By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
You could say Oscar Nunez, the proprietor of High Note coffee, has coffee in his blood.
Although Mr. Nunez, 42, was born in Staten Island, until the age of 10 he lived just outside San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where his relatives have been growing coffee for more than a century.
"Coffee has always had a place in my life," says Mr. Nunez, who now lives in Menlo Park and imports and roasts the beans and sells them at farmers' markets in Woodside, Portola Valley, Daly City, San Carlos and Palo Alto. He also wholesales coffee around the world, including to such places as China and Poland, and to local restaurants.
The coffee connection was reinforced while he attended Boston University, where he received a degree in environmental science in 1993 and worked as a barista at Terroir Coffee. Owner George Howell was one of the first to roast and sell single source coffees. At Terroir, Mr. Nunez says, "I started to see the value of coffee as a business."
Mr. Howell, something of a legend in the coffee world, was a mentor for Mr. Nunez.
But it wasn't until years later, after Mr. Nunez spent a dozen years policing companies for compliance with state environmental rules, and after a few more years consulting for big box companies opening new stores, that he finally made coffee beans a business.
About three years ago Mr. Nunez started to import and wholesale coffee. He was prodded by his girlfriend, Soody Tronson, a patent attorney who convinced him that instead of talking all the time about coffee, he should make it a business. "To shut up and just do it," he says.
He sources his beans directly from growers all over the world, many of whom he met through family connections. The beans are certified as "fair trade," which means that producers are paid at least a minimum price and do not use child labor, pesticides or herbicides.
Today Mr. Nunez imports coffee from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, Indonesia (Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi), Ethiopia, Congo, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania, in addition to Honduras.
He visits coffee-growing regions looking for quality and quantity, Mr. Nunez says. He tries to work with smaller farmers and pays them directly for their coffee. "The travel is a lot of fun," he says. "The sleeping arrangements are not."
A special goal is to get the world to realize that Honduras grows high quality coffees. "It's become sort of a social mission statement to try to produce a quality cup of Honduran coffee," he says.
He got even more into coffee when he started roasting beans in a borrowed roaster for customers who wanted to know what his wholesale beans tasted like. At first he just gave the finished beans to friends and family, but, once again, Ms. Tronson convinced him to go with his heart. "My girlfriend really thought we could make a business out of it," he says.
On a recent weekday morning, Mr. Nunez sat in a booth at Canyon Coffee in Redwood City, waiting for the beans he was preparing in their borrowed roaster to reach the perfect temperature. He gauges this not only by the massive machine's thermostat, but by "ear and sight," he says, by the color of the beans and by the tell-tale cracking sound that signals the sugars in the beans are caramelizing.
Mr. Nunez describes coffee the way a winemaker describes wines. That morning he was roasting his "autobiographical" New York City to Bay blend, named after the course his life took. He says the finished product, "if I did it correctly," should be "very bold but (with a) very smooth mouth feel and finish. Notes of bittersweet chocolate and stone fruits, maybe some currants or raisin finish."
While he sells many single-origin beans, this blend comes from Indonesian Sumatra, Nicaraguan Cordillaras, Honduran Capucas (a co-op relatives belong to) and Brazilan Cerrado beans.
He says he loves fooling around with new blends and coffee-brewing techniques, calling himself a "mad scientist."
"I always like to tell people," he says, that 50 different experts could be using the "same machine, same coffee and it will come out 50 different ways," Mr. Nunez says. "There's a little art, a little science" to it.
What is his favorite coffee? "Don't tell my family," he laughs, "but my Brazil Cerrado. I always roast it light and it's just one of my favorite coffees." The Cerrado also has a low acid level, he says, and is smooth and creamy.
Mr. Nunez, who offers tastes of several of his coffees at the farmers' market, is trying to convince the public to try lighter roasted coffees. "Everyone wants it dark," he says. "but I'm trying to move them away from that."
Light roasts not only have more caffeine, he says, but are more flavorful with more apparent fruit and floral notes.
As for his dream future, Mr. Nunez says he'd love to open a cafe with a European-type menu, coffee roasting on site, with roasting classes, and, maybe, film nights on travel to coffee-producing regions. Plus, space to store the coffees he wholesales to other roasters. And lots of bicycle parking, since he is an avid rider.
Where? Preferably right here on the Midpeninsula, maybe Woodside or Portola Valley.
Just how much coffee does Mr. Nunez drink? Maybe enough to be another reason to say he has coffee in his blood -- "ridiculous, copious amounts of coffee," he admits.
Barbara Wood is a freelance writer from Woodside whose daughter worked for High Note Coffee this summer and brought home lots of beans, convincing her that light roasts do let you brew very highly caffeinated, but delicious, coffee.