How Mostra went from coffee novices to Roaster of the Year – The San Diego Union-Tribune

How Mostra went from coffee novices to Roaster of the Year – The San Diego Union-Tribune

In the beginning, the two people who came up with the idea for Mostra Coffee didn’t really know much about coffee.

Beverly Magtanong and her friend Jelynn Malone may have planted the seeds for opening a coffee roasting company, but “we were Frappuccino kinds of girls,” Magtanong admits.

“If that!” Malone interjects.

“A little bit of coffee and a lot of cream,” Magtanong adds with a chuckle.

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It’s a bit of a puzzle then that Mostra Coffee, started in the summer of 2013 in Magtanong’s 4S Ranch garage, has not only weathered the bumps that a new business encounters during its first few years, it has actually thrived.

So much so that Mostra Coffee — owned by Beverly Magtanong, her husband Sam Magtanong, Jelynn Malone and Mike Arquines — has captured the coveted Roaster of the Year title, besting roasters from all over the world.

It’s the first time a San Diego roaster has won the prestigious award since Bird Rock Roasters nabbed the title in 2012.

The award, administered by Portland, Ore.-based Roast Magazine, names top roasters in two categories: micro, roasters who roast less than 100,000 pounds per year; and macro, roasters who roast more than 100,000 pounds per year. Mostra won in the micro category, while Coffee by Design out of Portland, Maine, won in the macro category.

“This award,” Malone, 36, says, “was this far-fetched, huge down-the-road kind of award to receive. … So to win this now is a dream come true.”

Head roaster Nick Berardi roasts Guatemalan coffee beans at the Mostra warehouse in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

Head roaster Nick Berardi roasts Guatemalan coffee beans at the Mostra warehouse in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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Full circle

Mostra became a reality in 2013, but it really began four years before when Beverly Magtanong and Malone traveled to the Philippines on a goodwill trip, helping build homes for local families.

“It started because (Jelynn) and I were doing a lot of work in the Filipino community here,” Beverly, 37, says, “and we were fortunate to take a trip out to the Philippines in 2009. We were there to learn about social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, so we saw everything from the slums to the beautiful countryside. We came back from that trip wondering what we could do to provide sustainable living for people in the Philippines.”

For several years after that trip, the duo tossed around business ideas, but nothing really felt right. In 2012, Sam Magtanong, then working at a San Diego healthcare facility, told his wife that there was space for a cafe at the nursing home and wondered if she would be interested in opening one that would serve pastries and coffee.

“We wanted to provide coffee, but we didn’t want to do Keurig coffee or anything like that,” Beverly recalls. “Because coffee is a lifeline for these nurses and doctors and family members, we wanted to do really great, high-quality coffee.”

Problem was, “we didn’t really know what that was.”

Enter Arquines, a classically trained chef whose Instagram feed was full of “fancy coffee stuff — espresso machines, pour-overs, that kind of stuff,” Beverly says. Arquines, then just a casual acquaintance, introduced them to the world of high-quality coffee.

“He took us to Bird Rock, Virtuoso and other roasters around town,” says Beverly, a professional opera singer who received her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance at the Boston Conservatory. “He gets us to taste a bunch of a different coffees. Straight shots of espresso. ‘Try it black,’ he said. And we were like, ‘No, that’s OK.’ It’s a little too much. He was like, ‘Just do it.’ So I tried a pour-over and thought, ‘What the heck? Why does it taste like this?’”

As it turns out, coffee, without all the fancy stuff, actually tasted good.

Head roaster Nick Berardi roasts a batch of Guatemalan coffee beans at the Mostra warehouse in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

Head roaster Nick Berardi roasts a batch of Guatemalan coffee beans at the Mostra warehouse in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I’m a Google fanatic,” Beverly admits. “I started researching, researching and researching. And then through that research, I found out that the Philippines grows arabica coffee,” a varietal of coffee that makes up about 60 percent of the world’s production.

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They knew that the Philippines grew Barako coffee, a highly popular but difficult-to-grow kind of coffee that’s known for its strong flavor and anise-like aroma.

“When we found out that arabica is grown in the Philippines,” Beverly says, “we thought, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do.’ Scratch that idea with the cafe. We’re going to be roasters.”

Beverly told her husband that the cafe idea will need to be set aside, and in its place, a new plan: start a coffee roasting company.

“After leaving the Philippines and having this impactful, emotional trip — you know, we’re all Filipino American — we felt this connection to the people and the land and the country,” says Malone, a longtime TV-and-film actor and host. “So there was this strong urge to want to do something, to give back and wanting to connect — it was something that we just could not get rid of.”

“The second the idea of roasting coffee from the Philippines came up,” she adds, “and … really find ways to highlight the quality of this coffee and put it on a national and international stage, we felt that it brought all of our passions and goals for the Philippines full circle.”

