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Episode 61: El arte del café (The Art of Coffee)

By Duolingo on Thu 16 Jul 2020

Alejandro Méndez's new boss, café-owner Federico Bolanos, is obsessed with one thing: training Alejandro to compete in the world's toughest barista competition. But can a country like El Salvador hold its own against prevailing champions like Australia and the United States? Federico is convinced they can — and inspires Alejandro to believe the same.

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Transcript

Martina: Hi everyone, before we begin we wanted to let you know that today's episode is a little different. Until now we've always heard one protagonist tell their story. For the first time, today, we'll listen to two of them because we believe that this story of friendship and teamwork needs them both. You'll hear that one of them, Alejandro, speaks with a slightly deeper voice, and his boss and mentor, Federico, is the soft-spoken one.

Martina: When he was a kid, Alejandro Méndez always drank imported instant coffee, a bitter dark powder mixed with water. It was the only kind his mother could afford. But Alejandro didn't like the flavor, he always took his coffee warm, and with two spoonfuls of sugar.

Alejandro: Un día, yo probé el café de mi mamá sin azúcar. Fue una mala experiencia y no me gustó para nada. Desde ese momento, pensé que todos los cafés sabían mal.

Martina: Alejandro didn't know it at the time, but his country, El Salvador, was a coffee powerhouse, one of the world's main producers, despite its small size. Most of the best beans were exported. There weren't many gourmet cafés in the country, but one day in 2007, Alejandro heard about a new one.

Alejandro: Yo tenía 19 años y estudiaba en la universidad. Mi papá perdió su trabajo y mi familia no tenía dinero. Así que tuve que abandonar los estudios y comenzar a trabajar. Un amigo me dijo que una cafetería nueva buscaba baristas. Yo me pregunté: "¿Qué hace un barista?".

Martina: Despite never having heard the term 'barista,' a term imported from Italy, Alejandro decided to apply. Would he just wait tables? Maybe ground the beans? Or do the dishes? He sent in his résumé and landed an interview with someone named Federico Bolanos.

Federico: Yo entrevisté a Alejandro para el trabajo de barista. Él no sabía mucho del café de nuestro país. Durante la entrevista, yo me di cuenta de que él tenía una gran calidad humana y buenos valores. Y le dije: "Yo creo que tú podrías ganar el Campeonato Mundial de Baristas".

Martina: Alejandro had never heard of the "World Barista Championship," the biggest event in the coffee world. Once a year, thousands of coffee-lovers cheer on coffee-professionals as they brew espressos for panels of judges. It takes place in a different country every year.

Alejandro: Cuando Federico me dijo que yo iba a ser el Campeón Mundial de Baristas, no entendí. No sabía de qué estaba hablando. ¿Cómo podía saber yo en ese momento que juntos íbamos a revolucionar la cultura del café en El Salvador?

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish, and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: On his first day in his new job as a barista, Alejandro finally saw a proper coffee machine. He knew immediately that this was not his mother's coffee.

Alejandro: Se veía carísima… ¡tan brillante! ¡Y hacía muchos sonidos!

Martina: The taste, or sabor of the coffee was also different. He never imagined that making coffee could be so complex! It was a science…and an art!

Alejandro: Inmediatamente me quedó muy claro el significado de barista. No es un mesero. Un barista es alguien que prepara el café con amor para darle un sabor especial. El barista lo hace todo: tritura el café, lo pesa, controla la temperatura y lo sirve.

Martina: Soon, Alejandro learned that there were two things that really make a difference in the smell and taste of a given coffee…things that are essential to the whole process: the type of beans used, and how they were ground.

Alejandro: Si el grano de café se tritura fino, el líquido es espeso y cremoso. Ese café es fuerte y amargo, pero también dulce. Sin embargo, si el grano se tritura grueso, el líquido es suave. Ese café tiene un aroma de flores y un sabor a frutas.

Martina: Alejandro quickly fell in love with coffee. Then, his new boss, Federico threw out a crazy idea. He told him that he should prepare for the World Barista Championship. Federico had tried before, but didn't win.

