I remember when I met Carlos de la Torre in 2019 at the World Barista Championship in Boston. The World Barista Championship, sometimes shortened to WBC, is the ultimate skills test for baristas—to be on the world stage means you’ve already won your country’s national competition.
Carlos was at the WBC competing on behalf of Mexico, but that wasn’t his first time on an international stage. Carlos, who is the owner of a café, Café Avellaneda, and a roastery, Café con Jiribilla, in Mexico City, is one of the most decorated barista competitors ever. He’s won more coffee competitions than you can count on both hands, and is always looking for another challenge, another avenue to explore his curiosity and love of coffee. At Café con Jiribilla, Carlos only sources coffees from Mexico. He’s at the forefront of a growing movement that’s encouraging a greater shift in value towards coffee-growing countries.
That’s a departure from what has come before: As in so many countries, and as a direct legacy of colonialism, most coffees are grown in one place and consumed in another. Much of the value of coffee is added as it travels through the supply stream. From importers to roasters to coffee shops, much of the money coffee generates happens within non-coffee growing countries. But folks like Carlos are looking to change that, and to encourage people in producing countries to keep hold of their coffee, to foster their own scenes and communities, and to help raise the next generation of coffee lovers. Here’s Carlos.
Ashley: Carlos, I was hoping that you could start by introducing yourself.
Carlos: I am Carlos de la Torre, and I am a barista from Mexico. I own a couple of coffee shops and a roastery. Maybe you know me for being a barista champion a few years ago—2019 and 2018, I guess.
Ashley: That's some of your accomplishments.
Carlos: Yes, actually, today I was thinking about how, 10 years ago, I won my first competition. It was the Cup Tasters [Championship].
Ashley: Yeah, I was looking at your Instagram account and you have some of your accomplishments listed there. So you were a Cup Tasters competition winner 10 years ago, which is wild. You are a Brewers Cup champion. You are a multi-time Barista champion, and you are a Coffee Masters champion as well.
Carlos: Yes, maybe that was the funniest one.
Ashley: So I want to talk a little bit about you and your background in coffee. I almost always start these interviews by asking people what their childhood was like. Did they grow up with coffee? Did you grow up seeing others around you drinking coffee?
I really wanted to talk about competition, so I'm glad that we started with that just because you're such a decorated competitor, but I wanted to know what was growing up like for you? Did you see a lot of people around you drink coffee?
Carlos: We used to drink soluble coffee at home, but…
Ashley: Like instant?
Carlos: Yeah. My father drank a lot of coffee [ever] since I can remember. He is a doctor and he regularly needs to stay awake. My mother—she is a woman who loves accounting. Sometimes she’d pass the night making numbers, drinking a lot of coffee.
So coffee was very, very common at home, but just instant coffee, until my brother—he went to work in Japan, and his wife's family had a small farm. Then roasted and ground coffee started to come home, and no one drinks that, but we had it. And then I was looking in the kitchen and found this coffee. I drank it thinking it was instant too. And it was awful.
Maybe that was my first approach to real ground bean coffee. Then I kinda stepped away from drinking coffee, I was more into soda since I was a kid.
Ashley: I mean, what kid isn't?
Carlos: Yeah. When I turned 16, I was attracted to coffee because I had an uncle with a small coffee shop around the corner from my home.
And every day when I was out with my skateboard, he asked me to come, trying to take me off the streets. He entertained me by playing ping pong and drinking espresso. That's when I started to enjoy drinking coffee and figuring out how every shot was different and how each hand that makes coffee can make a different coffee, even with the same machine and the same coffee—because I started to pull my own shots I was like, ‘Why are mine crappy shots and my uncle’s are excellent espressos?’
I tried to get better. And sometimes, I just came to the coffee shop to help him make cappuccinos and cortados.
Ashley: At what point did you realize that this was something that you wanted to pursue as a career? Like, at what point did you decide, ‘Oh, I think I'm gonna make my life around this?’
Carlos: I always had [coffee] as a hobby. Even when I had a small coffee shop in my town, it was like, just an adventure or I don't know, a hobby when I had my coffee shop here in Mexico City. That was about maybe 11 years ago. And I was working and studying at the same time.
