Last week, 1,900 pounds of catimor arabica coffee beans were sun-drying on a patio high in the mountains of Chiquimula, Guatemala, near the Honduran border. By the time you read this, a quarter ton’s worth will have been milled, hand-sorted for defects, and shipped via FedEx directly to their owner in Chicago, Elmer Fajardo of Anticonquista Café.
Fajardo is one of the owners, anyway—of the beans, the farm, and the roasting machine, which for now does its work at the shared Kitchen Chicago. His wife, Lauren Reese, is an owner of the enterprise too, and so are his brothers Emilio and Melvin, and sister Lilian back on the farm. But Anticonquista has one singular aspect. It’s the only coffee roaster in Chicago—and one of very few in the country—that is fully owned and operated by the people who grow, harvest, and process their coffee beans on their own land. By mid-March, Fajardo and Reese will have roasted this year’s first batch and bagged it for their CSA and farmers’ market regulars—but hopefully also for visitors to their new brick-and-mortar cafe in Hermosa.
The long, sordid history of coffee production is rarely glorious when it comes to people on the ground planting, harvesting, and processing it. Fajardo, who’s 28 and grew up in tiny Aldea Valle de Jesús in Chiquimula, has firsthand experience. The ninth of 14 siblings, he helped his father grow coffee on one of three family farms on both sides of the Guatemala-Honduras border from the time he was seven.
When Fajardo was a teenager his father decided to sell unprocessed coffee cherries to a co-op because it was cheaper than continuing the laborious process of de-pulping, washing, and drying beans on their own. “I always thought we were not receiving enough money even though we worked hard the whole year,” says Fajardo. “A lot of the time we didn’t have enough by the end of the year to continue.” Older siblings in Chicago sent money back to keep the farm afloat, but after they returned home to the village, he set out to do the same.
He came to Chicago in 2011 when he was 17 and was shocked to see the price a cup of coffee commanded in cafes—money not reflected in the income of Fajardo’s family or even growers who had fair-trade relationships with U.S. importers. “I was thinking, ‘Where is the money going in the supply chain?’ I knew for sure my family and friends weren’t receiving it.”
Fajardo wondered why he couldn’t bring his own family’s beans to market directly, and not long after he and Reese got together, they began to figure out a way to do it. Reese took point on navigating the byzantine licensing and export regulations, while back on the farm the family returned to hand processing in order to ship green, ready-to-roast beans to Chicago.
They put together a business plan in 2018, but setbacks abounded. First the pandemic delayed their spring 2020 launch. They received their first shipment of beans that September and began selling whole bags at farmers’ markets via a tricked-out bicycle cafe, La Bici, but then in December they had to suspend sales while Fajardo recovered from COVID.
Meanwhile hurricanes Eta and Iota caused problems back on the farm; it’s impossible to navigate the steep muddy roads to access the plants after even moderate rains, and coffee cherries will over-absorb water, split open or fall to ground, or become susceptible to fungal diseases like coffee rust. They lost about 50 percent of their 2020-2021 harvest due to problems resulting from the hurricanes.
Still, Anticonquista imported some 1,450 pounds of beans last year, broken up into batches, which they roasted and released gradually. (Unless you have a CSA subscription, you’d better get to their biweekly appearances at the Logan Square Farmers Market early before they sell out.)
Last Christmas the couple returned to the farm—for Fajardo it was his first time seeing his family in ten years. The visit coincided with the 2021-2022 harvest, which roughly spans November to March each year, usually broken up into four small harvests, or cortes, as the cherries ripen.
Reese, who serves as the company photographer, has exhaustively documented on Instagram the process of de-pulping, washing, drying, milling, and sorting coffee beans, along with other aspects of life on the farm, which also grows oranges, avocados, chamomile, and four different banana varieties, plus grass to feed the cows whose milk acts as a deterrent to bacterial and fungal infestations.
This spring Reese and Fajardo plan to maintain their mobile-coffee-vending schedule but are giving brick-and-mortar life a go too. By the time the first beans of the season arrive they plan to announce an opening date for the shop. Nicknamed La Montañita for “little mountain,” at first it’ll just sell packaged beans and cold brew, but as COVID relaxes they plan to introduce an extended menu and invite a variety of pop-ups to round out the experience, along with educational programs like bean-sorting workshops to give customers a hands-on feel for what it’s like to grow coffee.
“People don’t realize how much unpaid labor happens at the farm level,” says Reese.
“I want people to appreciate the work that farmers do to bring good coffee to them,” says Fajardo.