Federico: Yo participé en el campeonato y me fue bien… llegué a la final. Pero me ganaron dos baristas, a los que yo había entrenado en mi cafetería. Yo prefería enseñar y ayudar a los baristas para que ellos ganaran.

Martina: Federico knew that winning the World Barista Championship wouldn't be easy. Baristas from coffee producing countries like El Salvador had never won before. The champion was often from Europe, the United States, or Australia. Alejandro asked him if it wasn't an impossible dream.

Alejandro: Siempre ganaban los países ricos. Nosotros, que somos de El Salvador, no ganábamos nunca. Pero Federico siempre me decía que los sueños también son posibles en nuestro país.

Martina: Federico started preparing Alejandro for the championship and Alejandro began working hard to perfect his technique.

Federico: Alejandro aprendió rápidamente. Cuando él supo todo el proceso, yo le expliqué cómo era la competencia en el Campeonato Mundial de Baristas.

Martina: The rules are strict. Alejandro would have 15 minutes to serve extraordinary coffees to a panel of judges. Spill one drop, and you lose points. In addition, Alejandro would have to explain in English, a language he didn't know well, where the beans came from, and why he chose them.

Alejandro: Desde ese momento, yo comencé a trabajar muchísimo. Me levantaba a las seis de la mañana para practicar con Federico hasta tarde en la noche. Me preocupaba mi inglés porque no era muy bueno. Trabajaba en la cafetería y me emocionaba cuando entraba un turista, ¡porque podía practicar mi inglés!

Martina: It was a lot of work. And it started to weigh heavily on Alejandro. Federico's perfectionism demanded a lot of him. So what if his routine wasn't perfect? Wasn't it enough to be the best barista in Federico's café? Alejandro had just wanted a job, and it quickly had turned into a full on career!

Alejandro: Mis clientes me decían que yo era el mejor barista en la cafetería. Ellos preguntaban por mí porque querían mi café. ¿Por qué trabajar tanto para una competencia de 15 minutos?

Martina: Despite those doubts, Alejandro entered the National Barista Championship in El Salvador and he won. This earned him the right to represent his country in the World Barista Championship in London. Federico registered Alejandro and booked the plane tickets and hotels.

Federico: Me senté con Alejandro y le dije: "Para ganar el campeonato mundial, tenemos que entrenar e investigar más sobre el café. Esto se lo debes a tu país, El Salvador, y a su café".

Martina: One month later, Alejandro gripped the armrests as the plane took off. It was his first time flying! He stared down at the coffee trees on the slopes of San Salvador, the pride of El Salvador! He was about to represent his country in the World Barista Championship…and he couldn't believe how fast his life had changed.

Alejandro: Yo estaba muy nervioso. Federico estaba a mi lado y quería practicar lo que yo iba a decir en inglés. Lo intenté, pero no me pude concentrar, así que pasé todo el vuelo viendo televisión.

Martina: The next day they both went to the West London exhibition centre where the 2010 Championship was taking place. Alejandro was in awe of the thousands of coffee lovers and baristas walking around like celebrities. They arrived just in time to see the team from the United States compete. Federico was surprised.

Alejandro: El equipo de los Estados Unidos me impresionó porque sirvió tres cafés de Costa Rica. El grano era de la misma finca, pero con tres procesos diferentes. De esta manera, el barista logró tres sabores únicos con el mismo grano.

Martina: The U.S. competitor was pushing the boundaries of the competition, demonstrating an impressive amount of knowledge. The competitor proved that coffee can have dramatically different flavors, depending on which method is used to turn the berries into beans. As the crowd applauded in amazement, Federico started to worry.

Federico: Era claro que el equipo de Estados Unidos era el favorito para ganar. Lo mejor que podíamos esperar era llegar a la final.

Martina: Federico told Alejandro to keep calm, to do his best and to enjoy his time on the stage. But when Alejandro finally walked onstage to perform for the judges, he was anxious. He knew that any minor mistake would cost him the Championship.

