On the Line: Martin Diedrich of Kéan Coffee, Part Two
Chill til the next episode
Photo by William Vo
Named best coffee in our Best Of 2015 roundup, Kéan Coffee has established themselves as a brand that knows to treat its clientele as well as its product. I continue my discussion with founder Martin Diedrich, as we delve into his childhood, the story behind Diedrich Coffee and what it means to be a master roaster.
You can start here, or you can read our initial conversation from Monday. Either way, you've got a lot to cover. Maybe order a hot beverage first?
Favorite childhood memory. Among my uncountable favorite childhood memories were the equally countless experiences I had in the wilderness and the great outdoors. Wherever we lived when I grew up, we were always somewhere very close to nature and water. My brothers and I all spent a lot of time in the wilderness, either together or by ourselves. I treasure the comfort I find there, and my natural ability to be in the wilderness. I still love doing solo wilderness treks to get off the grid and reconnect with what's real in the world and have my spirit renewed. My Dad always told us, "If you are ever confounded with big questions or troubles in life, don't go to a man-made edifice, go to the mountains or forests or oceans and you will find what you need." I have found that to be true often enough.
Tell us about growing up in Guatemala. Growing up in Guatemala was an amazing experience. It was an enchanting life and a hard life all in one. Guatemala is about the most exotic place one could imagine growing up. The landscape is some of the most spectacular on earth. We lived up in the mountains where the great coffee grows. The impressive mountains are all volcanic; several are almost in continual state of eruption. We could often see these eruptions from where we lived. It's called "the land of eternal spring" because every day is like a beautiful spring day with near perfect weather. The people are mostly Mayan, who still maintain much of their ancient culture. In those days, they were still mostly dressed in their very colorful, hand-woven clothes and spoke their Mayan languages. They lived off of the land and so did we.
Our coffee farm was very small, and it was often a struggle to make ends meet. As kids, my brothers and I all worked on the farm as farm kids the world over do. It was simply expected without question that we had to chip in to pull our weight. These were long, hard farmers days from sun up to sun down. They weren't 8-hour days with lunch and potty breaks. When there wasn't enough work on our farm my Dad made us knock on the neighbor's farm gate to see if we could pick up any extra work there at the same pay rate the locals earned, 1-2 dollars a day. This was often enough to make the difference whether or not we were going to have food on the table that night. Working hard and making do with little was how I grew up. That came as a useful experience latter in life. But we learned about coffee growing and what it takes to produce it first hand in one of the greatest coffee growing countries of the world.
We lived in the small town of Panajachel, which was really no more than a village in those days. Panajachel is right on the shore of Lake Atitlan, considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. We lived the village life. We would get up at the crack of dawn every morning. My job the first thing every day was to go up the street to the panaderia (bakery) to wait in line with everyone else from town to buy fresh baked bread. Another brother went to fetch fresh milk from the truck that came down from the mountain where the dairy farm was, and then we had breakfast. My mom would go to the local Mayan market everyday to haggle for pennies over home grown produce and other food from the Mayan women who grew them on their garden plots. Other than that there were no stores or markets. It was all an amazing and other-worldly experience. That's all changed. Now, Panajachel is a very different kind of place these days, over-run with tourists and hotels.
Living among the Mayan people in the way we did was an amazing experience for me. I was acutely aware of this even as a young kid. I was intrigued with their culture and way of life. I was gripped with fascination by their ancient civilization and the lost buried cities in the lowland jungles. I dreamed of becoming an archaeologist and digging them up. I was completely absorbed in the romance of all that. Working on the coffee farm was hard, and so my brothers and I all fantasized about what we would rather be doing, and dreamed of the day when we could pursue those ambitions and get as far away from coffee as we could. I went on to live my dream as a Mayan archaeologist, studying it academically with some of the leading Mayan scholars in the world. I worked on many field digs with National Geographic, BYU and others. I worked with others on the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs and learned to read them. One of my first businesses was my own jungle expedition guide service company, with which I would take small groups of people way out into the jungle to remote ancient cites. I mostly funded my university studies with the earnings.
