Coffee odyssey: Colombian-born coffee roaster brings taste of homeland to Edmonton

A passion for coffee finally brought Santiago Lopez back to the mountains of Colombia, 20 years after bloody conflict in the country ended in personal tragedy.

'The only reason I went back is because of the coffee'

Santiago Lopez and his partner Kristin Panylyk are the founders and operators of the Colombian. (Santiago Lopez/Instagram)

A passion for coffee finally brought Santiago Lopez back to the mountains of Colombia, 20 years after bloody conflict in the country ended in personal tragedy.

The trip last year allowed the Edmonton man to connect with his culture and bring a taste of his homeland back to Canada.

Lopez and his partner Kristin Panylyk have founded the Colombian.

The coffee roasting company sources beans from the Lopez family farm in the Manizales mountains, and select growers across the region.

"I really got into looking into the business and I really fell in love with it," Lopez said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"I got see how hard the farmers and their workers work and how much goes into a Canadian just having a cup of coffee."

'All the violence back then' 

Lopez left Colombia at eight years old.

Some members of his family were politicians. Their standing in the community put them at the centre of the increasing violence between government and revolutionary forces during what was known as the Colombian conflict.

"Because of all the violence back then," said Lopez, "my grandmother actually got murdered because of the conflict by the  guerrillas.

"At that point, after my grandmother got killed, my family ... took all of the kids out of Colombia and moved to the States."

After spending the remainder of his youth in the United States, Lopez moved to Edmonton 10 years ago. Two years later, he founded his own company, Red Rock Construction, which speclializes in home renovations and remodeling. 

But even as his business found success, his passion for coffee continued to grow.

Lopez decided that if he wanted to explore the business properly, he should return to its birthplace.

"That whole thing with my grandmother left me with a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth and I never really had a reason to go back," Lopez said.

"The only reason I went back is because of the coffee."

During his first visit last March, Lopez returned to the Manizales region where his uncle still harvests green coffee beans on a small rural plantation. He got a chance to learn the process from bean to cup, working in the fields and taking classes from some of the country's best roasters.

Once he saw the mountains covered with plantations of rich, verdant coffee plants, he was hooked.

"The people were so nice and we went to a few farms and we were like, 'OK, we're going to make this happen.' " 

 Lopez began researching the business. He made trips to Portland and New York and used most of his savings to purchase his equipment and set up export deals.

"It was pretty scary. We were driving with this stack of cash to Vancouver," Lopez recalls. "We were like, 'Oh my God, this is a good chunk of our savings.'

"But I guess that's just being a business owner and an entrepreneur. You just get it done."

'I call it my passion project'

He creates exotic, artisanal  blends like red bourbon and Santa Rita, focusing extracting the best flavour from the bean.

Though he struggled at first, he finally feels like he's begun to master the craft, which he describes as a mix of "science and artistry."

Their online store and small, 400-square-foot roasting facility in the back of an industrial shop in west Edmonton, went into operation this year, and business has been steady.

"I still own the construction company and I'm trying to juggle both things. I call it my passion project, the coffee.

"I like it so much more and I feel like I'm helping so many more people that I eventually that I want to transition full-time to the coffee.

"I would like to bring something like that to Edmonton, and maybe do things on my own terms rather than doing the daily, daily hustle."