My coffee shop got featured in a magazine I was studying philosophy and I started to think, ‘I've never been featured in anything about philosophy. Maybe I'm not as good in this realm than I am in the coffee one.’
A few months after that, one of my professors showed us his check, his monthly check, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I'm not going to live with that. So I need to be serious about coffee because that's my future.’ Even if I want to pursue philosophy, I need something that helps me to have a…
Ashley: Have a career.
Carlos: Yes. At least a decent living because being a teacher in Mexico, it's kinda complicated in [terms of] income. My father, for example, he teaches at the university, and he's like, ‘This is just for my cigarettes.’
Carlos: Yeah. It's a really low wage.
Ashley: So I want to back up a little bit. I want to make sure that I understand. So you were in college and you already had a coffee shop? Was that your uncle's shop that you were talking about earlier? Or did you open up something?
Carlos: No, I opened up something? Yes.
Ashley: Okay, so that's a big, big step. What made you decide to open up a coffee shop like, what, in college?
Carlos: Yes. Yes, I don’t know? I had a lot of time [Laughs].
Ashley: You know when—I guess maybe you don't have this problem—I feel like sometimes I meet people and I'm like, ‘They have more hours in the day than I do.’
Ashley: I don't know how it is. I feel like you must be one of those people because you have your coffee shop, obviously you have a roasting business, you do all the green sourcing for your coffee business.
I bought a bag of your coffee beans in Chicago. They're available at a coffee shop called Dayglow, which I thought was really funny because Dayglow used to be about a mile away from my apartment. And I thought, ‘This is the only place I can get this coffee from Carlos, and it's right around the corner from my house.’
But when I picked up the bag, it says ‘roasted by’ and then it says the name. It was you. [Laughs]
Ashley: And you have an almost two-year-old child and you're married and you're one of the most decorated Mexican coffee competitors. So I have to imagine that you have about 70 hours in your day.
Carlos: Yes. There are a lot of people asking about that because recently I opened another coffee shop with my wife and also another one with some friends, and I run a coffee subscription by myself. And yes, my day is like 70 hours but somehow I still have time for the Boss Barista podcast.
Ashley: I know, here you are!
Carlos: Yes, and other things too, but I'm pretty well-organized in my week.
I don't roast each bag of coffee. I have two trusty roasters with which I have strong communication and we taste coffee almost daily together and we talk about roasting the beans we have in stock. We also have a lot of support from my wife and my father, for the business and for my child.
I think I can extend my day because I have a lot of people helping me.
Ashley: Yeah, that makes sense. I'm glad that you mentioned the support team around you, but that's not to say that the things that you do don't take up a lot of time. But it's great to hear people acknowledge where they get support and where they get their sources of inspiration.
Let's talk about your coffee-roasting businesses. So at one point, you opened up a coffee shop in college and you're like, ‘This is the path I'm gonna have to take because philosophy is not getting me—is not going to get me where I need to go.’ So how did you start to really take this more seriously? What did that look like for you?
Carlos: When I opened up—I don't even remember the first two weeks. I just sold two cups of coffee to a couple of women who asked me to use my bathroom.
That month, I entered my first competition. I placed in the last spot, but somehow, I got to know the right people who helped me to understand what I have to do if I want to be like a specialty coffee shop—I didn’t even know what that was.
When my coffee shop started to gain attention from the consumers, I felt very good and started to take it seriously because I have a huge responsibility to them.
I really wanted them to be satisfied because the first time we were featured in the magazine, the guy who wrote [the article] made a promise about the place, and I felt the responsibility of [keeping] that promise to the customers.
Ashley: What do you mean promise? Like a promise to your customers that you would deliver a certain [level of] quality to them?
Carlos: Yes. Every time you get featured in any magazine, the person who wrote the story is sometimes putting the bar very high for you with your own business. So each article forces you to get better.
Ashley: That makes sense.
When did you start thinking about roasting your own coffee?
Carlos: The second time Mexico held the Cup Tasters Championship, my cousin, who worked with me, wanted to compete, but she was kinda nervous about it. So she asked me to compete with her too, and I went just to support her. Suddenly I won that competition, not knowing anything about cupping coffee.
So when I asked my friends, some of whom were champions at the moment, they suggested to start cupping a lot of coffee to train for the World Championship. I started to taste coffees, but realized that the best way to taste different roasts and beans each day is to start roasting myself. So I only started to roast to train for the World Cup Tasters Championship.
