“Rez-roasted,” is how Spirit Mountain Roasting Company founder Tudor Montague likes to describe the line of premium coffee beans that he produces out of a small facility on the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe’s reservation in southeast California.
Montague’s commitment to Indigenous people also extends far beyond the boundaries of this reservation in the Lower Colorado River Valley. Because when you drink a cup of coffee brewed with beans from Spirit Mountain, you’re sipping coffee that has been created indigenously—from seed to cup.
The Colorado River Valley is a rich agricultural region known for its cornucopia of crops, from leafy greens to Medjool dates. Coffee, not surprisingly, is one crop ill-suited to the desert climate. So when Montague sources his beans, he looks for Indigenous coffee farmers in Central and South America.
“It goes back to what we used to do pre-contact,” he says. “There were trade routes extending throughout the Americas and this is a modern take on that. We’re able to do business with tribally produced coffees throughout the Americas that come out of places like Colombia and travel all the way up to our reservation.
“Then, oftentimes, our product goes to reservations throughout the country. We have a pretty good following of tribal folks who order the coffee. A lot of times we’ll get bulk orders for tribal events and cultural gatherings. That completes the circle: Coffee is produced on tribal lands, comes to our land where it’s roasted, and is consumed on tribal land. It makes me feel pretty proud.”
Montague’s Path to Coffee Roasting
About 170 miles east of San Diego, the 45,000-acre Fort Quechan reservation stretches from California into Arizona and extends to the Mexican border. While farming is a mainstay of the local economy, at Winterhaven the tribe also operates the Paradise Casino and the Quechan Casino Resort.
An enrolled member of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, Montague worked as an environmental consultant before launching Spirit Mountain in 2015. While attending college at the Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, he had become interested in beermaking and hoped to open a craft brewery. But the high up-front investment costs ultimately led him to consider alternatives.
Coffee appealed to Montague because it wouldn’t be nearly as expensive to start as a business. And like beer, coffee involved working with fresh, raw ingredients and had a blend of art and science that appealed to Montague. He attended roasting school, bought a roaster, and now produces around 250 pounds of beans a week.
While coffee is not part of the tribe’s heritage, Montague sees a connection between Spirit Mountain and the Quechan’s farming traditions. “I’m working with seeds every day. Coffee is a seed that I roast,” he says. “It all goes back to what we can create from scratch.”
Montague made a point to incorporate tribal imagery into Spirit Mountain’s branding. The Spirit Mountain name was inspired by Avi Kwa Ame, a peak sacred to 10 Yuman-speaking tribes, including the Quechan. The mountain and a surrounding area of nearly 507,000 acres recently earned designation as Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
The Spirit Mountain logo features a silhouette of a Yuman warrior with the mountain range in the distance. While the symbolism can serve as a source of pride for tribal members, Montague is also taking steps to make Spirit Mountain both an integral—and inspirational—place for the community.
Montague says that for all of the reservation’s farming activity, much of the land is leased to industrial agricultural operations. While he has grown a host of heritage crops on his land, he says it isn’t that common for tribal members to raise their own produce. “Organic produce is not as accessible or as affordable as it should be. It’s really hard to find clean, fresh foods. Processed foods rule,” says Montague. As a result, residents of the Fort Quechan reservation, like those living on tribal lands in many other parts of the country, suffer from high levels of diabetes and other diet-related afflictions.
Future of Spirit Mountain
Spirit Mountain was honored as the 2023 Rural Small Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration’s San Diego District Office and Montague is busy looking at next steps for his company.
In the café that he plans to open on the reservation, cold-pressed, fresh organic juices will be served. Ideally, he would like to prepare the juices with locally grown produce such as tomatoes and celery, both to help promote small-scale, organic farming among tribal members and healthier eating habits.
Montague estimates that less than 10 percent of the land is being farmed by tribal members.“I’d like to see the community take back some of the land that’s leased out and do tribal agricultural enterprise on a larger scale,” he says. “Up until that point, something we can focus on is community gardening projects. I can envision a day when the school or a community garden club can produce locally grown organic produce that the café can purchase. Not only could we help create a truly local economy, we’d be able to provide a healthy option for members of the community.”
The café will be the anchor tenant of a renovated building that’s serving as an incubator space for tribal entrepreneurs who need offices and equipment to start growing their businesses. It will join a barbershop and a maker of traditional Native American dress, and Montague believes that the incubator’s aspiring entrepreneurs will benefit from being able to stop in for advice from fellow tribal members who are already operating successful businesses.
That kind of mentorship can make a huge difference. Montague says he gained valuable knowledge when coffee roasters in New Mexico took him behind the scenes and showed him their production area and operations. And he has worked as a mentor himself: The James Beard Foundation selected Montague to work with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the culinary industry as part of the organization’s Legacy Network Program.
“A side benefit of just trying to push forward with what I’m doing is that if someone in the community sees what’s happening and is inspired to try, that’s really important. We need that. Whether it’s coffee or not—especially for the youth—if they see someone within their own community building something, whatever it is, that tells them, ‘You can make it happen. You can do something as well.’”
“Granted, there are role models, like professional athletes, that people look up to. Which is great. But it’s even more significant when it’s someone in your own community. That touches closer to home, literally and figuratively. By doing what I’m doing, I’d be happy if there’s even one kid that sees Spirit Mountain and says, ‘Hey, maybe I can go into business for myself.’”