The Boy and the Bear: a ‘Third Wave’ coffeehouse arrives in Redondo Beach from Colombia, by way of Sweden
by Mark McDermott
The story of the Boy and the Bear begins at a coffeehouse in the small town of Falkenberg, Sweden.
Andres Piñeros, a musician and graphic designer, had been asked to “fika” with some Swedish friends — that is, to get together for a cup of coffee. Piñeros is from Colombia, so he thought he knew a little bit about coffee, until the server set a French press in front of him along with a stopwatch and told him to wait four minutes to plunge the press.
This, thought Piñeros, is different.
“Super cool,” he said. “This is not like corporate coffee.”
No paper or plastic cup. No hurry. Just ease, and — as he finally sipped the coffee and tasted its deep flavor — a reverence for quality.
“That was the first time I got that zing in the brain,” Piñeros said.
Piñeros is from a farming town in Colombia named Villavicencio. He emigrated to the U.S. to study at the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles before moving to Sweden in 2010. He would live there four years and become immersed in the “fika” culture of coffee.
“The Swedish people are big time coffee lovers,” Piñeros said. “They drink coffee at least five times a day. It’s a big, big ritual. And so that’s where I got into the ritual, and I fell in love with coffee.”
What he loved was more than the act of drinking coffee. He loved the sense of communion that attended it, the way people gathered over coffee.
“Fika is a very strong action in Sweden — which is to drink coffee and to hang out with people,” Piñeros said. “It’s an action; a verb. ‘You want to fika?’”
As a musician, Piñeros understood that much of what is most vital in life is about creating moments — whether it is that moment a guitarist works toward at the apex of a song or solo, or, in this case, that moment of pure conviviality when two friends lock eyes and share a laugh over steaming cups of coffee. As a graphic designer, he also understood that the way a coffeehouse is put together is part of its magic, the often unspoken narrative one feels inside a venue that creates a shared sense of place.
Piñeros believed he’d discovered something to which he could bring all his talents to bear.
“I had the goal of bringing it home,” he said. “Graphic design and coffee, it all came together — I wanted to open a cool, high-end, top-notch coffee roastery.”
Thus a Colombian in Sweden decided to open up a coffeehouse in the United States. First, in 2012, he launched a coffee kiosk back in his hometown in Colombia, both to get a sense of what worked, coffee-wise, and to reconnect with coffee farmers there. Finally, in 2014, he flew back to Los Angeles in hopes of bringing his vision to full fruition.
“I came to LAX with a suitcase and a ticket for leasing a car,” Piñeros said. “That’s all I had. What’s next, I didn’t know.”
He spent 25 months researching the emerging “Third Wave” coffee scene in L.A. and searching for the right location. The Third Wave, as Pulitzer-prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold wrote in the LA Weekly in 2008, is a movement aimed at elevating coffee to a level of artisanal care and cultivated flavor, long associated with the production of wine.
“The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee,” Gold wrote. “We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”
Coffee dates back to 9th Century Ethiopia, where as legend has it a goat-herder named Kaldi noticed his goats perked up when they chewed the beans from a certain bush and so he tried some himself (a legendary coffeehouse in New Orleans, named Kaldi’s, had a huge mural that showed an ecstatic, dancing goat-herder at this moment of discovery). According to the legend, Kaldi brought beans back to his Islamic community. They were disgusted by the taste and threw the beans in the fire, where the roasting beans emitted a delicious aroma. Thus coffee was born. The drink was originally used for religious purposes; it’s Arabic name, qahwa, means “the wine of Islam.” Traveling Sufis introduced the drink throughout Arabia, and eventually traders brought it to Europe, where it initially met resistance as “the devil’s drink” but was finally embraced after Pope Clement VIII had a cup of coffee and loved it.
“Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it,” Clement said. “We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.”
Coffeehouses sprang up throughout Europe. In England during the time of Charles II, this was regarded as a threat; these were places where talk of revolution fomented, much as would occur later in America, when early patriots such as Ben Franklin conspired in coffeehouses.
Coffee arrived in Colombia in the 16th Century, where farmers were encouraged to grow it as a cash crop but resisted because it takes five years for a bush to produce coffee beans. Again, religion interceded. A priest named Father Francisco Romero in the small town of Mesa de los Santos began telling his parishioners at confession to plant coffee trees for penance, rather say Hail Marys or Our Fathers. His idea spread, and Colombia became one of the great coffee growing nations in the world.
But Piñeros made a discovery of his own when he arrived back in Los Angeles.: Colombian coffee in the U.S. was subpar.
“I spent 20 months going to every coffee shop in the industry, and I found that was a common factor of coffee roasters,” he said. “The grade of Colombian coffee was very low, the lowest quality that is exported.”
Like the grapes that produce wine, coffee beans have several varietals — called Yellow Bourbons, Orange Bourbons, Caturra, Typica, Elephante, among others. Colombia, with its many microclimates, produces several varietals. But few were making it to the U.S., Piñeros realized, meaning the Third Wave was largely leaving Colombia behind.
“Colombia has everything — Gesha, Yellow Bourbons, Red Bourbons, Pink Bourbons, Pacamaras — as well as different processes, such as honey processed coffee,” he said. “Every angle you can imagine, Colombia has it. Yet I come to L.A. and they have just whatever, the most average coffee. I am Colombian; I thought, ‘I am the guy to show, here in the U.S., that Colombia’s coffees are just as good as any Ethiopian or Central American coffee.’ It’s just not being shown.”
