozano decided to embark on his own by starting his own roasting service. After he learned the ropes with that business, and built key relationships with customers like Kerbey Lane Cafe, he sold the company and bought another existing business called Third Coast Coffee in 2008. He’s been growing that business ever since. While Lozano sticks to selling his coffee close to home in Texas to ensure its freshness, customers can now place orders online as well at ThirdCoastCoffee.com.

One of the things that makes Lozano’s business so unique – and his coffee in such high demand – goes back to a decision he made about 13 years ago when he became one of the seven founding members of a fledgling coffee cooperative whose goal was to buy Fair Trade organic coffee from Latin America, Africa, and Indonesia. The idea was to pay farmers a fair price through the Fair Trade system to grow organic coffee beans. Many communities where coffee grows around the world are quite rural and remote and, as a result, winning farmers’ trust can take a long time.

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Adding to the difficulty is the fact that getting organic certified is a three-year process, where the farmer has to pay fees each year that just about add up to their net income for the entire season. Clearly, that was a difficult sell to farmers who had offers from other sellers with cash in hand who didn’t care about whether the beans were organic or not.

The co-op Lozano joined, which is called Cooperative Coffees, came up with a plan: they would pay the farmers 90% of the premium price as they were working through the certification process as a way to encourage them to stick with it. The co-op has also adopted a practice know as “open contracts” that help ensure farmers get paid at the highest possible rate.

That sales pitch has worked, as the co-op - which now numbers 23 roasters in the U.S. and Canada - currently buys coffee beans from 16 countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Indonesia. “The decision to join that co-op has turned out to be the highlight of my 22 years in the coffee roasting business,” says Lozano, who says that anyone can also go the website FairTradeProof.org to see every order of coffee he has purchased and how much he paid for it.

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Lozano says that supporting Fair Trade practices is so important not just because it results is tastier coffee – it also helps improve the lives of the famers and the communities they live and work in. For instance, a group of farmers in Nicaragua that the co-op buys from now awards college scholarships to children in their communities. “Those young people then bring back business and agricultural skills to the community, which helps everyone become more sophisticated about how they sell their beans and who they sell them to,” says Lozano, who typically makes a couple of trips each year to meet different farmers and to show them what roasting the beans entails. “In many ways, we are helping them to produce a better quality product they can sell to anyone in the world for a good price.”

Lozano is happy to show off his team’s roasting skills at his shop on South Congress Avenue. Customers are welcome to stop by and sample some free coffee, buy some freshly roasted beans, and learn how roasting converts coffee from an inedible green bean into brown and roasted deliciousness. The process, which Lozano refers to as his “dog-and-pony show,” is actually quite simple as the beans are loaded into what might be described as something like a front-loading washing machine where the beans are heated and tumbled in a drum until they are done – which is something that Lozano and his roasting team determine by smell, taste, and experience. The longer you heat a bean, for instance, the darker it will become and, contrary to public perception, also less caffeinated. “The secret recipe really comes down to heat and time,” he says. “Every roaster has access to the same seeds. The end result is all because of technique.”

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Lozano also points out that coffee beans taste quite differently depending on where they are sourced. Beans from Peru, for example, are low in acidity and have a hint of chocolate flavor. That’s because Peru also grows a lot of cacao plants used to make chocolate and the coffee plants pick up those flavors from the soil. Similarly, coffee from Sumatra is often spicy and peppery because farmers there plant green pepper plants next to their coffee beans. “It passes through the roots,” says Lozano. In fact, you can take a coffee plant from Colombia and plant it in Kenya and the plant will grow Kenyan coffee beans. “It’s the soil, the altitude, and the climate that dictates the taste, not the bean itself,” says Lozano.

One thing you won’t find at Third Coast anymore is flavored coffee – which is made by adding glycerin-based flavoring to the beans. While Lozano says he used to offer an Irish Crème flavor a few years ago, he stopped after he learned that the flavoring he needed to make it was flammable and needed to be shipped inside fire-retardant foam. “If people want flavor in their coffee, I suggest they just pour some syrup into their cup,” he says.