A Perfect Canvas

Can coffee be local? Exo Roast Co. is trying to bring a taste of the desert to our favorite far-flung beans.

September 1, 2014

DrinkIssue 8: September/October 2014
Like cream for coffee—a pour of half and half mellows and coheres the flavors in a mesquite toddy.

Like cream for coffee—a pour of half and half mellows and coheres the flavors in a mesquite toddy.

On a sultry morning in early July, Amy Smith, the manager of Exo Roast Co., raises her hoe into a mesquite tree and shakes it. “I want that bunch right there,” she says, knocking into a group of long, blanched-looking mesquite pods, which cling stubbornly to the branch. Underneath the tree, she has spread a thin red quilt over the dirt, to make sure we harvest only those dried pods that fall with gentle encouragement.

It’s one of those humid mornings where the mountains are slightly gauzy with haze. Cicadas hum. On a nearby farm, peacocks shriek, sounding like furious 6-year-olds. Rio Vista Natural Resource Park is empty except for the occasional jogger huffing through.

The scene—Smith, in a giant white cowboy hat and a denim button-down shirt, tapping branches with her “harvesting cane,” an industrial-sized bucket of mesquite pods by her side—doesn’t exactly scream “Coffee.” But we’re harvesting mesquite this morning to supply the downtown Tucson coffee company with the pods it needs for one of its popular “regionally inspired drinks”—the mesquite Toddy.

 

All gourmet coffee, one might say, is “regionally inspired.” Coffee connoisseurs praise the “single-origin,” beans that hold the distinct flavor of a particular place at a particular time, while eschewing cheap, mass-produced commodity coffees, with their mixed-location beans and consistent flavors.

But in Baja Arizona, the region inspiring coffee beans is not ours—they just don’t grow here. Coffee is one of those few products that even the most ardent locavores have to make peace with; it comes in sacks from the Virunga Hills of Rwanda, from Sumatra, from Peru, rather than from Cochise or Patagonia. To love coffee, in Arizona, is to start one’s mornings appreciating the terroir of another place.

Except perhaps at Exo Roast Co.

Inside the cool brick storefront at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street, a chalkboard advertises Exo’s local concoctions. There’s the mesquite Toddy, of course: sweet, earthy, and malty, layering cream over cold-brewed coffee (known as Toddy), mesquite extract, and ice. But the other regional drinks are just as delicious. There’s the Ice Pinole Latte, a gritty-sweet mixture that combines mole, espresso, milk, and ice with traditional parched corn from Ramona Farms in Sacaton. Those with a spicier palate might try the chiltepin Toddy, which blends chocolate, cream, and hand-crushed chiltepin pepper (direct-sourced from harvesters in Mexico) with ice and Toddy. If you prefer your drink warm, you can add mole from Tucson’s Mano y Metate to your hot chocolate or latte.

Amy Smith harvests mesquite early on a summer morning.

Amy Smith harvests mesquite early on a summer morning.

“We will not adulterate certain coffees,” says Exo co-owner Christopher Byrne. “The dynamism found in some espressos and pour-overs, we wouldn’t want to interfere with.”

But, he says, “Toddy is the perfect canvas. It’s a lovely coincidence.” The process of brewing Toddy—in which coarse-ground beans are soaked for half a day or more in cold water—changes the flavor profile of the coffee. “It’s a more even-toned flavor,” Byrne says. “It lowers the acids, smooths the taste.”

This, he says, it what makes it possible to play with local flavors like mesquite, which ordinarily could clash with a coffee’s taste profile.

“We’re starting to source from really local traditional farmers or wildcrafters,” says co-owner Doug Smith. “I’m maybe more excited about that than geeking out over coffee. You can get the latest gadget for roasting, but that’s less exciting to me than doing cool things that are local.” He says this isn’t the end of Exo’s experimentations; they’re exploring what they might do with Yuma dates, as well as considering how to replicate some traditional Latin American recipes—champurrado and atole, for instance—Tucson-style.

 

The local emphasis comes naturally. Like the sweet, red-flecked mesquite pods behind their regional Toddy recipe, Exo Roast Co. grew up out of these dry soils.  In the late ’80s, Byrne and Smith—from Tucson and Phoenix, respectively—met as undergraduates at the University of Arizona.  They spent long afternoons at Bentley’s, then one of just a few coffee shops in town, dreaming about opening their own. “It was a powerful time,” says Byrne.  They conceived of a coffee shop that would also serve as a community center of sorts, providing a space for music, conversation, and exploration.

The two eventually fell out touch, but reconnected in Portland, Oregon, where they began to play music together. “The songs we were writing were nostalgia songs about this place,” Smith says. The old dream—and the desert—tugged at them.

In the desert, everything runs through your blood. It’s painful, beautiful, intense, exquisite. It’s given me all I have, so why can’t I give it all I have?

“We began to have conversations about, what can we do to get back home?” Byrne says. “Are we spending our lives the way we really want?” One weekend, on a trip to New Mexico, Doug Smith and Byrne made a vow to make it happen.

