The Rasa Libre founder runs a coffee business from his garage in Fort Bend

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Sergio Garcia looks like any other fashion-forward millennial — dad hat, hoodie and baggy pants — but to see him roasting a batch of coffee beans, you’d think he’d be better suited to a white coat and glasses.

In his garage-turned-laboratory in Fort Bend County, Garcia opens and closes a hatch on his roaster to allow cool air to circulate through his volcanic belly. When the beans reach a light shade of brown and the smell of chocolate and caramel has completely filled the room, he grinds up a handful for a “sucker,” where he compares the freshly baked batch to a week-old roast. of the same bean. .

It’s a process Garcia repeats almost daily now that he owns and operates Rasa Libre Coffee, the roasting business he started during the pandemic. An uninitiated palate might not discern the difference between the two roasts, but the process helps Garcia, who has spent half his life working in coffee shops across Houston, maintain the consistency of his Papua New Guinea Peaberry , Rasa Libre’s signature blend. The final product should have notes of figs, rosemary and green Jolly Ranchers.

“It comes down to the human element of what you’re roasting. If you’re able to roast coffee intentionally by understanding what you’re looking for, you’re good to go,” Garcia said.

Rasa, in Sanskrit, means “essence” and libre, in Spanish, means “free”. Garcia adopted the name of a short-lived skateboarding business not only because he wanted “to be free from an industry where you could only go so far,” but because as an undocumented immigrant in Alief , skateboarding was his escape. The walls of his garage are now adorned with Rasa Libre skateboards that he has collected over the years.

Garcia is one of a growing number of black and brown Houstonians who are changing the face of the coffee industry in the city of Bayou. Three Keys Coffee, owned by Tio and Kenzel Fallen, launched in 2019, and Marlen Mendoza, a former colleague of Garcia’s at the now-closed Fort Bend Coffee Roasters, launched Amanecer Co. the same year.

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Growing up, Garcia knew he couldn’t afford college, so he started working at McDonalds at age 15. During his second restaurant job, a co-worker taught Garcia how to use an espresso machine, and it was there that he learned he had a knack for making a great cup of coffee.

“Going back to high school, knowing my opportunities were very limited, I knew I had to do something that would help me be happy and not feel limited, and coffee was that thing,” Garcia said.

He spent the next decade and more bouncing around in various cafes around Houston, learning new techniques and making connections at every stop. He had always wanted to strike out on his own, but as he grew older he learned how his immigration status presented him with obstacles that many of his peers did not have to face.

“It took me away from wanting to do this for a while,” Garcia said.

Passing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012 allowed Garcia to get a work permit and pursue her dream of starting her own business. But even after DACA, Garcia’s legal status prevented him from accessing the kinds of opportunities that other coffee roasters could enjoy.

He’s had to turn down invitations to coffee plantations in Guatemala, Honduras and Kenya because he can’t leave the country, and his dream of returning to his native Mexico to study coffee farming will have to remain on hold, unless the law changes to allow DACA recipients to travel abroad.

“Coffee saved me”

Those Mexican roots helped lay the groundwork for Garcia’s love of coffee, which began as a kid in Houston with his Puebla-native grandfather on trips to the grocery store.

“He would pick me up after elementary school and take me to the Fiesta off Highway 6, have a cup of coffee with milk and cut it with the ladies from the bakery,” Garcia said. “It was a daily routine.”

“Much of what I do is dedicated to him. So many lessons were expressed and absorbed by sharing that cup of coffee with my grandfather when I was a kid, and I wish he could be here now to see where it got me,” he said. he declares.

Rasa Libre was also born Of necessity. Garcia had previously roasted his own beans for personal use, but after being fired from a downtown cafe during the first round of pandemic shutdowns, he determined he had no choice but to try to make a living using his skills.

Like many other roasters, Garcia sells his coffee online and in various pop-ups around town, including in Alief, where he spent most of his childhood and settled during a recent April night to sell coffee at Alief Art House’s latest exhibition. opening. It has also recently started operating a coffee cart three days a week at N’Tegrity Hemp in Sugar Land.

Garcia doesn’t do it alone. His wife Grecia is a tax analyst who helped him register his business as an LLC and assists his pop-ups, selling local plants as Ximena Plants and Coffee.

His big breakthrough came when his friend and mentor David Rodriguez, owner of downtown streetwear store The Tipping Point, decided to add a cafe to his storefront. Garcia helped Rodriguez and co-owner Joseph Boudreaux grow the store’s coffee offerings, and in 2020 the couple asked Garcia to supply their beans full-time. The Tipping Point has since opened a second location – this one more of a traditional cafe – up high.

“Sergio understood our brand culture and had been in the coffee industry for a long time, and understood what it was like to not fit the stereotypical image of what a coffee worker looks like,” said said Boudreaux, who is black. “And, at the end of the day, the product he was producing was exceptional.”

Garcia roasts about 80 pounds of coffee for The Tipping Point each week using an industrial roaster he rents from friends at Zelie Beans Coffee in Fort Bend County. The smaller batches that go into one-pound pop-up bags are roasted at home in his garage.

For Boudreaux, the black and brown entrepreneurs making waves in Houston’s coffee scene have effectively taken coffee back to its roots.

“The coffee industry has always had to take into account that coffee comes from black and brown countries, but does not serve black and brown people,” Boudreaux said. “Now there’s a greater emphasis on diversity and bringing in different perspectives, and that’s going to continue.”

Garcia is not sure yet how his business might evolve over time. One idea he has floated is to open a café or rotisserie at his home in Alief, where he could work with the school system to provide jobs and internships for students who want to learn the hospitality industry.

“From all the negativity I faced growing up in Alief, I could have taken so many wrong turns,” Garcia said, “but coffee saved me and guided me in a better direction. “

It would be Garcia’s way of giving back to the neighborhood that made him who he is.

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