When Hiver van Geenhoven started making coffee at Barefoot Coffee (later Nomadic Coffee, now Paper Moon Coffee) in 2009, he had no idea that within a decade he would become a fixture of the South Bay coffee scene. And he certainly never imagined he would be a green coffee buyer, sourcing some of the Bay’s finest beans.
His business, San Jose-based roaster and cafe Chromatic Coffee, opened on October 13, 2012, and from the jump brought big-time coffees to an, at the time, somewhat sleepy specialty scene. He now sources ultra-rare coffees, forging relationships with farmers in the hinterlands of coffee-producing countries. A recent high watermark? A Cup of Excellence-winning Gesha peaberry varietal which retailed for an impressive $31 a bag last year. “It’s subjective, but as far as quality coffee in the world, it was the top 20,” van Geenhoven says. “This was the holographic Charizard of coffees.”
He pays top dollar for these rare coffees; in 2021 it was common for him to purchase coffees for $16 a pound, and, at the most expensive, up to $65 a pound — paying $120 in total for the remaining shipping costs. He’s now the first San Jose Cup of Excellence judge, meaning he and his team at Chromatic not only source award-winning coffees but help assign those awards. He linked up with Port of Mokha, the coffee company run by San Francisco coffee activist Mokhtar Alkhanshali to sell Yemeni beans last year.
Van Geenhoven is so passionate about farmers’ access to coffee drinkers in the states that he will, if asked, put a customer on the phone with the producers of their coffee. Customers expect him, season after season, to bring back their favorites, like Chromatic’s Finca San Jose from El Salvador. “I want that intimate relationship,” van Geenhoven says. “I’m not here to bullshit you.”
You can order the rarefied coffees online; right now, fans can grab Luiz Saldhana’s thermal shocked-Brazillian beans for about $25. There’s also the option to pick up anything from a fancy pour-over to the yeoman’s vanilla latte at the shop, a business with a decidedly DIY, industrial aesthetic. It’s a small outlet on Lincoln Avenue, which is just fine with van Geenhoven — he wants the attention to be on the farmers and the cooperatives. “Yes the baristas are rockstars, but it’s always and will always remain about where the coffee comes from and the origin story,” van Geenhoven says.
Van Geenhoven first moved to San Jose to work at Barefoot Coffee. He was born in Marin and grew up partially in the county and in Santiago, Chile, where his mom was born and raised. In 2003, when Barefoot launched, it entered alongside early Bay Area players like Blue Bottle and Ritual Coffee. He was an organizer of the South Bay’s first Thursday Night Throwdowns and judged the first Aeropress competition in the area, too. “It’s no brag, but our business was part of cementing the emerging coffee scene in the South Bay, which had been weak for a long time,” he says.
He dropped out of college to pursue his coffee career — something his mom was none too pleased to hear. “She was like ‘I sacrificed so much for you! For you to be a barista?’” van Geenhoven says. “But I knew if I dedicated myself, coffee could be cool.” In fact, in a way, his mom laid the foundations for his fascination; it began in the early aughts with a tea knack he developed when he traveled to Kyushu, Japan, a trip his mom sent him on.
Van Geenhoven joins his intense passion for producers with notes of his own personality. Holy Mountain, one of Chromatic’s first coffees, is a nod to a favorite movie and San Jose band Sleep’s album of the same name. He says he’s got some outrageous coffee drops coming in the fall, too. “Like any business, it has its moments of being a dumpster fire,” says. “But it takes what it takes. And I’ve always been able to do what I love and that keeps me moving forward.”