With the support of Tucson restaurateur Peter Wilke, who became the third partner in the business, “We roasted in a little metal shack along Time Market for three years before opening the store,” says Smith. Byrne often roasted from 7 p.m. to midnight, while Smith—still working as a professor in Oregon—would fly in on the weekends.

“It’s hard to get this place out of you,” Smith says. “Eventually I think we just realized we didn’t want to live anywhere else. We’ve come back to stay, I think. It’s hard to leave the desert.”

This love for the Sonoran desert underpins everything Exo does, Byrne says. “In the desert, everything runs through your blood. It’s painful, beautiful, intense, exquisite. It’s given me all I have, so why can’t I give it all I have?”

 

To extract the mesquite’s flavor, she soaks the pods in a crockpot, where warmth and water slowly turn into Toddy.

To extract the mesquite’s flavor, she soaks the pods in a crockpot, where warmth and
water slowly turn into Toddy.

Exo’s foray into mesquite began in the spring of 2013, when Doug Smith told then-employee Cate Maxon that he wanted to offer a drink using regional ingredients. “Mesquite was her idea,” he says.

Maxon began experimenting with mesquite extractions and got in touch with Brad Lancaster at Desert Harvesters for help. “She was worried about the quality,” says Lancaster. “Luckily she was holding back from using it in the store. We tasted it and immediately knew this was bad pod. You have to taste a pod from the tree before you pick. If you start off with a bad pod, you’re going to have a bad product.”

What makes a bad pod? According to Desert Harvesters, any chalkiness, bitterness, or a drying or burning sensation in the mouth or throat is a bad sign. “If it has any of those four to any degree, our advice is: that’s a bad tree,” says Lancaster. Pods should also be fully dry when picked—no longer green—and should be gathered before the beginning of monsoon in order to avoid a dangerous mold called aflatoxin that often grows on pods once the rains fall.

All this means that serving mesquite products requires a commitment to learning how to harvest in the Sonoran Desert. This year, both Amy Smith and Maxon attended several harvesting workshops, where Exo provided mesquite Toddies as refreshment for the thirsty volunteers. The shop also helped host Desert Harvesters’ annual milling party. And Smith has been busy checking out her neighborhood mesquite trees, visiting parks, and looking for local gleaners to sell the shop delicious pods.

“The first year is always the hardest, because you don’t know where to go,” Lancaster says. Desert Harvesters recommends mapping out the trees you like, and sure enough, Smith has already returned to several as more of their pods ripen. In this sense, she tells me, coffee and mesquite are alike: Each tree has a different flavor profile. Smith’s hard-won, Sharpied ziplock bags of mesquite pods are indeed “single origin.”

If all goes as planned, the mesquite Toddy, chiltepin Toddy, and a basic cold brew will also be available around town in bottled form within the next few months.

Does an emphasis on the local mean a de-emphasis on the global origins of coffee? Not exactly.

“Coffee is the world’s second most-traded commodity,” Doug Smith tells me on a moody afternoon at the shop, when everyone is watching out the front windows for monsoon to break. A former anthropology professor, Smith wrote his dissertation on coffee production in Mexico’s state of Puebla, in the Sierra Norte. “I know three people who died going into the desert because they couldn’t stay on their land in Mexico, because coffee prices were so low.”

Smith gestures to a series of 50-pound jute sacks on the floor of the shop near the roaster, which look small beside the 100-pound burlap bags. These he purchases from a company called Coffeeshrub, which negotiates directly with farmers, paying them one-and-a-half to two times Fair Trade wages and verifying that the payments are making it to the people actually responsible for quality, organically grown coffee beans.

Like all coffee, these jute sacks still fly across the world to reach us. And yet there’s something about the level of care and intention involved on the other side of the supply chain that makes the beans feel, well, rather akin to the bucket of mesquite pods. “There’s no getting the blood out of it entirely, but this is as bloodless as possible,” Smith says.

Or, as Byrne puts it, “A balanced approach might be not just to love your place, but to love all places.”

Doug and Amy Smith harvest mesquite together with the help of the newest addition to the Exo family.

Doug and Amy Smith harvest mesquite together with the help of the newest addition to the Exo family.

 

Back at the harvest, Amy Smith and I stare up at a couple of mesquite trees outside an attorney’s office at 8 a.m. “I wonder about the terroir of Campbell and Kleindale,” Smith says, plucking a pod from the tree and chewing it thoughtfully. She nods. “I do like to have permission, though,” she says, so we march around to the entrance of the office.

“We probably look like crazy people!” Smith laughs, hoe in one hand, bucket swinging in the other, big hat perched on head. I have the harvest blanket balled in my arms.

But it’s too early; no one’s in the office yet. Smith notes the location of the trees, and we pile the gear back into the truck and set off. She is apologetic that we’re not finding much, but I’m in awe that this neighborhood is so harvestable. That I’d never noticed before. That perhaps I’ve already tasted some of these normal-looking trees, on a hot morning at the shop, when I pulled up on my bike and an icy mesquite Toddy sounded like the best thing around. ✜

Exo Roast Co. 403 N. Sixth Ave. 520.777.4709. ExoCoffee.com

Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, where she teaches creative writing and composition.


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