Last year he finally found the location he’d been looking for, on Pacific Coast Highway at Carnelian Street in Redondo Beach, right across the street from City Hall, the library, and near a robust commercial center home to a Whole Foods Market.
“We were aware from Venice to Long Beach there was nothing,” he said. “If you searched for good coffee, or coffee roasters, people who care about good coffee, there was none. And we thought either it’s an amazing idea and we hit the jackpot or it’s a terrible idea — people have come and done their own research and it’s not going to work.”
He recalls standing for 20 minutes outside the Redondo Beach location, formerly a furniture shop, trying desperately to envision it as a coffeehouse. “It was a gut feeling,” he said. “Yes, we have the library, yes, we have the Whole Foods right across the street. It’s a no-brainer. But a lot of people told me, ‘This location, nothing lasts there.’ I thought, ‘Oh man, it’s not going to work.’ You get scared; it’s a big investment.”
He followed his gut and opened the Fika Company in July of last year, later renaming it the Boy and the Bear when he discovered other coffee companies with the same name elsewhere in the country muddled his social media branding.
From the very day the coffee shop opened it was apparent there was market hungry for exactly what Piñeros had brought to Redondo Beach. There were lines at the counter opening day.
“Honestly, and this is me talking with all humility, I think we hit the jackpot,” he said. “It’s been great. It’s been non-stop, from day one, how much customers have cared. I think we’ve been blessed in that way that hard work kind of pays off. It’s just been amazing.”
Barista Abby McMillen was both part of that waiting market and part of what made it work. McMillen, an artist who moved here from Seattle, was shocked upon arrival when she was unable to find the kind of independent coffeehouses with high quality coffee she’d become accustomed to.
“I’d found a coffee desert,” she said. “That’s the way it felt around here — there wasn’t good, intentionally crafted coffee…and a place to bring together a community that is already existent into a like-minded space. It didn’t exist. Then there was this place. It was an oasis.”
McMillen, who’d worked elsewhere as a barista, applied before the shop even opened. She knew she’d found an oasis, and this was confirmed the day Fika opened.
“It was immediate,” she said. “It wasn’t a trickle that grew bigger as people found out about it. We were slammed from the very beginning. People were thirsty for this.”
The Boy in the Bear is unlike any other coffee roastery in the United States in two significant ways. While many Third Wave roasters focus on “single origin” coffees from specific farms, none do so specifically sourcing from Colombia. Working directly with farmers rather than through market intermediaries is likewise increasingly common and called “direct trade,” which allows farmers to be better paid for their product. But The Boy and the Bear takes this to another level. Several of the farmers, such as Camilo Melo and Herbert Peñaloza, are actually good friends of Piñeros. He grew up playing soccer with Melo.
The closeness of these relationships has several positive results for the quality of the coffee. Piñeros regularly flies his farmer friends up to visit the coffee shop; they stand behind the bar with his baristas and talk with customers, both educating and receiving feedback about what people like or don’t like.
“This is something that never happens,” Piñeros said. “Most farmers never get to meet who buys their coffee, in Australia, Europe, Asia, the U.S. Transparency, all across the board, that is what we strive for. I know the farmer, the farmer knows our coffee, our customers, and how much I charge for his coffee. Nobody else does this.”
The relationship also enables Piñeros and his roaster Colin Lindrooth to collaborate with farmers to experiment with different methodologies for coffee production. For example, beans are usually fermented 24 hours; Piñeros asked some of his farmers to experiment with longer fermentation, up to 48 hours. The result was a stronger, more distinct flavor profile. Such collaboration would not be possible were the farmers not so closely connected to the shop.
“All of our coffees are, in my opinion, very distinct in terms of the characteristics that set each one apart,” Lindrooth said. “Some have more floral notes that are apparent; our Donde Eduardo
has very rose kind of aromas. We have others that are naturally creamy and very well-rounded. So I would say something that sets us apart that is particular to our shop is each coffee has very distinct characteristics.”
Typically coffee beans take two to three months to go from farm to cup. At The Boy and the Bear, this timeframe is reduced to eight to 10 days, and roasting occurs four times a week. Piñeros is in touch with his farmers almost daily, sometimes via Facebook chat — a face of direct trade the world has rarely seen previously.
The result is a cup of coffee that can truly be savored.
“We are in search of the best cup of coffee every time,” Piñeros said. “We are pushing the quality at every single step. It takes a lot of labor and time, both in the shop and at the farm. And it takes a lot of science in the brewing and at the farm. It’s a very careful process, every single step to the cup. Some customers who aren’t used to specialty coffees, who are used to corporate coffee, might not care. It’s just about how fast they can get it, not the appreciation of the coffee. We take time. We don’t just press a button. We take a little longer, because we care.”
The story of The Boy and the Bear comes from a Swedish folk tale in which a boy lost in the forest is confronted by a bear, whom he befriends by giving his basket of berries. Piñeros has tweaked the tale. The basket he has come bearing is full of coffee cherries, the fruit of the labor and love of his friends. He sees a deeper meaning in the story.
“Regardless of race, culture, beliefs, whatever, we can always be friends and have a cup of coffee and a chat,” Piñeros said. “So really, there is deeper concept behind the boy and the bear story.”
He points to his company’s symbol, the boy riding atop the bear, together carrying coffee forward. The Boy and the Bear, as a coffee shop, is also proceeding, and will soon open another location in the South Bay.
“They are hanging out now, on trails,” Piñeros said. “The boy is on top there, hanging out with coffee beans.”
The Boy and the Bear is at 350 N Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach. See TheBoyandTheBear.com for more info.