Martin Diedrich, Kéan Coffee, Costa Mesa, CA

Of all the places in the world I would see the entire process of harvesting, cleaning, drying, grading, and finally roasting coffee beans to brew in a cup, I never expected it to be in Costa Mesa, California. It was a lesson to see how much work and passion it takes to come up with a near perfect cup of coffee.

Martin Diedrich and his wife, whom I first met on a visit to the mini coffee plantation in their front yard in a quiet residential neighborhood have the most interesting life story. I felt it had to be shared! I am posting an article published a few days ago about Martin Diedrich and his life in the realm of coffee.

Martin Diedrich
Martin Diedrich

Martin Diedrich: A California Coffee Affair

by Geeta Bansal

Fourth generation coffee aficionado, purveyor, coffee house operator, coffee historian and international coffee expert Martin Diedrich has coffee literally running through his veins. The story of his life in the world of coffee has an Indiana Jones twist to it as he has journeyed from his early years on a remote coffee farm in the hills of Guatemala to swanky Southern California and later in search of charismatic coffees into every coffee producing part of the world. The mystique and romanticism of the ancient lost cities in the jungles of Guatemala intrigued him as a child and he fancied becoming an archaeologist. He did pursue his passion after completing his academic education in the subject, digging for those lost cities, deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics in the jungles of Guatemala and Southern Mexico. The year of 1982 brought chaos and political, social, economic upheaval to the region and complete disintegration of his parents livelihood as small coffee farmers. His parents farm in Guatemala was taken away forcing them to move once again as they had from Germany during WWII, to the safer confines of Southern California.

It was hard on his father to lose everything and start all over again so Martin decided to give up his rising career in archaeology and come back home to assist his father in reestablishing his business. It was the era when the coffee house phenomenon had not yet invaded the American culture. He credits his father who was a one man vertically integrated industry all by himself growing, transporting, roasting and selling coffee, for his inherited love of coffee and the business. Martin worked tirelessly along his family till they tasted success and the rest is history in the world of coffee.

A frequent speaker at national and international coffee conferences, Diedrich is a well-known figure in the ever-evolving coffee culture of the United States. His Diedrich coffee house concept founded in 1983 grew into one of the largest specialty coffee companies in the country but he has since parted ways with it in 2005. In the same year he was awarded a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in recognition of his pioneering efforts in the specialty coffee trade. He was also the co-creator in the “Q” market and auction program as well as the Rainforest Alliance sustainable coffee program.

Diedrich coffee has been replaced with his two Kéan Coffee houses close to his home in the coastal city of Costa Mesa, 50 miles south of Los Angeles. Named after his teenage son he and his wife Karen are preparing the fifth generation of Diedrich’s to carry forth their passion for the beverage. Karen and he met at an event where he was a speaker and she was a member of the captive audience. It was love at first sight as his mesmerizing gaze and stories of coffee which he relates so passionately bonded them in a partnership for life.

Never away from the aroma and sensation of coffee beans, even his front yard boasts a dozen coffee trees growing berries at sea level instead up in the mountains where they usually thrive well below the frost level. When his father initially started selling his coffee beans in California, according to Martin, he literally knew which tree in his farm they were from and Diedrich keeps close to that sentiment as he travels around the world curating his coffee selections for his coffee houses. Every year he goes through over 800 samples to pick the highest rated coffees with 86 points or more to brew up for his large fan base , most selections are in the 90 and up range , rated by industry experts like Kenneth David. Diedrich has won numerous awards for his environmentally responsible practices and excellence of his coffee and his ever expanding customer base includes restaurants, cafes, wholesalers, as well as big name retailers like Whole Foods.

How old were you when you first tasted coffee?