Ashley: And then you were like, ‘I can do this. Let me start roasting my coffee for my coffee shop!’
Carlos: Yeah. That was weird because I used to serve coffee from good friends who roast, like they’re third-generation roasters here in Mexico. They're pretty good at that.
Then the people start to ask, ‘Why don't you serve your own coffee?’ I started to put it like in a small grinder, just as an option, and realized that most of the customers want to taste what was roasted in-house.
Carlos: I started to take that more seriously and just roast for my coffee shop. That's when Jiribilla came up, because I used to roast with the Café Avellaneda brand.
It was weird because I served my own coffee. I sell small bags of coffee at my coffee shop, but no coffee shop wanted to use my coffee because it's not regular that they would use coffee from another coffee shop, you know?
Ashley: Oh yeah. I see what you're saying.
Carlos: But they do use coffee from another coffee shop if it has a different name.
Ashley: Right. So just to be clear, Café Avellaneda—that's the coffee shop, and then Jiribilla is your roasting brand.
Carlos: Yes. When I met my wife, I introduced her to the green buying world, and she got captivated by the relationship with producers, and she woke that interest in me. So that's why we started a different project with Jiribilla with strong relationships and also trying to give credit to the producer.
Maybe that's very common right now, but six years ago, it wasn't. I make a joke very, very often about that, because we have strong relationships, from six or seven or even eight years buying the same coffee from the same producer. So we only have like, six different coffees. People ask about new coffees and that's very funny how people ask for new coffees each time they buy a bag, but also appreciate the long relationships because I cannot get new coffees if I don't end a relationship. It's weird. It's complicated to satisfy every single aspect of the roasting.
That is an interesting problem, because I think you just put together a lot of different ideas that we have in coffee:
That longstanding relationships are very important.
They're important to the future of coffee, because farmers knowing where their coffee is going is incredibly important for their longevity.
And people like that—people like it when we talk about these things, but then people want new and different and exciting things.
So like, how do you balance that? That must be really difficult.
Carlos: Yes. It's very difficult. We have, for example, in Oaxaca, a group of producers who make about six different coffees for us and each year, some new producers want to go into this group. So, we put them in the group and took maybe the highlights of the past year and release a single-origin, single-farm, single-producer coffee.
So people can taste a new coffee that they already know in a blend of our community, but they can [also taste a single origin of this blend] by itself.
Ashley: I love that.
Carlos: Yes. It’s like, maybe a graduation for that producer, and now he has his own label.
Ashley: Right, that's a really great idea. I love that.
I want to talk a little bit about coffee specifically in Mexico, and I was wondering if there are unique challenges that you've noticed or learned about in terms of coffee-growing and coffee-producing in Mexico, because you source only coffees from Mexico, right?
Carlos: Yes. And I do enjoy coffees from other countries. There's a few coffee shops in Mexico who source pretty good beans. The only thing I think is complicated is to have fresh beans all year round for them.
Ashley: Right, like by the time it gets to them, it's already past crop.
That's why I don't want to put myself in that situation, and I prefer to support the local production. Also we have a lot of regions which gives us different profiles and different conditions for producing coffee.
When I started buying green coffee, the harvest was between the second half of December and the end of February. But once the different coffee regions started to produce better coffees, and also the producers got better information about how to handle the the entire cycle of the plant, now we have coffees harvested from the end of October until the last days of May. So it's a very, very long period that has allowed us to have fresh coffee all year.
I think that's one of our strongest features for Mexican roasters: that we have fresh coffee and we have the influence of one of the biggest consumers, which is the U.S. That's why we send coffee to the U.S. roasted at origin.
I really think that's going to be a huge theme in the future, coffee roasters at origin, because if maybe a roastery in the U.S. serves this exact same coffee I have, they're going to get it about four months after I got it. So maybe I can send it fresher and have the best moment of that coffee.
Ashley: That's something I was thinking about in terms of shortening the supply chain, or thinking about the supply chain from the producer to the end consumer in a different way, because like you said, keeping the roaster closer to the producer, number one—I have to imagine, I'm not 100% sure—means that more money goes directly to the producer because it doesn't have to go through as much supply chain logistics.
