Remembering Luis Lopez

DecJan10cover

I was traveling last week when I heard the heartbreaking news. Former Nicaraguan barista champion, and generally great person, Luis Lopez was killed in a motorcycle crash in his hometown of Managua on Saturday, August 9. He was 35 years old.

Luis Lopez at Ramacafe 2006

Luis on the first day I met him at Ramacafe in 2006.

I met Luis on my very first trip to origin for Barista Magazine. He was volunteering as a barista at Ramacafe in 2006. I remember meeting him so clearly because he radiated positivity with his attitude, his energy and his warmth. He loved coffee, and he loved Nicaragua. He was so pleased that we were there, and he wanted to show off what he loved best about his home.

He and I also bonded because we both rode Honda motorcycles.

Luis Lopez on his Honda.

Luis on his motorcycle.

He called himself “Luis Cappuccino” because he loved pouring latte art. In 2005, after winning the World Barista Championship (WBC) Troels Poulsen visited Nicaragua, and Luis had the good fortune to meet him. Luis was so enchanted by the demonstration Troels gave of latte art, that he spent the following year working by himself on his technique. There was no one in Nicaragua to teach him. He watched YouTube videos for tips. Deciding that he would need to speak English if he wanted to really be a part of the international barista community, he taught himself that too.

Luis Lopez competing at the 2008 WBC in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Luis competing at the 2008 WBC in Copenhagen, Denmark.

He was an amazing individual. His desire, talent and determination to succeed landed him the title of Nicaraguan Barista Champion 2008, and he traveled to compete in the WBC that year in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was his first time out of Nicaragua, and he could hardly believe that his passion for coffee could lead him to such a faraway land. He said it was a dream come true.

Luis Lopez on a barista panel at Let's Talk Coffee in 2009.

Luis on a barista panel at Let’s Talk Coffee in 2009.

I got another chance to spend time with Luis at Let’s Talk Coffee in 2009 where once again he was volunteering: teaching people about Nicaraguan coffees, demonstrating latte art, and generally loving the opportunity to be around other international baristas.

I had the opportunity to write a profile of Luis for our December 2009 + January 2010 issue.  I have included the text of the story at the end of this post, hopefully it will give you a little more insight into what made Luis such a special person and ambassador for not just the coffee community of Nicaragua but for the world.

Luis Lopez on the beach in Nicaragua.

Luis on the beach in Nicaragua.

We talk a lot about how specialty coffee can change the world. I can say for certain that it has changed mine. Because of specialty coffee I have been lucky enough to meet many talented, fascinating, and terrific people from all over the world. And even among those many great folks, Luis stands out. I am humbled and grateful to have had the opportunity to know him. I am saddened by this loss for our community, for his local community and family, and for those who will never have the chance to meet him.

He was my friend, and I will miss him.

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100% Heart: Nicaragua’s Luis Cappuccino
Article by Kenneth R. Olson

To meet Luis Lopez is to dispel any number of myths at once. The surly barista, so self-involved and condescending that a customer could never be right only sadly misinformed? That misanthropic stereotype is nowhere to be found. The tough city kid with a shaved head from the barrio? Once again, that’s nothing more than the surface. Within moments, the superficial gives way to the sincere and surprisingly open personality and then there’s the smile that Luis is always ready to break out at a moment’s notice.

Even the language barrier built between the English-speaker and native Spanish tongue has been torn down by Luis’ own determination. He’s taught himself English and spent time in a few classes over the course of the last couple of years (since delving into the world of coffee full-time) so he could better communicate with his fellow baristas no matter where they hail from. And even if he’s English isn’t quite yet perfected, his unending friendliness can very nearly mask over any miscommunication.

“He’s unendingly full of energy. He’s driven and intense,” says freelance barista and former national barista champion of Canada, Michael Yung, who was on Luis team for the inaugural Seed-to-Cup Barista Challenge as part of this year’s Let’s Talk Coffee event. Even more, says Michael, Luis is a terrific host. “He was the first one to tell us about whatever we were interested in, and he even brought a French press (to the remote coffee farm competition site) to make sure we got real coffee.”

“I remember that you could totally feel he was excited about Ramacafé (in 2006), and the chance to learn some more things from the second we met him,” says Klaus Thomsen of the Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, Denmark. “He seems like he’s always cheerful and that big wide smile spreads quickly.”

