PLYMOUTH — Ed Giunta runs Café Monte Alto on Main Street. He's from Boston, but he took the long route from his native city to Plymouth.
Giunta will be a featured speaker at the N.H. Coffee Festival today. The festival runs from noon to 4 p.m. Giunta's talk, "From Our Farm to Your Cup, Three Generations on Our Coffee Plantation in Peru," is scheduled from 12:30 to 1.
Giunta joined the Army when he was 17 and was stationed in Germany. He stayed in Germany through his service, and through an impermanent marriage to a German woman. He got a good, high-paying job at Lufthansa after his discharge, which was how he met his second wife, Hertha Mick, who was also working for the airline.
Hertha had taken her own unique route to find Giunta. A full-blooded German, Hertha was born in the jungle of Peru, part of a small cluster of Germans who moved to the Andes after World War I. Spanish was Hertha's first language, then she learned English at a school set up by an American mining company. As she was coming of age, she realized that her gender would restrict her to second-class status as long as she stayed in Latin America, so she returned to the Fatherland at the age of 19.
The couple continued their lucrative Lufthansa careers until unrest in Peru shook their comfortable lives in Germany. The Shining Path, which considered itself a Maoist revolutionary force but which was seen by observers, and most Peruvians, as a brutal terrorist group, had begun to expand its territories to include parts of the coffee-growing region by the late 1980s. When two of Hertha's relatives were abducted and killed – The Shining Path used ransom as one of its means of revenue generation – her family decided to leave Peru for Puerto Rico. Giunta and Hertha quit Lufthansa and left Germany to help her family establish themselves in their new home.
Giunta said they eventually created the best coffee farm on the island, though they quickly realized they were in for a new set of difficulties. "We saw very early on, there were some very specific problems" in Puerto Rico, he said. The local work force was unreliable and corruption was the rule, not the exception. Farmers falsified labor forms to extract more subsidies from the federal government, and federal inspectors happily took a bribe to look the other way. Many farmers made more by cheating the U.S. government than by producing coffee. Giunta had no interest in the scam. "If you're not willing to steal in Puerto Rico, you're not going to make it... We saw we had to get out."
By the late 1990s, Giunta and Hertha had just begun roasting their family's beans and were visiting family in New Hampshire. Giunta, who had worked at a summer camp on Stinson Lake as a teenager, was showing Hertha around the region when they happened to stop into the Chase Street Market in downtown Plymouth, to see how local roasters were packaging their products. Giunta chatted with the owner and left him with a few samples.
"He called me up, and said that was really good stuff, why don't you bring me in ten or 11 pounds," Giunta recalled. In 1997, he changed from vendor to tenant, setting up a coffee shop in part of the store. The following year, Hurricane George decimated their coffee farm, along with much of the rest of Puerto Rico. Fortunately, the Peruvian government had broken the Shining Path by then, making it safe for Hertha's family to return to their farms in the Chanchamayo region, near the village of Villa Rica.
Giunta is proud to serve his family's coffee almost exclusively, the only exceptions are the decaf and one flavor from Papua, New Guinea. Giunta has a small warehouse and roasting facility near the café, where he receives 151-pound bags of green coffee beans and turns them into varying shades of brown. Last year he roasted 65,000 pounds of coffee, more than 99 percent of which came from the family farm.
The arrangement does more than support his in-laws. Thousands of dollars, from coffee sales as well as outright donations, made possible the renovation of a dilapidated school in Chanchamayo, and each cup of coffee sold at Café Monte Alto contributes to pay the salary of a teacher at the school.