But two, you're also able to send that coffee roasted pretty much immediately to the end consumer, either directly to a consumer or to a coffee shop that uses them.
Carlos: Yes. And another good point of that is some coffees are kind of expensive for the local consumer. For a lot of small roasteries like us, buying great coffees, it's risky because we can't get to the end of the year without moving that coffee because it's kind of expensive, but the foreign customers, they can pay for it easily.
They’ll also promote this excellent coffee from Mexico. And that kind of turns the spotlight to Mexico, you know, because the best coffees can be expensive, and they [usually] only go to consuming countries, but they can go roasted by Mexicans in the best moment of the life of that bean.
And then, the consuming countries can turn to the producers to source in a different way—that just happened with some of the coffees used in competitions.
Ashley: Right. It seems like Mexican coffee, especially in the last couple of years, people are starting to recognize, as you were mentioning, a lot of the biodiversity of all of these different regions. I think when I first started in coffee, the only regions I knew that grew coffee in Mexico were Oaxaca and Chiapas.
But it seems like there's a lot more attention being paid to growing excellent coffee and how many regions in Mexico are capable of growing excellent coffee.
Carlos: Maybe it was eight years ago? Yes, about 2012. That was when Fabrizio [Sención Ramírez] took this coffee from Mexico to the world stage—it was 2010.
Ashley: So he was, just to give people a little bit of background, he was the Mexican Barista Champion that year. [Note: He was the Mexican national champion both in 2009 and 2011.]
Carlos: Yes. So he won in 2009 and went to London [for the World Barista Championship in] 2010. It was the first time, I guess, Mexican [baristas] were competing with Mexican coffee.
He took a coffee from a non-common region. It was a Nayarit coffee. Nayarit is kind of in the north of Mexico and it wasn't even common for locals. That's when the world realized there is not just Oaxaca and Chiapas.
When the Cup of Excellence, other states like Puebla started to shine a little bit more, and now it's even more common or it's easier to find bags of Mexican beans and single-origin from Nayarit, Guerrero, Puebla than Oaxaca and Chiapas. Most of Oaxaca and Chiapas [coffees] go into a blend for the U.S. roasteries.
I think there's maybe three main factors to highlight the unknown regions of Mexico: the competitions for baristas, the Cup of Excellence, and the roasteries who are sending coffee to the U.S.
Ashley: I didn't even consider this fact when I thought about you as—you know, you're an incredibly decorated barista competitor, and you've been to the WBC a couple of times, the World Barista Championship, a couple of times. Did you bring Mexican coffees with you each time you competed?
Ashley: What was that like? Did you feel a sense of responsibility when competing? Like, ‘I am bringing something of myself,’ or ‘I'm bringing something that's representative of something bigger?’
Carlos: That's a pretty complicated question to answer for me now because I have an inner battle about that.
Yes, in this moment because yes, I felt proud and I felt a responsibility to bring Mexican coffee into the stage. But now I cannot change in my mind because … when you win the Mexican Barista Championship, you kinda turn into an ambassador of Mexican coffee.
Carlos: But when you compete in WBC as a consumer-country barista, you are competing to be the global ambassador of coffee, not just for a country. And for the producing countries taking coffee from our own country to this stage, it's kinda weird because we are competing to be, again, just the ambassador of our coffee, but in a global level, but not the global ambassador. Maybe we kind of need to change that vision because … I don’t know.
I can imagine how, maybe let's say I won the World Barista Championship. How can I be a global ambassador if I only use this Mexican coffee, how can I be an ambassador for other regions in the world? It's complicated to realize how to think about that.
Ashley: Yeah. I see what you're saying. Because it's like that expectation is not put on consuming countries. If you're the barista champion from the United States, or if you're the barista champion from some Nordic country like Finland or Norway, there is no way of being … there's obviously the weight of being the barista champion of your country, of course, but there's not a whole industry behind you, of producers, of supply chain issues…
There's not that very heavy weight. So I have to imagine the pressure on you is very, very different.
Carlos: I'm trying to figure that out actually, because I think, especially for countries like Mexico—who are developing high-quality coffees, but we don’t have the recognition of Panama for example, or Colombia, or maybe Ethiopia—the Mexican barista or the producing-country barista of an underdeveloped scene maybe has to get closer to the coffees from other countries to put on the table Mexican coffees at the same level of those other coffees.
