Peace Coffee’s Alchemy Series Revisited
This week, Peace Coffee launched the newest coffee in its Alchemy Series: a bean from the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that is notable for its story, for the long and, at times, fraught journey it has made to Minneapolis, and for its beautifully balanced cup. It also happens to the 10th Alchemy coffee, and so it seems like a good time to check in on the progress of the small batch series (you can read our earlier piece about the launch of the series here).
In the mid-1900s, specialty coffees were produced in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But during a long period of violent conflict and its aftermath — the Second Congo War, during which 450,000 people died, most from the effects of malnutrition, poor sanitation, and disease — trade steadily declined and farmers were forced to either abandon their land or to smuggle coffee across Lake Kivu into Rwanda, where they could barter beans for food. Lake Kivu is 55 miles across, and many farmers drowned making the journey.
A little over a decade ago, a small group of farmers on the edge of Lake Kivu formed a cooperative called Solidarite Paysanne pour la Promotion des Actions Café Development (SOPACDI) and started producing coffee again. With the help of partners in Europe, and now the United States, they have been able to sell it with Fair Trade status. In the intervening years, the cooperative has grown to include 5,600 remote farms, scattered across steep hills some 6,500 feet above sea level in a patchwork of green and brown. “It’s kind of a place of undeveloped potential,” says Peace Coffee’s Anne Costello (below right). “And so there’s quite a bit of interest now and I think it is exciting to people. And from the coop’s end it provides hope — different ethnic groups working together on a common vision to provide an outlet for a product where there wasn’t one.”
On SOPACDI’s spare but optimistic website there is a feeling of pride and momentum. “We attend training workshops led by agronomists,” it declares in a section that talks about the cooperative’s efforts to control erosion and improve soil quality with mulch and compost. But there’s also a sense that they are trying to build basic infrastructure. The group recently built the first bean washing facility in the area in 40 years — and the coffee is still being transported on wooden bikes. “When we saw that, we realized that this cooperative was operating at a very different level than we’re used to,” said Derek De La Paz, head roaster (above left). “We’re used to seeing the farmers use goats and donkeys to carry the coffee, but because of the civil war in Kivu, it’s all human power.”
By way of comparison, he says, cooperatives in Ethiopia have been able to use their fair trade premiums to build schools and medical clinics. SOPACDI used its first year’s premiums to buy a roofing sheet for every farmer’s house.
Costello says that while it is nice that number 10 has such a great story, and that it’s a coffee from a region they’ve never tried before, it was more a happenstance of when the coffee showed up than a plan. They knew the coffee would be quality, organic bean because a representative of Cooperative Coffees — the importer Peace Coffee co-owns with 22 other companies — visited SOPACDI last year, but other than that it was a bit of a mystery.
“I don’t have any interaction with it until it arrives in the warehouse,” De La Paz says. “Before that, it’s just paper. So, the challenge is not knowing what’s going to be here and having to make it unique and exciting.”
And then he backs up: “I’m not trying to make it unique and exciting. I want it to be as clear about the origin, the producer, and the cup as possible. So I try my best to leave my own personal opinion about development aside.”
De la Paz talks a lot about the ‘sweet spot,’ a roasting level where each coffee is the truest and tastiest version of its self. It’s something that has to be discovered, not imposed. If you’ve been collecting the Alchemy Series tasting notes — which combine cupping and roasting notes with roaster Ivoire Foreman’s (above) ingenious drawings — you know that getting to it can be a ponderous process. This is where the science, magic, and art come in, but also the challenge inherent to every new Alchemy coffee.
In traditional profile roasting, the roasting levels of the coffee are set. So when a new lot comes in, the roasters will run the exact same profile. From there, they’ll cup it and make adjustments based on the lot. This is true of even the seasonal blends, which may not be obsessively consistent from year to year, but will always carry the same flavor profiles. “With the alchemy series, we don’t have a starting point for any of the coffees,” De La Paz says. “So we start with a classic cupping of the coffee at sample roast levels, and then from there — the inputs just kind of percolate in my mind and I just kind of let ’em. At a certain point, they’ll settle out and I’ll have a clear understanding of where the coffee needs to go.”
