Talking Alchemy with Derek De La Paz and Anne Costello of Peace Coffee

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“Alchemy” is a beautiful word, one of the most evocative in the English language. Derived from Arabic (“al-kimiya,” one step evolved from the Greek “khemeioa”), it is suffused with mystery: part craft, part art, part science, part magic.

It is, therefore, a fitting name for a new series of smaller-batch coffees created and marketed by Peace Coffee. The goal is to transform interesting new lots of green coffee beans into cups of coffee that will challenge, amuse, and ultimately please the palates of a imbibing public increasingly curious about both the sourcing and roasting of its favorite morning (and afternoon, and after-dinner) beverage. The goal of the series isn’t suggesting or imposing any sort of orthodoxy, however — each bag of coffee (which retails for $12-14 for 12 oz. of roasted beans) has a copy of hand-written cupping, roasting, and pairing notes that include the farmer coop, a hand-drawn sketch, a signature from the roaster, and a list of “audio influences.” It’s a mix of geeky and goofy, and far from preachy or dogmatic.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“That’s the fun of coffee — you want to make coffee black and white, but it never will be,” says Anne Costello, Peace Coffee’s Director of Coffee.

Much of the energy of Alchemy flows from the mind and hands of Derek De La Paz, the company’s Head Roaster. Working on a tiny but technologically formidable Renegade roaster (which allows for test batches as small as 12 oz. that can then be scaled up for production runs), De La Paz tries dozens of sample roasts to nail down the final roasting profile for each of Alchemy’s coffees.

“I use everything around me to try and create these ideas,” says De La Paz, who uses observations picked up from 15 years in the culinary business to enrich his approach to roasting. “A lot of my ideas come to me — well, not in the lab. My original idea for this was to call it The Bathtub Series, because a lot of my ideas come to me in the bathtub.”

Like Summit’s series of Unchained beers, the plan with Alchemy is to release new coffees on a vaguely quarterly schedule, letting the roasters’ inspirations guide to product. At the moment, there are two Alchemy series coffees available at local coops and the Peace Coffee cafe in Longfellow: #1, from the Finca Triunfo Verde Sociedad Civil coop in Chiapas, Mexican (it presents a remarkably balanced, mellow, centered profile that is sweet without being syrupy and has a gentle, crisp, offseting acidity) and #2, from the CODECH coop in Guatemala, which is considerably more fruity and acidic without being conventionally lemony / orangey or tart like an apple, suggesting instead a roasted pineapple.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: In terms of marketing and consumer education, what sets the Alchemy coffees apart from the other offerings of Peace Coffee?

ANNE COSTELLO: Telling the story of the producer has always been central to our mission at Peace Coffee, and it will stay that way. But it was almost like once [the coffee] was in a jute bag, that story ended. And with Alchemy, we wanted to talk about what happens here [at the roastery], the inspiration that the roasters have, and what happens in the lab — the cupping process, and how we create our coffees.

With our traditional lineup, we try to keep the coffee as consistent as possible, which is challenging by itself — with the change over the time of year and the different lots coming in. But this [series] is a way to just experiment and have fun.

DEREK DE LA PAZ: For me it’s about access to the process by the consumer — the things we’re doing with Alchemy, I’ve been doing here for years here, but there’s never been a home for those ideas.

As a roaster I draw everything I do from different places in the culinary world. Product identification was huge in the culinary industry — not just knowing the product and where it’s from, but also its uses. What kind of flexibility do you have in terms of usage of this product … understanding the product’s true properties so you can use them in new ways, in new dishes.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Once I started doing the coffee, my spectrum and understanding of what coffee can do — it just grows. Obviously you hit a point as a roaster where you don’t learn as much every day, but to a certain extent you still grow every day with your knowledge, the more you participate in cuppings the more you understand the potential of the coffee you’re roasting.

HT: How did the Renegade roaster help launch this series for you guys?

DE LA PAZ: It gives me the ability to take any coffee we have and roast it in one pound or 12 oz. increments, 15 different ways for example.

Before that, the smallest test batch we could do was 35 pounds. So, 20 pounds below that, we’ve tried 15 different roasts.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As roasters, we’ve always pushed the people above us to allow us more access to the market with our ideas. Most coffees have an equilibrium point, which is the perfect point of roasting for that coffee, to bring out all the nuances you want but also have fully developed sugars, balance, and body.

But then you can go backwards and deconstruct a roast … or you can blend and say: ‘this really acidic one would go really well with this nutty, sweet, heavy-bodied one’ — it’s a lot like food in that respect, you’re seeking balance.

HT: Are you guys bucking the third wave coffee trend a bit with Alchemy and your roasting in general? Your first release, for example, was a moderately dark roast.

COSTELLO: Well, there’s a current of thinking in coffee right now that light roasts are inherently better than dark roasts and I think it’s important to remember that you can do a dark roast really well. You can do a light roast really well…

There’s nothing wrong with liking light roasts, or dark roasts, so long as they’re done well. Ultimately, roasting is part art, part science, and part craft.

DE LA PAZ: With the Finca [Alchemy #1], I really wanted to showcase the balance. That would be a little bit of a darker roast level than what you’d expect from a ‘third wave’ coffee. That’s the golden note of that coffee. The goal was to really showcase the sweetness, but have enough tartness and acidity to balance the coffee and bring out the body. There’s a lot of nuance-y nuts in that coffee, and apple and tartness.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

COSTELLO: I heard somebody describe it as a cup of coffee as it was ‘giving you a hug.’ It was like getting a hug from a cup of coffee. Everything was there, nothing was too much or too little, everything was  all there.

HT: Derek, beyond the way that you conceive of flavors, how does your culinary background feed into the way you handle and roast coffee?

DE LA PAZ: One of the most important things I learned from chefs is about the care-taking of the product. A chef wanted me to grab something from the other side of the kitchen, and I said: ‘That shit right there?’ And he stopped me and said: ‘What are you talking about?’ And I was like … ‘Oh that over there?’ It was a chicken, and I’d referred to it as ‘shit.’

And he said: ‘You never say that. A farmer raised that chicken and put all his pride and passion into that. And the chicken gave his life to be here, to be the chicken. You respect that. You respect the product.’

Alchemy connects with that — the basic theory of food, and the systems that get it to your plate or cup. The coffee isn’t just some weird seed that shows up — it’s some person’s life, or some multi-generational family’s life, and so doing the best with the product is really important to us.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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