If we compete with Mexican coffee against baristas with coffees from all around the world—we already saw the impact, but what if we compare it with Mexican coffee? Putting them at the same level on the table, just to recognize the value of your country's coffee. I don't know. Maybe that would be interesting because it's like setting a blind tasting for the judges in which they're gonna recognize, in a positive way, the value of the coffee from your country in comparison with other ones which are more common for them, like Colombia and Panama.
Ashley: Right. So I think what you're saying is that there's so much improvement. There's so much beautiful coffee coming from Mexico, but it doesn't have the established reputation as coffees from Colombia, as coffees from Ethiopia. So when you give these judges coffees from Mexico, you can tell them like, ‘You should recognize how beautiful this coffee is and how far we've come.’ But like, this is an objective evaluation.
You don't get to take that into account, how important it is that this is here. It's like, we're still used to these coffees from Colombia or these coffees from Ethiopia or whatever—I actually think a lot of people used coffees from Colombia at the World Barista Championship this year.
Like, you can't compete with that. It doesn't have that same reputation. So it's like, I can come and be an ambassador and show you how much Mexican coffee has grown, but you're still not going to award it first place.
Carlos: Yes, unless I put it next to the same Colombia and highlight the virtues of Mexican coffee in that way.
Ashley: When was the last time you competed at the WBC? Was that in Boston [in 2019]?
Ashley: I'm trying to remember the winners. That was the year…
Carlos: Jooyeon Jeon.
Ashley: Yeah, that's right. But I'm trying to remember the top six [competitors], because I know … so one of the things I noticed last time I went to the U.S. Barista Competition, this was in 2020. This was right before COVID-19 shut things down, but a lot of competitors used the same coffees.
Carlos: Yes, yes.
Ashley: Yeah, what did you think about that?
Carlos: Again, that's different for us because no one is going to take the same coffee that we can bring to the stage because they don't even know that coffee. It’s like an underdog coffee, what we take to the stage?
I really think that we from producing countries need to make the effort to think as consuming countries’ baristas. We maybe need to change that vision.
Ashley: Right. It's interesting that you have almost this duality of, ‘I want to just compete as a barista. I just want to be recognized for my talent and my skill that I know that I have.’ But at the same time, [being from a producing] country, there is an expectation that I will use a coffee from where I'm from.
Carlos: And the responsibility, but also—and that's the most beautiful part about being a Mexican barista: You also have this duality of being super close to the U.S. and super close to the other coffee-producing countries. So you’re right in the middle, you're like half and half.
You have proximity to trends in coffee. You can go to the U.S. Coffee Expo. You can go to regionals if you want in the U.S. and see what's happening, but you can also go to your backyard and harvest your own coffee. It’s a very special situation that we have here in Mexico. And it's some of this duality you mentioned, is what’s kinda shaping the Mexican coffee scene.
Ashley: Yeah, that's a good point. Something to think about too, and I think that you've mentioned it a couple of times, is that—I'm in the U.S. I can pretend this is a global podcast, and I think there are people listening all over the world, but I think most of my listeners are in the U.S.
And a lot of people will ask questions like, ‘Where should I buy coffee from?’ Or like, ‘How do I buy coffee ethically?’ And that's a very complicated question. There's obviously no one way to say that, but Mexico is right there. We should be buying more Mexican coffees because if we're thinking about our environmental impact, that is like the closest we can really get.
But it doesn't feel like that's what's in front of us most times. Like I said, with your coffees, I could only get your coffee at one place in the U.S. Hopefully that's going to change soon, but it's just interesting to think you do have this proximity—you can go to the U.S. and go see a competition, but then you could also go visit a farm. And we should take advantage of that closeness, that proximity.
Carlos: We need to explore this: Why the U.S. doesn't have a lot of Mexican beans even when we are neighbors. I have a good friend who sent their coffee to two different roasteries in the U.S. and Canada, and he found out it was easier to take the coffee to Canada and then to the U.S. than going straight to the U.S.
Ashley: I mean, that's very politically charged.
Ashley: Which is part of the problem. I think, the first time we met, I think—did we meet in Mexico? I don't think so. I knew I watched you compete, but I don't know if we met in Mexico.