I can’t specify exactly since coffee has always been a prominent part of my life. In fact coffee has been playing an important part in my family from the time of my great grandparents, to my grandparents, parents, and now through me to my son. I do remember however in my teenage years my mother made coffee every morning and would ask if I wanted any and I would always decline. It was not because I didn’t like it but a rebellion of sorts since it was such a constant part of mine and my brother’s lives. We grew up on a coffee farm in Guatemala and we all had to work on the farm. It’s really very hard work and as kids we wanted to pursue our own interests and passions and daydream about those. My brothers and I really wanted to get as far away from coffee as we could. We had our own dreams and it was my teenage rebellion to resist it, and it was close to my twenties that I started drinking coffee and enjoying it.

How far back can you trace your family’s involvement in the coffee business?

My mother’s family were coffee, tea and cocoa merchants over 160 years ago then came WWII which was very destructive and uprooted our family from Germany. My father’s family were coffee growers in Central America during most of the last century. I grew up with all of that so it was a given that at some point I would be a part of it.

Your father drove his Volkswagen van from his farm in Guatemala to Orange County in Southern California to sell his coffee. Did you ever accompany him on those trips, and what was it like?

A few times I did accompany him on those arduous trips. An old 1963 Volkswagen van is a pretty rickety vehicle sans any comfortable amenities in it. There was no air conditioning or music system just a very direct contact with the road and you felt every bump. It was over a 3000 mile round trip over rugged, bumpy, pot hole-ridden roads, winding through mountains and took five days each way with about 12 hours a day in the van. I did that five or six times in the early seventies with my father who did these trips four times a year and he really loved it.

Did your father transfer that interest in Central America and coffee to you on those trips?

We joked in the family about my fathers “Mexico Affair” since he loved Mexico and Latin America the people, the culture. He knew everyone along the way and had a set routine as he travelled with these 70 kilo sacks of coffee, 8-12 of which were hauled all the way to Costa Mesa in California. Furthermore he roasted them in a coffee roaster that he invented himself down in Guatemala utilizing his background as a mechanical engineer. He was the quintessential German engineer with a degree obtained in the 40’s. On our farm in the late 60’s he took care of everything that had any moving parts besides being a passionate coffee farmer.

Martin Diedrich's Costa Mesa coffee "plantation"
Martin Diedrich’s Costa Mesa coffee “plantation”

Do you still have that roaster?

Yes it is in our roastery here though it doesn’t work anymore. Too many years of use and being moved around took a toll on it. It’s like an old family car in the garage. My dad built it with the minimal tools we had on our small coffee farm and everyone in our family learnt to roast on that machine. I started roasting with dad on that machine when I was eleven years old.

When did you move from Guatemala to Southern California?

We first moved here in 1973 and my dad brought the roaster with him. He set up his roastery in a tiny 300sq foot location. It was not a coffee house; he just sold roasted whole bean coffee. He served a cup of espresso made on his little noncommercial single drink La Pavoni machine as a hospitality gesture to his customers. This was coffee from his own farm that he brought here to roast in the roaster he invented and built to sell, a very simple straight line operation.

You ventured from that simple operation into the corporate world with Diedrich Coffee and have since come back into the more artisanal operation. What brought you back?

When I lived in a small village in Guatemala as a kid, we moved amongst the Mayan people there or those indigenous people who worked on our farm. I was always fascinated with their ancient culture. Our life was very hard, literally a hand to mouth existence but was very rewarding. Now my coffeehouse is a community based operation where I am in contact with all my customers and close to my roots.

When did your family migrate from Germany?

During the war they moved initially to Canada before settling in Guatemala in the late 50’s during that time they moved for a short period to California and formed connections here. This is why they moved here when they lost everything in Guatemala. 1973 is when they first landed here leaving me and my brothers on the farm under the guardianship of my 21 year old elder brother. When they had established a foothold we joined them here. My two brothers Carl and Steve starting roasting beans in Costa Mesa and along with my parents they were really struggling to survive. I had to quit my archaeology career come home to help my aging parents as at that point there was no business so to speak.

How did you begin, and was it before the Starbucks culture?

