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Micro Roaster of the Year 2020: Mostra Coffee

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The Mostra Coffee family. Photo courtesy of Mostra Coffee.

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Roast Magazine. Links have been added for context.)

In 2009, childhood friends Beverly Magtanong and Jelynn Malone traveled to the Philippines to volunteer with a nonprofit that was building homes for local families.

“We saw two sides of the Philippines,” recalls Malone. “We saw the beautiful culture and people, and the country itself is gorgeous, but on the flip side, we saw the level of poverty that existed there, and it was extremely impactful for us.”

Both Magtanong and Malone are the children of Filipino immigrants, and they felt a deep connection to the country and its people.

“Seeing these people,” Malone continues, “it was almost like looking into a mirror for us. They were basically our families.”

The two felt compelled to help, but they didn’t know how. They tried to learn more, spoke with nonprofits working in the area, and even contacted members of the Philippine government. One message began to resonate above all others: The best way to help would be to create economic opportunities for the people of the Philippines, to create living-wage jobs and bring money into the country, so the country itself could create more jobs and opportunities.

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That was a tall order for two women in their 20s, and one they didn’t immediately know how to tackle. But they had been talking about starting a business of their own, as both had been working in the entertainment industry, and both were ready for something new, so when a plan to open a pastry and coffee shop morphed into a plan to open a roastery, everything seemed to fall into place.

While researching ways to support economic improvement for families in the Philippines, they had learned that coffee was among the country’s agricultural products. They didn’t know anything about coffee at that point — and they didn’t know if any of the coffee produced in the Philippines would qualify as specialty — but they had the seed of an idea that seemed like it could sprout into something important, so they began exploring the possibilities.

They partnered with another childhood friend, Sam Magtanong (who’s also Beverly’s husband), and with a more recently acquired friend, Mike Arquines, who had a culinary background and knew a number of local roasters. In the years that followed, that small but mighty seed of an idea grew into a thriving roasting company and Roast’s 2020 Micro Roaster of the Year, Mostra Coffee.

Learning by Doing

With a culinary degree from the Art Institute in San Diego, and experience working in Michelin-rated restaurants and running his own custom dining experience, Arquines took the lead in developing the company’s coffee program, but even he was new to coffee roasting.

“I knew how to roast in the sense of roasting a chicken or roasting prime rib,” Arquines jokes. “When it came to roasting coffee, it was completely new, other than experimenting in a cast-iron pan or a modified popcorn popper.”

Taking what he knew about how heat affects flavor, he began experimenting. “It was a lot of burning beans,” he says, “a lot of trial and error, a lot of taking notes. … I asked a lot of questions of fellow roasters in town, and thankfully, a lot of them answered my questions.”

The foursome set up shop with an SF-1 profile roaster in Beverly and Sam Magtanong’s garage, and Mostra was in business.

At the same time, the Mostra crew continued to research Philippine coffee. Sam Magtanong was born in the Philippines and still had family in the homeland, many of whom were rice farmers. His father took an extended trip home every year, and in 2014, he brought back coffee samples from several of the family’s neighbors. The Mostra team asked InterAmerican Coffee, the importer they had been working with since opening their roastery about a year earlier, to evaluate the best-looking sample. It scored a promising 83 points, so they felt they might be onto something.

The next year, Sam Magtanong traveled to Mindanao, the southern-most island in the Philippines, to source more coffee from the same farm, run by third-generation coffee farmer Ed Cagat and his son. Despite the logistical hurdles of sourcing coffee from a country made up of more than 7,000 islands with different regional ethnicities and dialects, he was able to import 1,500 pounds of specialty-grade beans from the Cagats.

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Mostra owners (from left) Beverly Magtanong, Sam Magtanong, Jelynn Malone, Mike Arquines. Photo by Cindy Kyle.

To highlight the unusual origin, Mostra collaborated with Southern California’s The Bruery to create a coffee-beer called Share This: Coffee. For each bottle sold, $1 was donated to the nonprofit Free Wheelchair Mission. The campaign raised $50,000, enough to help more than 600 people in the Philippines regain their mobility. Mostra also sold the Philippine coffee as cold brew at its anniversary party that year, with “people from all over coming in and wanting to try Philippine coffee for the first time,” Malone recalls.

After 2015, it became unsafe to travel to Mindanao because of political unrest and other factors. Fortunately, Mostra was able to connect with Kalsada Coffee, another company dedicated to supporting Philippine coffee farmers and bringing specialty coffee from the country to an international market. Mostra began by purchasing six (132-pound) bags of coffee from Kalsada. In 2019, the company placed an order for 35 bags of Philippine Coffee from Kalsada after visiting its farms at Sitio Belis and Sitio Naguey in Benguet.

“My grandfather was a rice farmer who toiled the land for 60 years before he passed away in 2017,” says Sam Magtanong. “For me, it was a question of identity and purpose.” His mother was the eldest of 15 children, and the only one who was able to come to America, he adds. Building a respected coffee brand that could bring Philippine coffee to an international market is a personal mission for him, and for his three Filipino-American business partners.

Mostra’s goal—literally, in some senses—is to put Philippine coffee on the map.