It was truly the life of an Indiana Jones, complete with the machete, hat and wild adventure. The whip, though, was rather useless in the thick jungle vegetation. It was still a very wild place at the time, with a distinct frontier way of life by the inhabitants. It was mostly a huge wilderness with all the creatures that lived there including poisonous snakes, jaguars, howler monkeys, macaws and many others. I was walking down a jungle trail one early morning, suddenly finding myself in the middle of a gang of tomb robbers who were so busy digging in the ancient temples that they didn't hear me approaching. They were as surprised as I was to suddenly be in their midst. The guards among them immediately pulled their guns on me. It took awhile to convince them that I was no threat to them and I just wanted to make my way down the trail. They kept their guns pointed right at me until I was out of sight. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that they had found some remarkable artifacts which were sitting right there in the fresh dirt of their looters trenches.
One of my other brothers, Steve Diedrich, always wanted to be an aviator, and had a career in that about as interesting as I did in archaeology. Neither of us ever imagined that we would one day later on be back in coffee as a way of life. Steve started building coffee roasters 36 years ago, and has built a company and a reputation for his fine work as one of the world's best coffee roaster builders. He has built well over 4,000 machines in the last 36 years. His coffee roasting machines are now on every continent except Antarctica. We use three of his machines at Kéan Coffee. You can see two of them in regular operation in our coffeehouses, where we fresh roast all of our coffee on-site every day. My brother's success comes out of the same wellspring as mine, that long family heritage and growing up working hard on the coffee farm. We know a few things about coffee, and how to deliver the very best.
What does it mean to be a master roaster? When one hears about a "master roaster" one might think of a master brewer, which has entered the common lexicon more recently with the rise in popularity of micro brewed beers. Well it's similar, but not the same. Again using the analogy of wine to compare and understand coffee, one can also compare the art and craft of the wine vintner to the art and craft of the master roaster.
First, of course, it's important to understand that coffee as a natural product has, to the inexperienced coffee drinker, little to no resemblance to the well-known roasted coffee beans nearly everyone is familiar with. The raw or unroasted coffee is green in color and smells more like grass. Chemically, coffee is very complex, even more so than wine. The process of roasting coffee, which takes from about 10-15 minutes, is the single most complex chemical transformation of any food substance we consume. To do this well takes an enormous amount of skill and mastery of not only the roasting machine but an in-depth understanding of the coffees and where they come from. A roaster needs to have a deep understanding of the coffee's physical nature, and the physics of the transformation process the coffee undergoes during roasting. They need to have mastered the art and science of roasting each coffee to its ultimate perfection.
Today we even have a Roasters Guild of North America. It is a guild very much like the old world craft guilds. I was a founding member of the guild, and Kéan Coffee has always been deeply involved with the guild. One of our Master Roasters, Jerry Folwell, has studied coffee roasting under me for many years. He has now become a lead trainer for the guild and travels the world as a roaster trainer. This month takes him to Dubai to teach a multi day intensive class on coffee roasting. Jerry (who has been roasting with me for 22 years now, first at Diedrich Coffee and now at Kéan Coffee) is clearly a Master Roaster. He is also on the steering committee of the guild. Two of our other roasters, Ted Vautrinot and Shawn Anderson, who apprenticed with me as well, are also masters of the craft.
My Father, Carl Diedrich, who was the consummate passionate coffee farmer, was also the quintessential degreed German mechanical engineer. Back in the 1960's on the farm in Guatemala, he set out to invent and build his own coffee roaster. It was a simple roaster built with minimal tools and supplies such as they were available to him at the time. Everyone in my family learned to roast on that machine. I started apprenticing at my Dad's side when I was just 11 years old. I have been roasting coffee ever since. Dad's old roaster was the machine that inspired my younger brother, Steve, to build coffee roasting machines when he was just 21. He saw Dad's home built roaster, and boldly said to himself that he could do better than that. And he did. He is now one of the world's leading coffee roaster builders with a big factory in Idaho. So our family knows a few things about coffee roasting. By the way, I still have Dad's old roaster at our main roastery in Costa Mesa.
What's the hardest lesson you've learned? I've learned a lot of hard lessons in life, so it's difficult to choose one above the others. But I will share one that readily comes to mind: trusting ones instincts. When I originally started Diedrich Coffee over 30 years ago, this whole coffeehouse culture as we now see it in the US didn't exist at all. I never experienced or done anything like it in my life before. Remember, I was an archaeologist. So I had to invent it out of my own head, using my instincts to figure out what was the best way to do it. And, of course, a lot of hard work. Naturally I knew some things about procuring great coffee and how to roast it, but nothing about running a business or a food establishment. Gradually I fine-tuned something that worked very well and was very successful. This was still years before there were any other coffeehouses or any Starbucks in Orange County.
