“Balam is the jaguar. For the Mayans, the jaguar is the jaguar we all know, and at night, the jaguar is the spirit of Balam. Balam being the protector of the crops, the guardian of the crops.”

Meet Juan Sebastian Recinos Valdés 

At fifteen years old, Juan Sebastian Recinos Valdés moved with his grandmother from his home near Guatemala City to his family’s coffee farm. He lived there for the next three years.

Valdés has been running around coffee plantations for as long as he can remember, but he says the day he really fell headfirst into coffee was in 2013. A sedan pulled up to the farm- during the muddy season- and a man stepped out, carrying a V60 brewing kit and two bags of coffee. “I was very confused,” Valdés explains.

The man was a roaster from Seattle. He brewed up a natural Yirgacheffe and a honey-processed Orange Bourbon from Costa Rica- two uncommon processes back in 2013. Though Valdés liked the aroma, he was both confused and allured by the fruity taste of the coffee. “I could not believe that by paying attention to how you roast and then how you brew the coffee, you can truly tap into the terroir of every coffee cup. That's how I fell into the rabbit hole of roasting and brewing.”

Valdés explains that specialty coffee didn’t really click for him until Kim Elena, from Counter Culture, came to visit their farm. “She was very pregnant. And when I asked how she was getting around and she told me she was taking chicken buses. I was shocked. I saw the commitment she had not only to our family and our plantation but to the rest of the farmers that Counter Culture was working with. That’s when it all clicked. That's when coffee meant more than an early brew or after-dinner brew with my grandma. I understood how deep and how meaningful coffee could really be.”

Balam Sacred Coffee:

Balam is run by Valdés  and Anna Raffaela Valdés Di Salvo. “Anna is a daughter of immigrants. Her first job was as a barista at Tim Hortons when she was 12.  I am from the complete opposite end of the chain, a Guatemalan born into the fifth generation of coffee farmers. Balam was born as the idea of two people devoted to the coffee industry.” We caught up with Valdés to ask him a few questions.

-Tell us a bit about Balam

We started when we lost our jobs in 2020 and we realized our dream to take that extra step to work with coffee in a way that we hadn't been able to before. What we do as green importers is become the green source for that specific coffee. You can 100% label the coffee at that point, direct trade, because we're able to trace the coffee back to the plantation with as much detail as possible.

We choose purposefully to work with people that are not under the spotlight and need a lot of work to get to their best. That potential is what we seek to bring out of them and help them grow. That's the whole point of doing what we do, it's to see our partners grow- both roasters and coffee producers.

-What do you hope for the future of Balam

That we're able to focus on establishing long-term relationships with producers and clients. That is the only way in which the coffee industry will truly help producers. This year Counter Culture and my family will go on year 20-something of business together. I know for a fact that that is the only way to make things work and really support producers.

-Tell us a bit about Nehemias Estela Chilcon

“It's a delicately floral yet sweet coffee with subtle notes of amaretto and cola.”

Nehemias is the younger cousin of a producer we work a lot with. Our main producer is, David Flores, his story is special and it's what pushed us to work with them.

David is the eldest son of a coffee farmer. He did not initially want to become a coffee farmer himself. He wanted to go get a job in the city because you make a living wage and you're able to offer yourself and your family a better life. So, he left for Lima. But he could not get used to it. He went back and forth for four years. When it was time to go back, he decided to try one last time to stay in the city. But this time, when he got back to the city, he brought a sample of his coffee to a specialty roaster that was giving out SCA formations. And this roaster immediately called him and said, "what are you doing in the city, man? You need to go back. You need to go back and tell your family what you guys are doing is fantastic."

We are incredibly proud of these Peruvian coffees we're sharing with you guys. We see a very clean, pleasant, and fruity cup that is not something you would expect from Peru. When I’ve had Peruvians in the past, they were always pleasant and comforting, but they didn’t have the acidity the El Diamante community has been showing us. I think that's what really distinguishes them. From the Catuai variety, we can really expect the coffee to have a very distinct initial aroma. We find it's very delicate and floral when you first start brewing it. Anna and I agree that it's almost like a cocktail. It's very smooth.

July 28, 2022 — Zara Snitman

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