Mostra opened its first brick-and-mortar shop at 12045 Carmel Mountain Road in the San Diego neighborhood of Carmel Mountain Ranch.

Mostra opened its first brick-and-mortar shop at 12045 Carmel Mountain Road in the San Diego neighborhood of Carmel Mountain Ranch.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

All in

At first, Beverly Magtanong’s husband, Sam, had his doubts. But then something clicked.

“That’s when she talked about the mission of being able to elevate and empower farmers in the Philippines …,” Sam, 38, says. “When we really discussed the potential significance and impact, I was sold.

“When you look at … all the coffee-producing countries — Brazil, Guatemala Ethiopia — the Philippines isn’t on that list,” he says. “The Philippines has the climate, the soil, the farming culture — everything that’s conducive to producing great coffee. Yet it’s not on the map.”

The Philippines once was the fourth-largest producer of coffee in the world. That was in the early 1900s. At some point, Sam says, “due to politics, due to disease,” it moved down the list “and has never been able to get back to that level.” Today, it’s ranked 125th.

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“So it’s got all this history, and it’s got everything that’s conducive to growing coffee,” Sam says. “Coffee is usually grown by those who are in the mountains and are not a part of the economic table. My late grandfather was a rice farmer. It just made sense to me for us to connect back to the land, connect back to our cultural heritage and to uplift people who had been excluded from opportunity. When she told me that story, I was, ‘OK, I’m all in.”

Humble beginnings

Mostra started in the Magtanongs’ garage in 4S Ranch. The foursome launched the business in the summer of 2013 with $15,000 — “$5,000 for beans and $10,000 for a one-pound roaster,” Beverly says.

“When we started, we did everything,” Malone recalls. “We didn’t have employees. We did all the roasting. We did all the bagging. We did all the selling. We did all the meetings. We were doing all the cold brewing.”

They had small accounts here and there, but nothing earth-shattering. Until …

“We actually started closing more accounts,” Beverly says. “One of them was Tender Greens, which was our first multi-location partnership. It’s still around here in San Diego, and we still work with them.”

That changed everything.

“And that was kinda the thing — we couldn’t continue roasting all that coffee on a one-pound roaster. We needed to start planning for a bigger roaster, a legit facility.”

A few months after they started roasting in the Magtanongs’ garage, Mostra moved to a Carmel Mountain Ranch warehouse — a nondescript roasting facility in an office park.

There, in suburbia, they continued to roast coffee beans sourced from all over the world, including the Philippines. Early on, Mostra purchased coffee from farmers in Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island. But after unrest upended the trade relationship with the region in 2015, Mostra partnered with another Filipino-owned roaster that shared similar values, Kalsada Coffee. An initial order of six 132-pound bags in 2015 grew to 35 bags last year.

Through Arquines’ connections in the dining and drinking community, they landed a collaboration partnership with San Diego’s AleSmith Brewing Co. AleSmith wanted to collaborate using its popular barrel-aged Speedway Stout.

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“We needed cold brew, but it’s going to require 60 pounds of coffee,” Beverly remembers. “All we had was that one-pound roaster.”

Speaking from their 1,450-square-foot roasting facility recently, Beverly adds: “Just imagine this space with nothing in it — just that one-pound roaster and a little laptop and all four of us rotating out roasting one pound at a time for this.”

Malone chimes in: “And we were having to do this all night long!”

For two days, they roasted Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee beans.

“It was a really rare coffee,” Sam recalls, “and there was one barrel left in the United States. If we burned the product, we weren’t going to have enough.”

Luckily, they had enough, and the collaboration with AleSmith proved to be a game-changer. More partnerships and collaborations, with local as well as national companies, followed. Soon, on social media, people were posting about Mostra Coffee. Then, they thought, why not release a limited number of bottles at the next AleSmith beer release party?

“Us not knowing anything about that culture,” Beverly says, “we thought, who’s going to line up for coffee? Lo and behold, we had like 30 bottles or something like that, and they were lining up hours before to get this bottle.”

“And remember,” Malone points out, “there was not any beer in this — just straight up coffee.”

What began as a social media drizzle soon became a downpour.

“They would take a picture of the coffee, they would blend it with their own stout and put it on Instagram,” Malone says. “And it just started turning into this thing. Mike would make a different cold brew — coconut cold brew, a chai cold brew. It turned into this thing, and people would show up here thinking they could get it. They’d say, ‘I saw it on Instagram.’ And we were like, ‘Um, we’re not selling anything here.”

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Head roaster Nick Berardi (right) and director of coffee Ryan Sullivan taste test different coffees at the Mostra roasting facility.