Alejandro: Cualquier pequeño error me iba a costar el campeonato. Era mucha presión y yo estaba nervioso. Los seis jueces me miraban y tomaban notas. Yo no podía concentrarme y todo me salió mal, ¡y se me olvidaron las palabras en inglés!

Martina: After his turn, Alejandro stood in front of a cheering crowd along with the other competitors. Federico was in the crowd, staring intently. He was nervous. The host would soon announce who qualified for the final round.

Alejandro: Yo recuerdo perfectamente el orden en que anunciaron los países que habían clasificado para la final. Eran seis. El presentador comenzó con los Estados Unidos, y después le siguieron Austria, Guatemala, Irlanda y Dinamarca. ¡Faltaba un país! ¿Podría ser El Salvador?

Martina: But it was…Greece! Not El Salvador. Alejandro was devastated. He had failed at his first attempt. He didn't even make it to the finals.

Alejandro: Yo estaba muy molesto. Me pregunté qué había hecho mal. Al día siguiente, Estados Unidos ganó. Yo me hice una promesa: El próximo año, con la ayuda de Federico, yo iba a ser el Campeón Mundial de Baristas.

Martina: Back in San Salvador, weeks after the competition, Alejandro was obsessing over a cup of coffee. He weighed out the beans to the miligram. But he noticed the liquid was flowing out of the machine one second too fast. He threw it in the sink and tried again, for the third time.

Alejandro: Después de perder en el Campeonato, yo cambié. Me volví un perfeccionista, trabajaba día y noche. Me di cuenta de que ser el mejor barista de El Salvador no era suficiente. Yo quería ser el mejor barista del mundo.

Martina: While Alejandro was perfecting his skills, Federico was obsessing over an innovation he wanted to bring to the Championship. He realized that coffee is a fruit, similar to cherries, so you have the skin, or cáscara, a layer of sweet liquid, the mucílago, and the seed, which you roast and grind to brew coffee.

Federico: La idea era llevar a los jueces el 100 % de lo que produce un árbol de café. Compartí esta idea con Alejandro y él la aceptó. Era la primera vez en la historia que los jueces probarían este tipo de bebida.

Martina: With his attention to detail, Federico was turning his café into the centerpiece of the up-and-coming coffee culture in El Salvador. Meanwhile, he kept pushing Alejandro, who worked harder than ever. His routine started at 8 a.m. and went until late into the evening. By 9 p.m. his whole body was sore.

Alejandro: Cuando quería parar y estaba cansado, yo recordaba que había perdido el Campeonato Mundial de Baristas porque no había practicado lo suficiente. Entonces le decía a Federico: "Sí, vamos a hacer otro café más".

Martina: Alejandro and Federico practiced 14 hours a day. They didn't give up. Weeks went by. Then months. And when the 2011 World Barista Championship arrived, Alejandro felt he was ready. He couldn't believe it was time to perform again, this time in nearby Bogotá, Colombia.

Alejandro: Yo había practicado miles de horas. Sabía cómo preparar y servir un buen café. Mi inglés era mejor porque lo había estudiado. Pero estaba nervioso. La presión era muy grande.

Martina: Alejandro nailed the first round. Soon, rumors were flying that a young barista from El Salvador had brewed one of the best coffees the judges had ever tasted. Alejandro had applied Federico's research, using different parts of the coffee berry. And it paid off. The next day, a crowd formed to watch Alejandro perform in the semi-finals.

Alejandro: Mi ejercicio salió muy bien. El café cayó perfectamente. ¡El sabor era muy bueno! Yo estaba concentrado y no le presté mucha atención al público. Pero vi a Federico y los dos sonreímos.

Martina: Alejandro was ecstatic. He and Federico were on a high. Both sensed that something good might be about to happen. Federico was especially optimistic.

Federico: Anunciaron a los mejores baristas en la semifinal. Este era el orden: España, Japón, Australia, Reino Unido, Estados Unidos… Faltaba uno, solo uno… dijeron: "¡El Salvador!". Yo no lo podía creer, habíamos clasificado para la gran final.