“There are plenty of published coffee belt maps that have surrounding areas like Sumatra, Java, Papua New Guinea and other countries around there highlighted as growing coffee, but the Philippines is completely blank,” says Ryan Sullivan, Mostra’s coffee education and quality control manager. “For us, a lot of it is about championing this coffee that can hold its own with any other coffee in the world.”

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Barista Jaris Remigio working the bar. Photo by Luke Kyle.

Building Connections

What started as a way to connect with farmers in their familial homeland has expanded into a way for the Mostra team to connect with people in their local community. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they have found numerous ways to collaborate with neighboring local business owners.

Take Mostra Fit, a campaign that pairs coffee and fitness. As part of the collaboration, a local cycling studio invited Mostra to share coffee and pastries after one of its classes, and Mostra hosted a boot camp workout outside one of its retail shops. The company’s collaborations often develop organically, when regular customers ask how they can work with Mostra to cross-promote their businesses. In addition to the fitness classes, Mostra has hosted church services, a pop-up flower shop and more.

“Our regular customers know we love collaborating,” says Malone. “They’ll ask if they can host a paint and coffee event here, or a cake decorating event for kids. The cycling studio was the studio where we work out.”

The company created a cold brew with another local roaster, Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, and has partnered with more than 100 craft breweries around the country and abroad to create more than 400 coffee beers. Even the design of Mostra’s retail shop was developed with collaboration and connection in mind. An under-counter Mavam espresso machine facilitates interaction between staff and customers, and a long communal table in the center is meant to bring people together.

“There’s a lot of energy, a lot of discussion, a lot of people coming together sharing ideas about how we can all be successful,” says Sam Magtanong. “It’s the power of community, the power of engagement, and the power of bringing diverse industries together to promote the positives of the human condition.”

“We truly believe the more you come together, the more everyone succeeds,” agrees Malone. “Those partnerships and collaborations are huge for us.”

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Sam Magtanong training the team. Photo by Luke Kyle.

When Nerds Roast Coffee

While Arquines didn’t have experience roasting coffee before Mostra was founded, he was confident and eager to learn.

“Whether it’s a food nerd or a coffee nerd,” he says, “in general, I am a nerd. Coffee was something that intrigued me. There are so many parallels to food. If it has to do with flavor, I’m interested.”

That nerdiness led to at least one innovation that pairs well with the company’s extensive coffee-beer collaborations. As Arquines explains it, breweries source barrels from distilleries. Those barrels have contained spirits for years, often decades, before containing beer. That makes them “time machines of flavor,” he says, as the wood absorbs the natural flavors of the spirits over many years—flavors such as vanilla, chocolate and coconut. The brewers add their beer, which takes on flavors from the barrels, but also imparts its own flavors into them.

“You’re just naturally layering flavors over time,” Arquines says.

After their brewery partners bottle or keg their beers, Mostra takes the barrels, inspects them, grades them according to the company’s own protocols, then ages green coffee beans or cold brew in them.

“There’s a method to what we do, but the hard part is, there was never a blueprint,” Arquines says. “It was just born from curiosity. Up to this point, we’ve been able to get great results. Green beans are porous; they absorb flavors really well. That can also be a bad thing, depending on the condition of the barrel and what was in it before, but now we know we can source a specific coffee with a specific flavor profile or characteristic that will potentially pair well with a charred American oak barrel and give us the flavors we want.”

The team regularly rotates the barrels on casters to ensure even distribution, and they monitor the moisture of the beans throughout the aging process, periodically sample-roasting beans until they’re satisfied with the end result.

“We’ve had more failures than good ones in the past,” Arquines says of the five years the company has been experimenting with the process, “but in the past year and a half or two years, everything we’ve done we’ve loved and enjoyed. It just gets better and better.”

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Co-founders Beverly Magtanong and Jelynn Malone. Photo by Luke Kyle.

“As a customer of Mostra, I always liked Mike and the rest of the Mostra team’s approach to the coffee industry,” says Sullivan, who was one of Mostra’s first customers before joining the staff in 2017. “We carry the same washed Ethiopian coffees and the same Kenyan coffees as every other roaster. We love those. We’re very traditional in that sense, but Mike wasn’t afraid to do things some people might classify as bastardizing the coffee, as we say.”

The Mostra team sees it as creating new flavors.

“We’re creating different experiences for customers,” Sullivan says. “We’re bringing different communities together, the beer community and the coffee community, in a way that other people aren’t. It’s a unique, niche thing we’re able to do, and pairs well since we do so many beer collaborations. It just makes sense for us to maximize those relationships and bring those communities together.”

“This all ties back to being a nerd,” adds Arquines, “and wanting to not just discover new processes, but also ensure that these processes add to the end result. We don’t want to do something different just because it’s cool.”

With coffee from the Philippines, the roasters see similarities with other origins and differences.

“You can put Philippine coffee on the table alongside most Central and Latin American coffees with similar flavor profiles — very chocolate-heavy, good body, some citrus — and the Philippine coffee would blend right in,” says Sullivan.

When it comes to roasting, however, there’s one significant difference.