Ramacafé is an annual event held in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, Luis’ hometown. The event brings together coffee growers, exporters, roasters, and baristas to attend discussions, tour mills and farms and further the educational goals of everyone involved. When Klaus and Intelligentsia’s Deaton Pigot attended the event in early September 2006, it was the first time Nicaraguan baristas had been deeply involved. Klaus and Deaton were there to help train the baristas (along with Mexico’s barista champion Salvador Benetiz and longtime barista competition fixture and judge Arturo Hernandez). It was the first time many of the Nicaraguan baristas received training from highly experienced baristas let alone world and national champions, but one of the baristas in the first moments of the class poured an excellent rosetta and handed it to Klaus.

The prior year, his fellow world champion and Dane, Troels Overdal Poulsen had visited Ramacafé and spent a little time teaching a local barista about etching and latte art, that barista was Luis, and he had spent the fallowing year working on his skills, so much so in fact that he earned the nickname Luis Cappuccino. “He was actually pretty good when we met him,” Klaus says. “So we delved more into the coffee and espresso preparation part of things. His English wasn’t very good, but you can come a long way with arm gestures and showing stuff, especially because Luis wanted to learn so badly.”

The thirty-year-old Luis was born and raised in the sprawling city of Managua. Managua itself, like so much of the coffee-growing world, is a dichotomy of beauty and despair. With a population of nearly two million people, the city is home to universities, government offices and upscale shopping malls, but it’s also home to numerous unemployed or under-employed people, and while brand new Range Rovers cruise the streets, so do rickety horse-drawn carts. The city sits on the shore of a gorgeous lake, Lake Xolotalan. The lakes deep blue waters spread far out to the horizon, and volcanic mountains rise around it. But decades of shortsightedness turned the once bountiful lake into a nearly dead sea, and where once numerous fisheries flourished, now due to pollution, the fisheries are gone and the lake is a wasteland. On the shore of the lake, the beautiful cathedral and other parts of the old city sit vacant and languish in disrepair still reeling from the devastating earthquake that hit Managua in 1972, seven years before Luis was born. The calamity, and the government’s response to it, helped push the once prosperous county into the decade-long civil war that ravaged the nation from 1979 to 1990, and the country is still trying to recover economically from the ensuing fallout.

In this environment, the ever affable Luis was raised, the eldest of five children. He has four younger sisters. He went to work at age 14 at a local bakery. By the time he was 16 he had worked his way up from washing dishes to waiting tables. He was also a huge coffee drinker, nearly always having a coffee nearby. The bakery only brewed filter coffee, but then the owner installed a small, really a home, espresso machine.

Still Luis found himself fascinated by the little espresso machine. He was always interested in machines of all sorts and wanted to get his hands on that one. He knew that he wanted to be more involved in coffee, but he didn’t know how that would happen. He kept playing around and tinkering with that little home machine, until finally years later, the bakery’s owner decided to upgrade. “My boss saw that I was progressing in coffee and decided to buy a pro machine, grinder and accessories,” says Luis.

The spark that had been glowing in his imagination burst into a full-blown flame and Luis started doing research online to find out how to be a better barista. Then in another fortuitous turn of events, a friend of his boss, the local Astoria and Sara Lee sales representative, mentioned to Luis that he might find it interesting to stop by Ramacafé where the world champion barista, Troels Poulsen, would be for a day.

Suddenly, Luis realized that no only could you really be a professional barista, but you could even become a world champion. It was a revelation. After attending his second Ramacafé and meeting Klaus, Deaton, Arturro, and Salvador, and visiting his first coffee farm, Ramacafé’s organizer Henry Hueck’s La Virgin Estate in the Matagalpa region, Luis was anxious for the next year’s event. And in 2007 once more arriving at the Crowne Plaza’s Convention Center, the conference’s annual home, Luis met another champion barista, Heather Perry from the Coffee Klatch in San Dimas, California.

“She offered a different perspective and helped me grow my understanding of coffee,” Luis says. She also taught him some basics about barista competitions, and that year he entered his first one, the Nicaraguan national barista championship. He finished in fifth place, but his appetite was definitely whetted, and he was determined to compete again.

