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Carlos de Aldecoa, "the Coffee King," is a dashing young Mexican-American with wavy black hair and a sly smile. He seems too young to be the head of the largest privately held coffee concern in America. Right now de Aldecoa is leaning so far into the coffee cup, it looks like his nose may get wet. After deep-breathing the aromas, he fills a soup spoon with coffee and slurps the liquid violently so that it makes a loud whistling sound. The idea is to spray the coffee all over your mouth to get a more accurate impression of the flavor. This kind of coffee tasting is called "cupping," and it's the ultimate test of quality in the coffee industry.
We are sitting in the tasting room of the de Aldecoa family's Maximus Coffee Group headquarters on Harrisburg, the former Maxwell House plant. Since buying the facility in 2006, the Maximus Coffee Group has converted the one-million-square-foot facility into the largest integrated coffee plant in the world, with a roasting capacity of 2 million pounds of coffee a day.
Carlos de Aldecoa is the scion of a coffee dynasty. His grandfather Carlos started the family coffee business in Spain in the 1920s and fled to Mexico during the Spanish Civil War. His father, also named Carlos, started a decaffeination plant in Mexico. Young Carlos came to Houston to attend Strake Jesuit High School and earned an engineering degree at the University of Houston. In the late 1990s, the family bought the old Uncle Ben's Rice facility on Clinton Drive and turned it into a world-class coffee plant.
The Houston Press dubbed de Aldecoa "the Coffee King" in 2003 when he won "Best Local Boy Made Good" in that year's Best of Houston® awards for his key role in winning a New York Board of Trade designation for Houston as a certified green coffee bean exchange port. Back then, he predicted big things for the Houston market, pointing out that coffee imports into Miami increased fivefold when that Florida city received the same designation.
The campaign to turn Houston into a world-class coffee port started nearly a decade ago. The city's coffee companies formed the Greater Houston Coffee Association in the fall of 2000 with the goal of increasing coffee shipments to Houston and turning the city into a coffee exchange port.
They began by visiting coffee-exporting countries and making presentations about the advantages of shipping coffee through the Port of Houston. They bragged about our infrastructure, our railroad connections and the number of roasters in Texas.
But coffee sold through futures contracts could only be shipped to a port certified by the New York Board of Trade. So Houston's coffee mavens approached the New York Board of Trade. And they were told that there was no way Houston could be certified as a green coffee bean port because of the state's ad valorem tax on warehouse inventories. Green coffee beans can sit for months or even years in storage, and the tax made the port uncompetitive.
The tax was written into the state's constitution. But, highly caffeinated and unwilling to take no for an answer, the Greater Houston Coffee Association enlisted state Senator Mario Gallegos and state Representative Joe Moreno to take a constitutional amendment to the Legislature. After considerable horse-trading, a bill was passed exempting coffee and cocoa stored in Harris County warehouses from the ad valorem tax. Voters signed off on the constitutional amendment in 2001.
Since receiving the green coffee bean port certification in 2003, Houston has shot up the ranks of coffee ports. And when New Orleans, one of the nation's top green coffee bean ports, was closed by Hurricane Katrina, Houston took up the slack. Many exporters have found Houston an easier place to do business.
While Seattle may be the center of American coffee culture, it's Houston that's becoming the center of coffee commerce. William Dunaway, a Honduran coffee exporter who relocated to Houston to set up a micro-roasting operation here, is convinced Houston will soon dominate the U.S. coffee business. "Coffee brokers who once maintained warehouses in California and Florida will consolidate here and ship to the whole country from the middle," he says.
Avi Katz of Katz Coffee, Houston's leading micro-roaster, agrees. While he used to get most of his coffee from New Orleans, he says it's a no-brainer that Houston is going to take over. "It's all about infrastructure, bridges and highways and railroads," he says. "Try to drive an 18-wheeler through New Orleans, and you're always going to run into some low-hanging live oak tree. We cut all those down in Houston a long time ago."
While Houston is emerging as a major center for the international coffee business, the local coffee leaves much to be desired. "We have two major roasters, lots of warehouses and plenty of shipping companies here — what we really need are more micro-roasters making great local coffees," de Aldecoa says. "We need to be recruiting new coffee drinkers. The coffee I get in most Houston restaurants is awful." (See "City of Coffee: Houston Coffee Culture.")
Dunaway says the guys from Seattle have convinced Houstonians that dark-roasted coffee is somehow superior. "The Houston coffee palate is illiterate," he says. "Dark-roasting coffee allows the use of poor-quality beans."