“The biggest thing for us is, for whatever reason, when it reaches first crack, it cracks extremely hard in comparison to most coffees we roast,” Sullivan explains. “The beans release a massive amount of moisture at first crack, causing a hard drop in the rate of rise. This changes our roasting approach to keep the coffee from crashing and stalling out, which would result in baked or other non-desirable flavors.”

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Barista Matthew Ledesma working the bar and putting on a show. Photo by Shawn Saint Michael.

Performance Enhancers

Mostra is the Italian word for show or exhibition, a nod to Beverly Magtanong and Jelynn Malone’s previous lives in the performing arts. (Magtanong is a classically trained opera singer who performed professionally and ran her own voice and music studio; Malone worked as an actor, singer and dancer for more than a decade, with experience in feature films and television.)

It also alludes to the company’s motto: Perform to your highest level.

And while the four owners hold themselves to this standard at all times, they’re also committed to supporting their staff to achieve their highest potential.

For a young and relatively small company, Mostra is in the process of formalizing some ambitious employee benefits programs. It currently offers flexible schedules and paid sick leave for all employees, plus paid vacation for full-time, salaried staff. (All full-time employees will be eligible for paid vacation beginning in 2020.) The company has plans to add health and dental insurance coverage and a 401(k) plan in the not-too-distant future. The long-term plan is to become an employee-owned company.

Mostra also supports its employees by providing ample opportunities for training and career growth. All new employees are welcomed with a new-hire dinner, and participate in a weeklong orientation program and training boot camp before they start working in the retail or roasting facilities. The week includes sessions on Mostra’s history, mission, vision, values and culture; coffee basics; cuppings; an introduction to roasting; manual brewing and espresso instruction; and a primer on coffee-beer collaborations. After the orientation is complete, Sullivan assesses each employee’s competency and provides additional training if necessary. Every new employee is assigned a mentor, and quarterly customer service trainings are inspired by the well-regarded Disney Leadership Institute training program. Mostra also provides financial support for employees to attend coffee-focused trainings and events outside the company, and has sponsored staff to attend the Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle and Boston, barista camps and championships, and origin trips.

Perhaps the most impressive educational endeavor the company has taken on is its partnership with neighboring Palomar College to create a for-credit internship program. Mostra developed activities to support learning objectives for several Palomar classes and provide relevant real-world experiences for its students. Running a coffee cart on campus supports a course on entrepreneurship, for example. Shadowing a manager in Mostra’s Carmel Mountain retail shop is paired with a course on management and leadership. Working in the roastery and warehouse enhances the objectives of introduction to supply chain management and principles of logistics courses.

Inspired by their work on the internship program — which recently completed its first year, expanded to San Diego State University and resulted in the hiring of a new employee — the owners decided to develop a professional training track for employees who show an interest in building a long-term career in coffee. Through the program, employees are mentored and provided with promotional opportunities to help them expand their professional skills.

As an example, Sullivan is expanding his position and transitioning into a director of coffee operations role. In turn, he’s always looking for ways to support education and growth for Mostra staff.

“I take an open-door policy with staff,” he says. “I make everything as visible as possible. We do pretty much all of our cuppings at our retail location, where staff are encouraged to join in.” He does all the sample roasting at the retail location and keeps the company’s green samples there, too, “so staff can be part of that process.”

Similarly, head roaster Nicholas Berardi will bring out a refractometer and aroma kits to give staff opportunities to explore aspects of the coffee industry that fall outside their regular duties.

“Usually it’s a select few people that get to do those things,” says Sullivan. “We try to bridge the gap between newbies and experienced baristas and coffee buyers and roasters.”

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The Mostra team on an origin trip to the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Mostra Coffee.

Another example of Sullivan imparting knowledge through day-to-day activities can be seen in the reverse osmosis (RO) water filtration system he developed.

“In San Diego, like many other cities,” he says, “we have extremely hard water. Instead of just filtering it out with some type of carbon neutralization filter, we have an RO system that removes all minerals from the water, so we start with a blank slate. I developed a sort of water calculator so the staff can re-mineralize the water to ideal levels, giving us the best-tasting coffee possible.”

Using reverse osmosis to optimize water quality isn’t a new concept; what makes it unique is the way Mostra uses it as an opportunity to educate staff about water chemistry and its effects on coffee flavor.

“We could have dropped a couple extra grand on an automatic blending system,” says Berardi, “but actually getting the staff to monitor the water levels and correct them with re-mineralization and taste the difference in the coffee is a big part of how Mostra has always supported employee education.”

Arquines draws a comparison between how Mostra treats its employees and its coffee.

“We talk about sourcing good coffee and not messing it up,” he says, “but tying it all together is hiring the right people and not messing it up. Groom them and mentor them and give them the tools to become successful. Have an open-door policy, build that culture, and constantly cultivate education.”

“When we talk about our progress, and what we’ve been able to do,” says Malone, looking back on Mostra’s first six years in business, “it has been incredibly rewarding and serendipitous. It’s like we dreamt up this company, not knowing anything about coffee, not knowing where to even begin to source Philippine coffee. It was all because of a dream to give back and help people. It’s been incredibly emotional for us, and magical to see these dreams come to fruition.”

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