A Reality Shrine for a Wired World

The year in coffeehouse founder Carl Diedrich

Photo courtesy of Martin DiedrichThe first time I saw the Carl Diedrich Memorial Van was in 1978. It was parked outside Diedrich's 10-foot-by-25-foot coffee import shop at the back end of a strip mall near the corner of Irvine Boulevard and 17th Street. In fact, the VW van is how I found Diedrich's. It was a landmark. If you spotted it, you had found the best coffee beans in the world.

That van and Carl Diedrich are a part of Orange County history. Before the trendy chain coffeehouses of the early 1990s--with their venti half-caff nonfat no-foam double-cupped lattes--Diedrich refined Orange County's java palate and primed our psychotropic engines. He grew his own beans, designed and built his own roaster, and hauled the beans in his van from his Guatemalan finca to his Costa Mesa shop, where he roasted them and brewed espresso.

His coffee was trimethyxanthine paradise, a cup of Elysium. Like Zeus employing Pegasus to carry his thunderbolts, Diedrich with his VW lit up Orange County.

Now it's time to commemorate the two of them.

The German-born Diedrich and his van set out for their first roundtrip coffee run to Guatemala in 1972. Crossing the border at Nogales, they fought the elements and the pre-National Highway Improvement dirt roads through Hermosillo, MazatlŠn, Guadalajara, Mexico City, Oaxaca and the highlands of Chiapas into Guatemala. There, they made the last leg of their journey to Diedrich's coffee plantation, situated on the slopes of Lake AtitlŠn--"the most beautiful lake in the world," according to Aldous Huxley. Over the next decade, eight times each year, Carl and his van hauled 2,000 pounds of green coffee beans on the 1,500-mile return run to California.

It was the beginning of Diedrich Coffee. But Carl had no master plan. He didn't aspire to a Diedrich Coffee chain with stores in 37 states and 11 countries. Carl was not concerned with wealth or fame. His goal was "excellence." In today's world, that sounds like junk English--there's not a company on the NASDAQ that hasn't overused the word. But trust me: Carl was one excellent dude. Over a lifetime, he was an engineer who helped build a Ford auto plant in Saudi Arabia and roads in Romania and Bulgaria. He was a marine biologist on Vancouver Island who became one of the world's leading authorities on whale behavior. He was a high-rise construction engineer in Los Angeles who knitted clothes for his children and built finely crafted furniture and clocks.

In 1938, Diedrich was working in England as an automobile engineer with Ford Motor Co. Seeking a warmer climate, he attempted to transfer to a Ford plant in Romania. But at the consulate in London, German officials revoked his passport, presenting him instead with a one-way train ticket to Berlin. The Wehrmacht was poised to invade Poland; Diedrich had been conscripted to serve as an artillerist in the German army. By war's end, he was on Germany's last line of defense, his back against the walls of his hometown of Berlin. In the ensuing bombing raids, all of the Diedrich women except his mother were killed, all of the family's belongings destroyed. Carl, the family's only surviving male, headed south with his mother--betrayed by his country and Hitler's maniacal rule.

Five days before World War II's armistice in 1945, tiny Costa Rica deftly declared war on Germany and confiscated the land holdings of all German nationals. As a result, the Diedrich family's only remaining property--a Costa Rica coffee plantation Carl's mother had inherited after her uncle's death in World War I--was gone. Despite an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the plantation during a 1965 visit to Costa Rica, Diedrich became a joint owner of another just one year later.

By then, Carl had cultivated an interest in coffee roasting and brewing. Embracing the warm climate, Carl, his wife and five sons found themselves overlooking the shores of Lake AtitlŠn. In 1971, Diedrich bought his VW van and was on the move again. A chance stop at a Corona del Mar gas station convinced him that Orange County was ripe for the coffee business. His family relocated again and opened a shop in a rented Costa Mesa garage before moving to the nearby strip mall where I first spotted his landmark VW.

It was then that Diedrich's relationship with his van blossomed; the man and his car were like a single mythical beast, a coffee-bearing centaur. The rest is history on wheels. He reinforced its drive train and transaxle to carry the heavy load of beans, stripped out the interior for maximum cargo space, and added a bench chest with parts for repairs, air horns on the cab's roof and, on the tailgate, a fiberglass banner that read, "Via con Dios": go with God.

And via con Dios he did. Before each journey, he asked his SoCal customers to donate old clothing, canned foods, tools, appliances, toys and old TVs. He packed his customers' largess into the back of his van--gifts he gave to friends he met along his Guatemalan route. The trip became so frequent that every year, he had to scrape dozens of border-crossing transit stickers off the van's front and back windows in order to see out. He loved his work. His family called it "his Mexican affair."

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