John Martinez is a man on a mission. He's out to show the world that coffee deserves as much respect and appreciation as wines do. And he has 17 countries behind him.
That's the number of nations from which he imports coffee beans, which are delivered to the family-owned J. Martinez & Co. in Buckhead. There, the beans are roasted and sold to the Ritz-Carlton, Dean & DeLuca, Williams-Sonoma and a number of top-rated restaurants. Martinez's clients also benefit from his considerable knowledge, as he shares it with their staffs, holding seminars on proper preparation of coffee.
"I'll talk coffee with anybody, anywhere,'' he says.
The company supplies mail-order customers (10,000 around the nation), shipping in the distinctively elegant packaging that notes the type of beans and the estates on which they're grown. There's Kenya AA from Miricho Estate, for example. And Costa Rica Tarrazu from Hacienda La Minita. Jamaica Blue Mountain from Old Tavern Estate.
Ahh, Jamaica Blue Mountain. Martinez calls this the coffee of coffees, grown in his native Jamaica at an elevation of 4,000 feet, "the world's best-known and most expensive,'' retailing at $40 a pound. "Still, it is man's most affordable luxury, because if you translate that to a per-cup cost, it's 62 cents a cup. You cannot drink the world's most expensive burgundy or bordeaux for 62 cents a glass, I guarantee.''
Luxurious, Blue Mountain is, to be sure: smooth and assertive without being pushy, with a finish that at once satisfies and calls for more. Like fine wine.
And that's Martinez's point. His mission.
"I'm trying to transpose the culture of wine to coffee,'' he says, "so that, instead of drinking that same Colombian coffee, we'll be drinking Colombian coffee from the X region, X grade grown on Lee May's hacienda.'' I wish.
Making coffee like wine can be a strange trip. While Martinez still labels coffees by grade and farm, the company had to discontinue putting the year of the crop on labels: "I took it off because a lot of consumers took it for the expiration date,'' says Martinez, with a chuckle.
The mission continues, and Martinez, 57, has a lot on his side.
History, for one thing. His son, John Jr., is the fifth generation of Martinez merchants, going back to 1830 when Capt. Pedro Martinez sailed his schooner from his home in northern Spain to Jamaica. There he began a new life, trading Jamaican produce at European ports. Through the years, the Martinez family has traded spices, gourmet foods, cigars, rum and, of course, coffee.
In 1980, Martinez left Jamaica for Miami, moving on to Atlanta the next year. In 1988, he opened a coffee emporium on Peachtree Road, in downtown Atlanta, operating there for 10 years.
At his location, as at the previous one, there's no doubt where you are when you walk in the door. The warm fragrance of beans roasting, beans mingling dozens of flavors from their storage bags and barrels, greeted me at the door the other day, along with Martinez and his wife of 33 years, Melanie.
In addition to coffees, the company sells an assortment of teas, chutney and coffee equipment, including the French press, which uses boiling water poured over freshly ground coffee, steeping three to five minutes. Martinez calls the press "wonderful, because the witness is simple. You know when you pull that kettle off the stove you're getting coffee at the ideal temperature. Because it's glass you can witness the combination of the two. It really makes a beautiful coffee.''
And who wants it any other way, especially on an otherwise fine evening.
As Martinez puts it, "Coffee can make or break a meal. You have had your wonderful appetizer and wine and a lovely meal and the cleansers and everything. Then, you have a cup of dead coffee. That's the last taste you're going away with.''
Amid such passion and fragrant beans, it is easy to believe that Martinez's quest to make coffee like wine will be mission accomplished.
For more information, contact J. Martinez & Co., 739 Lambert Drive N.E., Atlanta, GA 30324. 404-231-5465.