Martina: Instead of celebrating that he was the first Salvadoran to ever get into the finals, Alejandro decided to get an early night's sleep. If he was going to win, he had to rest. The next day, he faced the judges for the last time.

Alejandro: Recordé las lecciones de Federico. El expreso cayó perfectamente. Se veía muy bien y olía aun mejor. A los jueces les encantó. Expliqué sobre el grano del café y todo el proceso, en inglés.

Martina: After performing, Alejandro was called on stage. He stood in-between the other finalists. Australia and the U.S. The announcer read out third place. Australia left the stage. It was just Alejandro and the U.S. competitor remaining.

Alejandro: Los jueces anunciaron el segundo lugar. Dijeron: "Estados Unidos". Yo comencé a llorar. Eso significaba que El Salvador había ganado. Por fin, ¡el Campeón Mundial de Baristas era yo! Me dieron el trofeo, lo levanté y pensé: "¡Esto es por El Salvador!".

Martina: Federico couldn't have agreed more.

Federico: "Por El Salvador".

Martina: Alejandro was still very young, just 23 years old when he became a World Barista Champion. Suddenly, new doors began to open for him. One day, a coffee organization flew Alejandro to China, where he had dinner with former World Barista Champions. They went around the table and listened to each other's plans.

Alejandro: Todos tenían grandes planes como por ejemplo, abrir cafeterías o escribir libros. Pero yo no tenía ningún proyecto, el verdadero experto del café era Federico. Cuando llegó mi momento de hablar, dije lo primero que se me vino a la cabeza: "Voy a abrir una tostaduría de café".

Martina: A coffee roasting company in El Salvador! Everyone thought it was a great idea. The table burst into a round of "congratulations!" But deep inside, Alejandro was torn. He realized that he needed to start flying solo. The time had come for him to leave Federico's shadow, or sombra.

Alejandro: "¿Cómo iba a abandonar a Federico?", pensé. Sin él, yo no iba a ser nadie. Decidí que lo mejor era darle una carta. En ella, le escribí: "Necesito salir de tu sombra". Después, se la di en sus manos.

Martina: Federico was also torn. He had invested so much money and time into Alejandro, the letter about "leaving his shadow" felt almost like a betrayal. But deep down, he knew it wasn't. It was time for Alejandro to make his own mark on the coffee world.

Federico: Alejandro debía caminar solo así que acepté su renuncia. Para sentirme mejor, yo pensé: "Mi cafetería es un campo de preparación y yo puedo preparar a más campeones mundiales, como lo hice con Alejandro".

Martina: After leaving Federico's coffee shop, Alejandro found four business partners. With a $420 investment, they bought one sack of coffee and roasted it. With their first profits, they bought two more sacks. Then three. Then four. Today, Alejandro's roastery serves award winning Salvadoran coffee.

Alejandro: Yo he aprendido muchísimo de Federico, él es mi mentor. Estoy feliz porque los dos hacemos lo mismo: defender el café de El Salvador. Es uno de los mejores cafés del mundo. Me tienen que creer: ¡es delicioso! ¡Se los dice un Campeón Mundial de Baristas!

Martina: Alejandro Méndez is co-owner of Four Monkeys Coffee Roasters and lives in San Salvador. Federico Bolanos also lives in San Salvador and has started a new Salvadoran coffee roastery, "Alquimia Coffee." Today, Federico and Alejandro are good friends, and often get together to reminisce about the time El Salvador won one of the most difficult competitions in the coffee world.

This story was produced by James Harper, a coffee journalist based in Berlin, Germany. A version of this story also appeared in Filter Stories, James's documentary podcast about coffee.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! You can call and leave us a voicemail or audio message on WhatsApp, at +1 703 953 93 69, or write us an email at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

With over 300 million users, Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun, and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com.

The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: James Harper
Protagonists: Alejandro Méndez and Federico Bolanos
Adonde Media Editor: David Alandete
Mixed by: Martín Pérez Roa
Sound Designer & Mastering Engineer: Antonio Romero