Knowing What You’re About

Mayan Barista Rocking the Cimbali Espresso Machine at Cafe Baviera, in Xela, Guatemala

Mayan Barista Rocking the Cimbali Espresso Machine at Cafe Baviera, in Xela, Guatemala

It was raining in Quetzaltenango, a city with a surprisingly cool climate in the land of eternal spring. Xela, as the locals refer to it by its pre-Spanish Mayan name, is Guatemala’s second largest city, and a gateway to the coffee country of the western highlands. My tribe — Dilnavaz, myself, and our three young boys — had been up since dawn to make the trip from Lake Atitlan to Xela. From the precarious wooden dock of Hotel Isla Verde, we had hailed a public lancha (canopied motorboat) to Panajachel. At the Pana docks we crammed our five bodies and five stuffed backpacks into a tuktuk, a Guatemalan rickshaw; ours as many others in Pana rested on a classic Indian Bajaj scooter chassis, which delighted Dilnavaz. The tuktuk dropped us at the perpetually frenetic intersection of the Calle Principal and Calle Santander, in the spiritual center of town. Four chicken buses and three hours later we stood literally outside the Xela city gates at an impromptu bus stand.

A young office worker was thumbing through text messages on his Claro network berry. He looked up as we tried to orient ourselves. I approached him and tried to articulate our wish to reach the central square, in my — for lack of a more precise term — charismatic Spanish. He pointed to a microbus, which naturally at that moment was roaring into gear and grudgingly rolling out of the dust and onto the main road. “You want to go to the Parque Central? You need to take that blue micro, just over there. Run!” He whistled loudly at the fare collector, who duly leaned out the open sliding passenger door of the modified 1999 Toyota minivan, and grabbed each of us successively, hoisting us into the van.

We checked into our hotel around noon, hungry, spent, and unsettled by flashes of residual adrenaline. A brief stroll off the central park in the misted precipitation of the rainy season brought us to the door of Café Baviera, a noted city hangout with European roots. Framed newspaper clippings ascended the walls from baseboards to ceiling, reflecting a sepia-intoxicated Xela from the 20th and late 19th centuries. The yellowing articles and photographs portrayed a prosperous and sophisticated city, of stately if eclectic architecture; a community that accommodated aspiring Mayan university students, Ladino farmers from the surrounding countryside, and even German lager brewers.

While we picked through the wide ranging menu, I asked for a black coffee. Our waitress second-guessed my request with a subtle tilt of her head. “Es fuerte,” she said simply – it’s strong. The admonishment threw me a bit. We traveled in Gautemala nearly three weeks this summer, and universally the coffee we sampled in restaurants, cafes, and coffee plantations was mild, if often sumptuous. Guatemalan coffee roasters vigilantly monitor acidity during the roasting process, and I believe they are often afraid to contravene the conventional perception of classic Antiguan flavor that so many of us in the U.S. and Europe have prized during the last decade or so.

Here, however, as the cup descended from serving tray to the dark wood of our table, I lifted my head from the suggestions in my begrunged travel guide on Xela’s women’s weaving cooperatives. The aroma was unapologetically assertive. The coffee itself bore the trademark fruitiness of nearby Huehuetenango, yet the beans had been roasted with abandon, and were awash in acidity. Surely my cup wasn’t drip-brewed: it must have been crafted on the espresso machine in a Central American highlands version of an Americano, for the surface was sealed with a gilded, centimeter-thick crema. The temperature was at least five degrees higher than any other coffee I tasted during our stay. In sum, a confident, delicious kick in the palate, the likes of which I have enjoyed only a few times in my happily harrowing career of coffee addiction.

Those eight ounces of clarity told me everything about Café Baviera. In business, as in life, you either know what you’re about or you find yourself on a happy Continuing Education exercise to discover the same. Not unlike travel in a foreign country. Some businesses (and people) bind their journey with process and quite a bit of soul searching, and others don’t seem to understand that they are actually in motion. But boil it down, fellow traveler, and you’ll find that in testing a business idea, curiosity, pattern recognition, inspiration and testing will carry you most way there. Plunge in; discover if other people are as excited about your products or services as you are, and are willing to transfer value to you. If they are, and you can deliver with integrity, consistent profit, and vigorous cash flow, you’ve got the rudiments of a business model.

Café Baviera knows itself. It is confident enough in its product to shrug off prevailing coffee trends – in a country where a decent percentage of coffee consumers would be considered connoisseurs on other continents. Other cues of its passion and self-knowledge abounded. The barista on shift, a very focused Mayan woman, was just killing her drink orders with a technique my friends at Helios in Raleigh would admire, and that on a perfectly calibrated Cimbali. And the customers, dreamy at that time of day, post-lunch and drifting in the quiet space of the siesta – they seemed content at their tables; reading the local paper, tapping away on laptops, discussing the surreal upcoming national elections. Double checking a fact as I write this post, I see that Lonely Planet ranks a visit to Café Baviera as 5th out of 432 noted entertainment options in Central America.

We bought a pound of their privately branded coffee on the way out, but try as I might, I wasn’t able to re-create that first challenging black cup at home, not even on my favorite lab instrument, a quirky stove-top Bialetti 6 cup “Moka” espresso makers. The beans are long gone; I take this as another entry to our long list of reasons to get back to Guatemala.

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