Ashley: No, we met in the U.S., we met in Boston in 2019. That was the year you were the Mexican Barista Champion, you came to the U.S., but the Brewers Cup Champion who I believe was one of your employees couldn’t come because of visa issues.
Ashley: Then the second-place person also couldn't come.
Carlos: Yes. And I think this guy, Carlos, he now works for another company, but I'm pretty sure he couldn't make it in next year’s [competition] too. So he still hasn’t performed on the world stage.
Ashley: Is there anything that you'd want people listening to this podcast to know about you or about coffees from Mexico? Anything that you'd want people to take away from this conversation?
Carlos: I really want to encourage people to buy Mexican coffee and discover the flavors and the varieties we have, take the risk of getting that coffee directly from Mexican roasters, because we have a lot of skills. And I can tell you, we keep the best beans. The best beans always stay in Mexico.
You can have amazing cups of Mexican coffee, if you just take the moment to wait for your coffee, because sometimes it's like, it takes one week to travel the coffee from Mexico to maybe New York if you buy a couple of bags from my online store, but it's going to be worth the wait because we have fresh, high-quality coffees.
We have very skilled roasters and somehow delivery has improved a lot during the pandemic. So the times are shorter than before. It's gonna change how you see the coffee scene if you taste coffee roasted by [us].
I've tasted the same coffee roasted by us and by other roasters. The travel itself of a green bean modifies the humidity, the weather activity. So when you have it here, you can roast the coffee at the perfect stage of its life.
Ashley: Right. Something that I want to think about too is that if you order a coffee in the U.S., let's say order from a roaster here in the U.S., they're going to roast it, package it, and ship it to you exactly the same way that you would. So it's not like there's anything different happening when you're bagging and shipping it.
Because I think, like you were saying, people might be a little bit like, ‘Oh, it's going to take a long time to get to me or whatever.’ It's like, ‘No, you actually have the greatest advantage of being as close to the coffee as possible when those conditions of humidity and storage really do matter.’
Carlos: Yes, and I'm pretty sure if you are San Francisco-based and you buy a coffee from Cafe con Jiribilla in the web shop, you're going to get that earlier than if you buy from a roaster in New York.
Ashley: Yeah. I love that there's so much more roasting happening in the country. I think that's something that I've learned a lot about recently. I think—you know Vera Espíndola Rafael, who's also been on the show, and she talks a lot about bringing more of the coffee supply chain, of roasting and consumption, into coffee-producing countries. So I'm glad that you're talking more about that, about…
Carlos: Yes. It started to grow a lot and even for myself, I was tired of just tasting Cafe con Jiribilla all the time. So maybe one-and-a-half years ago, I said, ‘Okay, let's taste different roasters.’ And I started to taste roasters and also started some sort of a coffee blog about other coffees which are not mine. That turned out to be a coffee subscription.
So now I have the fortune of being able to share the coffees I taste each month with a pool of subscribers and I've tasted like—maybe you can't imagine how many roasters are in Mexico—maybe I taste 120 brands the last year.
Carlos: And that's specialty coffee. So it grows very quick because it's also very easy to start a business in Mexico.
If you went to roast maybe in another country like the U.S., maybe the Netherlands, opening a roastery is a huge deal. You need to get a specific space to roast, you need to bring all the coffee to your location, to your warehouse.
In Mexico, you can print some labels at home, buy maybe 50 coffee bags and two kilos of coffee from a local producer, and then rent a roaster just for two hours—and you can make your own brand of roasted coffee.
Ashley: I mean, you started a coffee shop in college just because you had time.
Carlos: Yes, it's very easy. And that helps the scene to grow very quickly and also to gain a lot of experience. We have a lot of baristas who are roasters and even producers.
Ashley: Well, Carlos, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I feel like I learned so much about you and how you have a bajillion hours in your day. I really appreciate you finding a couple more hours to talk to me.
Carlos: It was a pleasure. I really enjoyed this conversation. It was maybe one of my career goals to be on the show.
Ashley: Oh, that's silly.
Carlos: No, it's real and I'm a fan of the Boss Barista podcast. Yeah. I always recommend it.
Ashley: Oh, thank you.
Order coffee from Carlos! Go to www.cafeconjiribilla.com and grab a bag of Mexican coffee!