I opened a very small coffee shop. It was pre-coffee house days and definitely before Starbucks became so pervasive. At that time they had only 5 or 6 locations as retail shops in Seattle, Washington not coffee houses as we know them now.

We began more than 30 years ago at a time when people here in America did not know what an espresso was except for a few that had visited Europe or lived in the Italian enclaves or communities. The only time you saw an espresso machine those days was in a bar. People would argue with me about the cappuccino I was making since according to them a “real” cappuccino was an alcoholic drink.

Are you a purist when it comes to coffee, or do you support the new formulations emerging constantly with coffee?

I am a purist personally because of my upbringing and my understanding of what coffee is since it is my passion. I also operate a community based coffee house and I have to accommodate people with different preferences and address a broad range of desires. We do serve drinks that have shots of flavored syrups and other coffee concoctions like that which according to some people are not “pure” coffee drinks. We are not here to dictate how people should or should not drink their coffee but just focus on having satisfied customers.

What is your concept at your operation?

Kéan coffee is a true coffee house concept, a community experience where members of our community come in to have their own experience according to their own preferences. My role is that of a host or a coffee guide, I try to provide high quality coffee brewed perfectly in a perfect cup of coffee in a comfortable environment. Ours is a very technical operation where we use specialized and specific computer programs to roast our coffee for sale and for in house use.

What are the biggest misconceptions about coffee?

There are many but the first one that comes to mind is that all coffee is the same. People also think that coffee has a name of origin like Sumatra or Colombia and sometimes limited knowledge of geography leads to the assumption that it is all just one region when in fact it comes from many different countries.

The other is the cost associated with coffee and most people don’t understand the process. It takes 32 hours of back breaking labor to produce 100 lbs. of coffee. Coffee pickers earn around $8/day for harvesting 46 lbs. of coffee beans scrambling through rugged terrain then begins the very arduous process of picking, cleaning, fermenting , grading , transportation of the beans around the world for roasting and selling whole beans or processed and brewed in coffee houses etc.

Another is that all coffee is created equal, which is not the case. It is very much like a fine wine and has the potential for genuine connoisseurship.

How long does it take after the coffee is harvested to when it shows up brewed in a coffee cup?

From flower to maturation it is about ten months and then after harvesting it takes nine months to fourteen months before it shows up in a cup.

Washing berries
Washing berries

What are the more obscure locations where coffee is grown that you have visited?

Probably the most beautiful and memorable was Bali, and Indonesia is one of the top coffee producing countries.

Is global climate change affecting coffee production?

Dramatically, as well as its quality. Climate is one thing but local weather is varies in different locations and if there are beneficial weather patterns in coffee growing areas in one year the next year they may be different affecting production. Adverse conditions in Africa or elsewhere may destroy the harvest in a particular year since coffee grows throughout the tropics. In fact coffee is like the wine of the tropics especially true for fine coffees.

Do these affect availability and cost of coffee?

Yes of course it does, and it is reflected in the prices.

What is specific to the American coffee culture compared to other parts of the world?

I remember when I started initially people would comment about how great the coffee was when they traveled to Europe and so bad in America and the Europeans would say the same when they came. I would say in reality for a while coffee was pretty commercial and lousy, even in Europe in a general sense at that time, but the experience was better. It started to improve here with the original golden cup of excellence that was pioneered in the 50’s and then was abandoned until in the sixties when entrepreneurs like Alfred Peet started retailing coffee beans and that inspired the founders of Starbucks to do what they did.

What has changed since?

Freshly roasted, better quality coffees began to be introduced and amongst these pioneers was my father. An awareness inspired by these pioneers has resulted in better coffee experience here now as opposed to other countries. The barista craft and skills have really developed here and now we have barista guilds and barista competitions. The coffee trade that was disintegrating in America in the 80’s has now been revitalized and consumption is up. In fact Europe, Australia, Japan, and China have all followed suit and the technology has become very precise, technical and very involved.

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