In 2008, he entered his second competition. Once again it was the national championship. And when the final rankings were announced, he found himself “paralyzed,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it was me that won!”

Henry Hueck says, “I was really pulling for him because he deserved it. It was the first year (the competition) was really by the book and done more professionally. So for me, he is the first barista champion of Nicaragua.”

A few months later he participated in another eye-opening competition when the winning Swedish team from the Nordic Barista Cup came through Managua with Café don Paco’s Roberto Bendana as part of the team’s tour of the coffee producing country. Luis and several other Nicaraguan baristas went head-to-head with the Swedish team in an impromptu team competition and proved themselves worthy competitors, whipping up a signature drink from a bizarre selection of random ingredients, pulling shots and pouring speed latte art . The team competition concept was a new one to Luis but one that he took to immediately. “One of the things I’ve learned (from competition),” he says, “is that it’s not about winning but about sharing knowledge.”

Luis spent the following three months training extensively with Guatamala-based coffee consultant Roukiat Delrue, preparing for the World Barista Championship (WBC) in Copenhagen, while also constantly traveling around Nicaragua to teach people about coffee.

Finally it was time for him to go to Copenhagen. It was his first trip outside of Nicaragua, and it was yet another revelation. “For me,” he says, “it was incredible. It was like a whole other planet.” He wanted to do well in the competition, but he knew from his prior experience with barista champions, that to win would most likely be beyond his grasp. “For me,” Luis explains, “it was not important to win, but to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from very professional baristas from all around the world.”

The idea that the baristas would source their own milk and use milk specifically formulated for steaming and use with espresso was something totally new. “Also,” he says, “seeing the way that the baristas were involved with the roasting and processing. Their level of coffee education, that they had education about everything in all of the chain of the coffee.”

As a barista from a producing country, Luis has great sense of pride, but he also feels a real duty. He says he would like to see a winning barista at the WBC use a single-origin coffee from Nicaragua so the country’s coffee growers can take some well-deserved pride in their work. “I would also like to see more production of high-quality coffees here,” he says, “so everyone can share and enjoy the best quality, so they don’t have to all be exported.”

“I love to make coffee for everyone,” Luis says, “especially when it’s a great quality coffee.” And he believes that if he can keep some high–quality coffee in country, he make a difference in the local coffee culture. Traditionally, local coffee is served with sugar and hot milk to mask the bitter flavor of lower grade coffee. The highest quality beans are shipped overseas because the prices that those economies can pay far outstrips what most Nicaraguan roasters can offer. It’s a bit of the same Catch-22 found throughout the coffee-producing world, to be able to keep the specialty beans in country, local prices need to be competitive, but it’s hard to convince people to pay more when they’re used to lower quality and prices, and when frankly most people simply cannot afford to pay higher costs.

If there’s one thing the budding specialty coffee scene in Managua has going for it, though, it’s passion and enthusiasm that a barista like Luis Lopez has in spades. And in his current position as a sales person and trainer for Economart, maybe Luis can make that difference.

“Luis loves to teach,” says Paccelly Torres, Economart’s Operations Manager. “In our shop, Luis makes coffee for everyone, from the lady who cleans to our clients in the store, and they all learn about coffee because of Luis. He’s the kind of character that everyone who works in coffee (in Nicaragua) seems to know him.”

“Here in Nicaragua we need people like him,” says Henry Hueck. “He has helped a lot of baristas and we need a lot more baristas, but mostly we need people with his heart and his passion.”

Meanwhile, earlier this year, on the shores of Lake Xolotalan the largest wastewater treatment plant in Central America has begun the long process of clearing the lake of its decades of pollution. It will be a long and difficult job, but in the end, it could fundamentally change the very nature of Managua, turning it once more into a bustling city built on a vibrant lake’s edge. Luis Lopez’s journey may not be as dramatic, but he too is seeking to change his hometown and native country. Just like the lake is cleared one drop at a time, Luis is changing his world through every cup of coffee he makes.

About the Author

Ken

Kenneth R. Olson is co-founder and publisher of Barista Magazine the worldwide trade magazine for the professional coffee community. He has written extensively about specialty coffee, traveled near and far for stories, activities, and fun, and been invited to present on topics important to coffee culture. He is also an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Huskies. Go Blazers! Go Dawgs!