Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we talk to the owner of The Boy & The Bear, a small chain of Californian coffee shops that places as much emphasis on creating elegant spaces as it does on sourcing quality coffee.
When Andrés Piñeros was growing up, he didn’t realise how good coffee could be.
Like most producing countries, Colombia exports its best coffee beans to Europe and North America, leaving the rest for domestic consumption – which is typically poor quality, instant and freeze dried.
So when Andrés moved to Sweden and a friend introduced him to specialty coffee, it made him question everything he knew.
He tells me: “One day one of my best friends invited me to drink coffee in a local coffee shop where they used Chemexes, and he said, ‘You’ve got to try this black’.
“So I did and it tasted so good – it didn’t taste burnt or rubbery like I remember drinking in Colombia. This coffee was fruity and floral and the acidity was amazing. It was one of those eye-opening experiences.”
From that moment, Andrés was hooked on coffee and started digging into it in every way he could. He took courses, read books, spoke to friends.
It wasn’t long before he decided to return to his hometown in Colombia – a small village around 100km southwest of Bogotá – to open his own coffee kiosk.
For many of the locals, it was their first time drinking high-quality coffee and, naturally, became an immediate success.
“Before Sweden, I’d spent time living in Los Angeles,” Andrés says. “The kiosk had proved successful in my small hometown, so I was like, ‘Okay, I have to move this concept to LA’. I knew how the city worked and, in 2012, it was ready for specialty coffee.”
Andrés opened the first of The Boy & The Bear’s coffee shops in Redondo Beach, California, serving specialty Colombian coffee. Originally called “The Fika Company”, he soon changed the name to something that would resonate with American customers, and set about defining the brand.
The first coffee shop hit the ground running and far exceeded Andrés’ expectations. He was operating on just three hours’ of sleep per day – but it was something he says he’s grateful for.
“It was a blessing,” he tells me. “A total blessing.”
An end to ‘Colombia supremo’
A decision Andrés made right from the off was to stick to his roots and exclusively serve Colombian coffee. One of the reasons was a personal mission to change US perceptions of Colombia as an origin.
“In Colombia, it’s like there’s a whole world of coffee within one country,” he says. “If you look into some of the varieties and processes, you realise it’s almost infinite. But when I came to LA, I kept seeing ‘Colombia supremo’ everywhere.
“So it became my personal goal to showcase the best of Colombia. It’s not ‘supremo’ and I was going to be the guy to show that.”
The Boy & The Bear isn’t the only coffee business to focus on showcasing one origin; but what sets it apart is the inextricably close ties Andrés has to coffee farmers in Colombia.
“Seventy per cent of the coffees we purchase are from my friends, kids that I grew up with in the same neighbourhood playing football in the street,” he says. “We were friends before coffee, so the connections with the farmers are very real.
“Since day one, it’s been open and honest and close. They’re literally a WhatsApp away.”
These relationships have not only pushed up the quality of the coffee The Boy & The Bear serves, it’s also allowed them to explore new areas, including craft chocolate.
It happened after one of Andrés’ old friends (who is now a coffee farmer) mentioned that he was growing a few cacao trees on his land and was using it to make chocolate. Intrigued, Andrés ordered a few bars for the store – and he’s never looked back.
“We sell direct traded chocolate from the same people who supply our coffee, from the same friends,” he says. “It’s been a total hit from every perspective. The story is great and it strengthens our direct relationships.”
By trade, Andrés is a graphic designer, which is something that becomes evident the moment you approach one of The Boy & The Bear’s locations.
Every element, from the logo to the lighting to the placement of the coffee counter, has been carefully thought out to maximise the customer experience. It’s the part of what Andrés says excites him the most about running The Boy & The Bear.
“Something that the brand has had since the beginning is that sense of design and aesthetics,” he explains. “It’s part of the brand identity and it fulfils the designer persona within me. I can’t even describe how much passion I get from talking about it.”
Central to this brand identity is the concept of different coloured stores. Each of The Boy & The Bear’s three locations are built around a colour – black, white, and grey – and offer a distinct experience for customers, all while maintaining the brand’s core identity as an approachable neighbourhood coffee shop.
Later this year, they hope to open a fourth, “green” store, which Andrés says will present an exciting new challenge.
“We’re soon going to open a green store and we have to think of so many different things,” he says. “Like how we can keep the same brand identity while changing one or two colours in the palette. But people love it – they see the differences and it’s one more conversation to have about the brand.”
In addition to a new store, Andrés has also been working on a range of merchandise, including hats, bags, and t-shirts. Like the coffee shops, each product is carefully designed to ensure it stays true to the brand and promotes a positive customer experience.
Traditionally, instant coffee has had a reputation for poor quality that’s left it largely on the periphery of the specialty coffee industry. However, when on the move, it can be difficult to transport all the various pieces of equipment necessary to make a good cup of coffee.
Noticing this, Andrés decided to launch The Boy & The Bear Survival Box, a selection of high-quality instant coffee sachets that allow customers to enjoy great coffee on-the-go.
“We realised there was demand for great coffee for those who like the outdoors a lot to still have access to coffee without having to bring all the equipment,” Andrés explains.
“I want to be hiking and get to a rock in the middle of nowhere and still be able to brew my coffee. We always aim for the raw material to be great, then we take it from there.”
This mentality is one that’s shared by high-end chefs the world over and it’s what allows brands like The Boy & The Bear to stay on top in its corner of the market: vast attention-to-detail, commitment to quality, and above all, respect for the raw ingredients.
Californians don’t know how lucky they’ve got it.
Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? Next time, we’ll be speaking to Onyx Coffee Lab.
Photo credits: The Boy & The Bear