A Coffee Culture

At Brew Tulum, Laura McNamara and Alberto Juarez bring a deep-dive into Mexican coffee culture to the Delmar Maker District.

Culture

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

It’s been a long road for Laura McNamara and her husband, Alberto “AJ” Juarez, to open Brew Tulum in the Delmar Maker District. They never thought this journey, which started in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, would bring them to St. Louis in just a few short years.

Long before the couple opened their cafe and restaurant in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, before they founded the brand in Mexico’s Yucatan, and even before they bought the coffee roaster that would set these things in motion, McNamara was an American expat in Playa del Carmen who found herself dumbfounded that she could not get a good cup of coffee. 

“I first discovered coffee when I studied abroad in Italy, where they had a really strong coffee culture, but it was in Vietnam where I first felt taken aback by the taste,” McNamara explains. “I was getting coffee grown and cultivated there, so I was close to the source, and it made a difference. Then, I went to Guatemala and was blown away, so when I got to Mexico I figured it was going to be great because it shares the same volcanic soil and mountain range. It meant I should have awesome coffee, but when I got there, I was in a tourist area where they were serving Nescafé like it was a crown jewel. It just didn’t make sense.”

Looking back on that experience, McNamara understands that the disconnect she felt between her expectation and the reality about the availability of high-quality coffee when she arrived in the Yucatan is the spark that ignited what would become Brew Tulum, St. Louis’ definitive source of Mexican coffee culture and cuisine. Not yet a year into its run the cafe and restaurant opened in November 2022 Brew Tulum has earned a reputation as one of the city’s most beloved spots for traditional Mexican food, with diners clamoring for a taste of its enfrijoladas, chilaquiles, and outstanding chile sauce.

Laura McNamara and Alberto Juarez host a coffee class at Brew Tulum.

However, as becomes quickly apparent when talking with Juarez and McNamara, the food  while being a source of immense pride is but a small part of the Brew Tulum story. The brand actually traces its roots to the pair’s spur-of-the-moment decision to buy the coffee roasting and delivery business from the man they’d come to rely on for quality Mexican coffee beans while they were living in Playa del Carmen a little over five years ago. Distraught that their source was planning on closing up shop to move out of the country, the pair took over his business with the intention of expanding to include selling to the area’s many hotels and restaurants, but were quickly discouraged when they found no interest in their product. 

“Everybody was so worried about the bottom line,” Juarez says. “We told them, ‘Look, there is a niche here of people looking for local coffee who are willing to pay more,’ but nobody was interested. We were at a point where we were either going to do cheaper, lower-quality coffee so people would buy it, or turn ourselves from strictly a roaster into a shop where we would offer coffee drinks.”

For Juarez and McNamara, it wasn’t a choice. The entire reason they got into the coffee business in the first place was to change the narrative of coffee in the Yucatan in order to give people an authentic taste of Mexico. Although the country is a major player in the global coffee market, the country’s focus on organic and biodiverse agriculture methods means lower yields that command higher prices. As a result, most of Mexico’s coffee gets exported to Japan, Australia, Europe, and the United States, while its country of origin is left with lower-quality products.

“The bad coffee is staying and the good coffee is being exported,” McNamara says.

Small bowls of unroasted green coffee beans (pictured left) and coffee husks are passed around during the coffee class.

The husband and wife were determined to make a change. In 2018, they opened their first coffee shop, a roastery and cafe focused exclusively on high-quality Mexican coffee, in Playa del Carmen. Eventually, they moved to Tulum and opened the first location of Brew Tulum inside a large hotel, which they figured would be perfect for business. Located directly on the beach the first coffee roaster in Tulum’s oceanfront area the idea was to cater to tourists who were looking to experience a true taste of Mexico. And for two months, that’s exactly how things went. Then everything fell apart.

“Two months after we opened, the hotel was leased to another company that shut it down for a year to do renovations,” Juarez says. “We were basically out of business, making not even $20 a day. Before this all happened, we’d launched a coffee tasting experience, not thinking it would be anything, but it ended up being what got us through.”

Brew Tulum’s coffee experience the same one the couple are now hosting out of their St. Louis location is less a casual tasting than a complete immersion into the history, production, brewing methods, and styles of coffee, in general, and Mexican coffee, in particular. 

The pair begin each class by introducing participants to the different types of coffee arabica and robusta and then move into everything from examining beans to exploring different brewing methods to tasting some of the finest, rarest Mexican specialty coffees available. 