On the Alchemy number nine notes, Foreman drew a circle of tiny Renegade Roasters and tasting cups, revealing the long-winded process it took to find the elusive sweet spot of the Fondo Paez. “It’s a lot of that,” De la Paz says. “You just keep going around. We’re not doing anything new. People light roast coffee all over the world, they dark roast coffee all over the world. I guarantee that somewhere in its own origin, there’s someone who’s nailing the sweet spot of that coffee, and we try to do that here with the one little batch that we have.”
With the SOPACDI, the sweet spot turns out to be a lightly roasted place of bright acidity and moderately heavy body. In the cup, that translates to a coffee that’s clean and yet almost buttery. While the press pot produced a full-bodied, roasty flavor that was full of blackberries, the Chemex brought out a lovely tart finish.
A year and a half into the Alchemy Series, Costello says the biggest surprise is that the process of producing the coffee hasn’t gotten any smoother with time. They can’t absolutely predict when the coffee will arrive. It took 14 months to get the SOPACDI beans, in part because they were stuck in a drying facility during an outbreak of violence in Goma. And then once the coffee arrives at the roastery, every aspect of processing it is unique, not only the roasting, but also the batches, bagging, the original art, and all the marketing materials. It takes about a hundred hours to get an Alchemy out the door — a hundred hours that have to be squeezed into the in-between times of their regular lineup and seasonal blends.
It probably won’t ever be 100 percent smooth, but De La Paz and Costello are clear that that doesn’t mean it’s broken. “It’s a struggle to produce the alchemies,” De La Paz says, “but it’s a struggle that has a good reason behind it, so I feel like it’s a worth the time and effort of everyone involved.”
Costello adds that they launched Alchemy with the idea that they could get consumers to try different coffees, while highlighting the work in the lab. “People are still really excited about it,” she says, “People are willing to trust us and try something new, and from that standpoint, it’s been a success.”
For some of us, the tasting notes are a big part of that excitement. Unfolding them is a little like digging through the Cracker Jacks for the prize. Over the course of ten coffees, the drawings have evolved. In the first four, you can see that Foreman is focused on revealing the innards of the roastery and warehouse — the drawings feature stacks of coffee bags and close ups of the roaster’s levers and knobs, the scales and the grinders. But mid-series that busts open, and suddenly there are piñatas, butterflies, berries, tootsie rolls, and cellos, all elements of the origin, flavor, and food pairings. Foreman is storytelling. Number ten is heartbreaking: An empty rowboat for the drowned farmers and a tipped oil barrel, diamonds afloat in the slick, representing the richness of the area’s resources and the political pressure of the surrounding countries. But there’s also a wooden bicycle and rustic cultivation tools, which speak to perseverance and hope.
The notes themselves are accessible; if the coffee drinker wants to geek out on roasting temperatures and the eight different aspects of the coffee’s taste, they can do that. If they just want to see what De La Paz was listening to throughout the process, that’s in there, too (he likes a book during sample roasting and electronica when he’s hunkered down in the fine-tuning phase). “We are lucky our customers want to know about coffee,” says Costello. “I think the coffee industry in general opened that door and then didn’t know what to provide, so it got really technical. But coffee should be fun; it should allow you to learn something new, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming.”
The Alchemy series has also been a great learning tool for the folks at Peace Coffee. “My favorite thing about coffee is that you will never know everything there is to know about coffee, and I think that keeps it exciting,” Costello says. “A lot of us would be bored not having something we could always learn from. Alchemy can always change and grow.”
De La Paz agrees: For him the series is about expanding his horizons and taking risks. When asked about fantasy Alchemies, he talks about how the ultimate single-origin cup might be created by blending multiple roast profiles of the one bean. He also wants to create a blend that combines red rooibos tea and a lightly roasted African coffee. “I’d say that the Alchemy Series is barely taking off in terms of what it does now and the potential in my mind,” he says. “I feel like there’s a ton of new stuff that could be done in the coffee world that isn’t being done. I have crazy ideas.”