Head roaster Nick Berardi (right) and director of coffee Ryan Sullivan taste test different coffees at the Mostra roasting facility.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The foursome realized they needed to do something to accommodate the demand for a brick-and-mortar location. But they weren’t anywhere close to opening a coffee shop.

Beverly says: “That turned into … we gotta open the doors to the community. At least once a week. We just picked a random day — a Wednesday.”

Mostra Wednesday was born. For five hours, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., they opened the roasting facility, selling coffee and serving samples. On the first day, they brought in $30.

“It was convenient for us and our schedule,” Malone admits. “We had kids to drop off at school, so we were like, ‘OK, 9 works.’”

The popularity surprised them.

“It got to the point where we would get here at 8, and people would start lining up down the sidewalk just for coffee and a bag of beans,” Malone says. “So we were legitimately surprised that this was starting to happen.”

“People say in business ‘location, location, location.’ Well, this is not. There’s no signage. People would be driving around in circles going, ‘Where is this place?’”

Yet they kept on showing up.

Mostra Wednesday was soon joined by Mostra Saturday. Then Mostra Monday and Mostra Friday.

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“We would open the back and put out one folding table and a few folding chairs, and the community would show up,” Malone remembers. “The community was rallying around us. … It was this community thing. Plus, we were also Filipino and that Filipino hospitality that we were raised in just came through. We treated you like you were coming into our house.”

Surprised with their newfound popularity, Malone remembers asking Beverly: “When are we going to open a shop in a shopping center?”

The others began to wonder, too. But it wasn’t an easy question to answer.

“We looked, but anywhere where there’s a Starbucks or a Coffee Bean, you can’t be in there,” Malone says. “And in our type of suburban neighborhood, there’s a Starbucks in every shopping center. So to find anything without it is so rare and hard.”

Meanwhile, at the roasting facility, people were still showing up.

“It was impacting our production because you can’t do production like roasting while we had people in there,” Beverly says. “So it was like, we need the production space back because we were doing all the production after 2 p.m.”

Fast forward to January 2018. In a shopping center a quarter of a mile away — at 12045 Carmel Mountain Road — Mostra Coffee was finally opening a brick-and-mortar shop.

“Normally, you open a business and it slowly picks up and you hope it grows,” Malone says. “But in our case, we literally opened the doors, and we had lines out the door because our amazing community that supported us followed us and they spread the word like wildfire. We couldn’t believe it.”

The outpouring of support from the community, they all agreed, made all the long days and nights worth it.

And winning Roaster of the Year?

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Chef Arquines, 38, likens it to winning the restaurant world’s top award.

“This is like winning three Michelin stars,” he says. “In a way, this is better because only two win it every year.”

“When we won, we thought this was a national award,” Malone recalls. “But when we spoke to the editor of Roast magazine, we found out, people from all over the world apply to be Roaster of the Year. Oh my god!”

Mostra actually applied in 2018 and lost by a point, mainly because of a weakness in its roasting process.

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“I think if we won last year,” Sam says, “it would have been more due to serendipity and luck. Losing was probably the best thing to happen to us because it forced us to think about and change how we did things.”

“Yes, it changed our approach,” Arquines says.

The award may have changed Mostra’s street cred — for the better — but the mission remains the same: Produce high-quality coffee while at the same time sourcing the beans in a sustainable way that can have a positive impact on small growers worldwide, including farmers in the Philippines.

Last year, Mostra roasted 65,000 pounds of coffee beans. This year’s goal is to roast more than 100,000 pounds. Out of the 65,000 pounds, only 5,000 pounds came from the Philippines, specifically a group of farmers in the northern part of the archipelago. This year, Sam says, “we want to buy their entire harvest. They’re projected to have 12 tons this year.”

The projected growth in its roasting program mirrors the company’s goals for growing other parts of the business. In five years, there are plans to have more locations in major cities, establish a national distribution program and launch a cold brew line. That’s in addition to the e-commerce business that exists now.

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For such a small company — it has only 19 employees — Mostra has big plans. Next month, it plans to open a 4S Ranch location. It has a foothold in San Marcos, on the Palomar College campus. They’re in negotiations to open a new shop in Mira Mesa by the end of the year. And there are plans to lease a space at the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco. Eventually, they’d like to open in Manila, New York and Las Vegas.

“Often, we’re just in the hustle of trying to make it, provide for our kids, provide for our families,” Malone says. “But there is a responsibility as a company to do the work to help people. … Our focus is on doing good — how can we do more good, how can we connect more, how can we represent our community in a more positive way and be a positive impact on the community?”

The answer, it seems, is one coffee cup at a time.

The Creme Brûlée Latte at the Mostra coffee shop in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

The Creme Brûlée Latte at the Mostra coffee shop in Carmel Mountain Ranch.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)