I eventually grew the company to four coffeehouses by myself. Then I brought on an investor who brought in more investors and the company grew. It then became a publicly traded company on NASDAQ and acquired other brands and continued to grow. By the year 2000 we had nearly 500 outlets in nine countries under four brands. We were the second largest coffeehouse company in North America after Starbucks at that time.
Early on in my Diedrich Coffee years, I came to the realization that I was not in the coffee business but in the people business. It's really about people on both sides of the counter, the guests and the staff. It occurred to me that I was not even selling coffee, so much as I was selling an experience. It just all made sense to me this way.
I was way out of my league at that time. Diedrich Coffee was actually not doing so well financially those days. Many trade-offs and compromises to quality had been made for the sake of growth and profit and having to answer to Wall Street. The company leaders often gathered for executive and board meetings to discuss what to do about that. I didn't know much about running large publicly traded companies, but I sure knew something about running a successful coffeehouse. That was something all these execs didn't understand or appreciate. Not one of them had ever worked in a coffeehouse. So I would suggest at the meetings that maybe the solution was to improve the quality of the products and renew a focus of taking good care of people. They politely listened to me and then went right back to their own discussions and way of thinking as though I hadn't said anything. If there was ever a reply, then it was with a dismissive, "well first we have to make some money, and then we'll attend to those things". The thought crept into my mind that these execs were all very wealthy people and maybe they knew some things and had answers that I didn't. Since I was being gradually, increasingly sidelined in this company I originally created, I began to seriously doubt my original instincts.
By 2004, I was completely maneuvered out of Diedrich Coffee, the company I had created. I guess the execs thought I had nothing more to offer and they would be better off without me. I thought I was going to do Diedrich Coffee for the rest of my life. My entire identity was tied up in it. When I was left standing at the side of the road that year, I had barely broken even financially for the 21 years of my life and soul I had put into creating and building Diedrich Coffee. The only option that came to mind for me was to start over, which is what my wife, Karen, and I then proceeded to do.
Within a year and-a-half after leaving Diedrich Coffee we opened our first Kéan Coffee, named after our then six-year-old son, Kéan. I could no longer use my family name as a trade name; got screwed out of that also. We thought that the name Kéan, more than being a name in the family, was very symbolic about what we wanted to accomplish with our new company. We wanted a clean break from the past. We wanted to take the concept and coffee to the level of a culinary experience way beyond anything I had done before. I didn't want it to be about my past accomplishments; I wanted it to be about the future, and thus our son's name was appropriately symbolic.
Within three years after leaving Diedrich Coffee, Diedrich Coffee was broken apart and sold in pieces. The investors pocketed the large sums of money they had always sought and Diedrich Coffee ceased to exist as an entity. The brand rights are now owned by Green Mountain Coffee who paid dearly for it. You will see my old Diedrich Coffee logo, which bears my 350 year old family crest, among other brands GMC owns, on every box of Keurig coffee makers. Kéan Coffee was successful from the get go. I relied on my instincts to recreate myself in the Kéan Coffee concept. I realized that my instincts were right all along, and it renewed my trust in them. Trust your instincts! I expect life will most likely still test me further, and throw a few more hard lessons my way. I accept.
What would you be doing if you weren't in the coffee business? I would very likely have continued my life as an Indiana Jones, digging up ancient lost Mayan cities in the jungles of Guatemala and Mexico. It's a difficult way to make a living, and especially a difficult lifestyle for raising a family. Another thought that has crossed my mind more than once is to be involved in some way to produce environmentally and socially sustainable food crops. To me, a line of work or career has to be meaningful and fulfilling beyond just making a living. I feel if I am going to do anything, I am going all the way and devoting my life to it. If I am going that far with it, then I want it to count for something meaningful and worthwhile. Something that will make our mutual condition in the world a little better in some way. Something that would give my life purpose and meaning. Fortunately, Kéan Coffee is exactly all that for me. I am not doing this to go on to do something I would rather be doing. My blessing is that I am already doing what I would rather be doing.
Kéan Coffee has two locations: 13681 Newport Ave in Tustin and 2043 Westcliff Dr in Newport Beach; www.keancoffee.com.
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