Brewing Passion: Local Honors Colombian Heritage with Coffee Company

December 4, 2023
• Maria Helena Paez prides herself on having a “coffee obsession,” but she knows a lot more about the beverage than your average Joe.

The 25-year-old Needhamite recently launched Berraquera Coffee, an online coffee beans shop inspired by her Colombian roots in name and practice — “berraquera” is popular Colombian slang that conveys excitement and positivity, and her beans are harvested and roasted there.

Maria Helena Paez, founder of Needham’s Berraquera Coffee, stands in coffee tree fields in Bogota, Colombia during a trip in August 2023. (Courtesy Maria Helena Paez)

Paez also drew the art featured on the coffee bags, which are modeled after photos she took while visiting Colombia. Starting her own business may make Paez a “berraca,” a strong-willed, driven woman.

“I want it to be 100% Colombian. I’m just throwing Colombia at you with this coffee,” Paez said. “And I really do think I achieved that.”

After graduating from Needham High School in 2017, Paez attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she pursued her creative dreams. With a desire to pay homage to Colombia, where she spent her early childhood, Paez looked for outlets that would combine her artistic passions with her first home.

It came to her suddenly: coffee.

“Colombian coffee is one of the best coffees in the world,” she said. “Everyone knows that, but I don’t think people process that enough, how good it is.”

A trial run as a barista in Chicago confirmed Paez’s interest, prompting her to take a trip to Florence, Italy for her first coffee roasting, tasting and business course. She then ventured to Colombia for additional training at the end of last summer, where she roasted all four of her coffee varieties just a couple months ago.

What makes Colombia a special java destination is its altitude — between about 1,300 and 1,900 meters for Paez’s brews — as well as its weather and two harvest periods, when most other coffee regions typically have just one.

But Paez said her experience on small, local farms there introduced another key component: a lack of automation. She calls harvesting the seeds “a labor of love.”

“They still do the picking of the cherries (seeds) by hand, so it allows for most beans to be fully ripe,” Paez said, “whereas in a lot of countries that have become a little bit more industrial, they use big machines that basically shake it off, and a lot of unripe cherries fall or other things from the plants fall, like leaves and stems.”

The mountains of Rionegro, Colombia. The altitude in country produces fruity, acidic coffee flavors. (Courtesy Maria Helena Paez)

She returned to Needham earlier this fall, about 200 pounds of coffee heavier.

The Berraquera Coffee beans shipped out through a Colombian exporting company, which Paez said connects with local farmers and workers and provides her sourcing information for the beans.

As she was starting out, Paez said she received advice from her mom, who started her own Spanish immersion preschool in Melrose. During her brief stay in Italy, Paez said she lucked out, finding two Colombian entrepreneurs with their own coffee company in Switzerland who happened to attend the same coffee school in Italy. Existing family connections in Colombia also helped significantly, she said.

Paez invested her savings into starting the business, buying the coffee and securing the website.

Because the coffee community is “tight-knit,” Paez said she found support everywhere she turned.

“As soon as they found out that I was a young woman looking to start a company bringing Colombian coffee over, they were like, ‘Oh, awesome. Here’s this contact in Colombia, and here’s this other contact in another region in Colombia,’” she said. “I’ve been creating a little bit of a network.”

Her Papayo and Colombia Caturra speciality coffees are available on her website, and she plans to soon drop her other two batches: a light body coffee with hints of honey, fruit and nuts and another smooth and fruity one.

Geisha, a smooth and fruity coffee bean batch, will be one of two new offerings at Berraquera Coffee, a Needham company with Colombian roots. (Courtesy Maria Helena Paez)

Most Colombian coffees are known for their fruity acidity, Paez said, and those flavors come through the best using the pour-over method: boiling water and slowly pouring it over ground coffee in a filter.

But however you take your coffee, Paez said she won’t interfere.

“A lot of people drink it with sugar and I say, try it without sugar, and then add your sugar to it,” she said. “I’m gonna throw Colombia at you, but I’m not gonna mess with your rituals.”

With aspirations to one day open a brick-and-mortar cafe or coffee roastery in Needham, Paez said the business will remain an online-only store, at least for now. Social media serves as her primary marketing strategy, but she’s also looking into joining farmers markets and setting up pop-ups where she can meet people.

As she prepares for her next excursion to Colombia, Paez said she may also start a blog, where she would share coffee tips, news and travel stories.

Berraquera Coffee has brought Paez closer to her roots — having left Colombia at a young age, she now feels more tied to the culture and traditions, a connection she couldn’t foster by simply speaking the language. Through selling her coffee beans, Paez said she hopes to share that affinity for Colombia with other locals.

“I’ve always been very Colombian, but now I’m so Colombian right now,” Paez said laughing.

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