Here, Juarez and McNamara get deep into the weeds on how different grinds impact how a coffee tastes, the difference between natural and washed processing (leaving the cherry on the bean, which results in a rich, fruity cup), and tasting notes on a more bitter, flat cup of robusta versus a more bright, complex cup of arabica. Their enthusiasm is infectious, allowing those in their classes to immerse themselves in the experience and push themselves to pick out the finer details of what they taste such as how a certain cold brew offering is reminiscent of bourbon in ways they had never previously thought of. 

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Five different coffee drinks are shared and sampled side by side at a Brew Tulum coffee class; Laura McNamara and Alberto Juarez host a coffee class at Brew Tulum; The espresso machine at Brew Tulum; and The exterior of Brew Tulum, which is located in the Delmar Maker District.

The pivot to the coffee experiences in Tulum was an immediate success and quickly became one of the most sought-after tourist activities in town. Brew Tulum began to draw not simply those traveling to the area, but locals who wanted an exceptional cup of coffee and even major players in the specialty coffee world. 

“Launching the coffee tastings and experiences was something we did because we were desperate to survive,” Juarez says. “We never imagined it was something that was going to draw so much attention from people all over the globe.”

For a while, it seemed to Juarez and McNamara like they had finally found their groove and were realizing their vision of being ambassadors of Mexican coffee to their community, even the world. However, another crisis much larger than the hotel shut-down, the global health crisis that began in 2020, forced them to again change course. Although they’d hoped to weather out the crisis in Tulum, it became apparent after several months, and after depleting all of their savings, that they had to move to McNamara’s native St. Louis, where things turned around for them much quicker than they could have imagined.

“Our livelihood got obliterated,” McNamara says. “We came to the U.S. and landed with my family, and found some angel clients who had met us in Tulum,” McNamara says. “They had such an impactful experience that they seeded us $5,000 to get roasting and shipping going in the U.S. Some clients connected with us and helped us get our online portal set up for roasting and shipping. It was amazing to experience the fact that people felt so impacted by this experience they had down there that they wanted to help us get back on our feet. It was so humbling.”

After a few months of focusing solely on roasting their coffee to ship, Juarez and McNamara began selling their wares at St. Louis-area farmers’ markets and hosting pop-ups at local shops. One of those pop-ups led to a suggestion that the couple check out MADE Makerspace, where they learned that the landlords for one of the buildings in the area were looking for someone to open a coffee shop. It was clear this was the next step they were meant to take.

“When we first connected with the landlords, we were ecstatic,” McNamara says. “It felt like the perfect fit. Sometimes when we are talking about doing experiences we feel like people don’t always get it, but they did. They thought it was the sort of hands-on thing they were looking for. There was a connection right away.” 

A cup of espresso is pulled from behind the coffee bar at Brew Tulum.

Juarez and McNamara have reopened their Tulum location since launching Brew Tulum in St. Louis, but they couldn’t be more thrilled with the way things have turned out in their Delmar Maker District home, and have plans to continue both operations. This includes expanding the St. Louis location to include more of the coffee experiences they have become so well-known for back in Mexico.

“The (St. Louis) community has really rallied and (shown) up for us,” McNamara says. “It’s been amazing. We thought we were going to have to start doing coffee experiences to attract business, and before we knew it, we had to start hiring people to keep up.”

McNamara credits the entire St. Louis community with much of that support, but she feels like there is something particularly special about this growing part of the city that has aided in their success. 

“I love the creative side of the neighborhood,” McNamara says. “This feels like we got in on the ground floor of something really special.”

The husband and wife are clear that they would not be experiencing this level of success were it not for the difficult times they’ve had to endure along the way. They admit it’s been hard. At times things have been so challenging from losing their livelihood twice due to circumstances beyond their control to living in a small, windowless room because they couldn’t find housing when they first launched in Tulum that they’ve questioned why they continued to do what they do and what it’s all for. They joke that there is a mix of insanity, stubbornness, or both that keeps them pushing along, but really, it’s their passion for coffee, and sharing that passion with others, that is the foundation of everything they do. 

That it clearly resonates with people in St. Louis and beyond who have experienced Brew Tulum is all the validation they need. 

“What’s kept us going is when people say they have never experienced anything like this before,” Juarez says. “Those words really cut deep in our hearts and souls. When people say these beautiful and amazing things we think, ‘OK we’re doing the right thing.’ Otherwise, why keep doing it?”

Editor’s Note: Brew Tulum is currently closed due to an unexpected maintenance matter, the owners recently shared on Instagram. You can learn more about the shop’s crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the repairs here.

Brew Tulum serves a full food menu featuring traditional Mexican dishes. Pictured here: Tlacoyos, three thick, oval-shaped corn tortillas stuffed with seasoned, mashed black beans; smothered in house salsa; and garnished with Mexican cream, lettuce, Mexican fresh cheese, and fresh onion.

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