Magic Bean Stocks

The enlightened self-interest of brewing a great cup of coffee

Alakef Coffee Roasters
1330 E. Superior St., Duluth
218.724.6849; 800.438.9228

What makes a bad cup of coffee? About a million things. A single bad bean, fermented or attacked by insects back when it was grown, can poison a cup with sour or off flavors. Rocks, sticks, or even monkey teeth can get ground into carelessly sorted coffee, resulting in a cup that tastes, presumably, rocky, sticky, or toothy. Alternately, a bad cup of coffee can exude the noxious odors of slave wages, child labor, and destruction of far-off farmlands owing to low commodity prices from a worldwide coffee glut. Mmm. Top o' the morning to ya!

What makes a good cup of coffee? About a million things: Freshness, for starters. Roasted coffee is very volatile and will start to lose flavor in as little as a week. And then there's careful roasting, meant to bring out the character of the individual bean, and not cynical roasting, meant to get the most weight or biggest volume per bean. Purity, which in this case means paying more per pound so that the bean cleaners back in Java, Zimbabwe, Colombia, or wherever spend more time picking the inevitable bad beans out of every batch. And, perhaps above all right now, price: Commodity prices are so low right now that many coffee growers can't afford to keep their operations going, causing farms to close, creating poverty, encouraging drug growers, and generally making for extremely bad cups of coffee.

Fair trade and a fabulous pour: Alakef Coffee being served at Minneapolis's Pandora's Cup
Tony Nelson
Fair trade and a fabulous pour: Alakef Coffee being served at Minneapolis's Pandora's Cup

Location Info


Alakef Coffee Roasters

1330 E. Superior St.
Duluth, MN 55805

Category: Coffee Shops

Region: Outstate

That's why Nessim Bohbot devotes himself to paying as much as he reasonably can for coffee beans. "When coffee prices collapsed, we all suffered," Bohbot explained to me one afternoon as I toured the Alakef roastery up in Duluth, which the Moroccan-born Bohbot co-owns with his wife Deborah Bohbot. "If the grower can't support his farm, then he's not raising good coffee. He'll drop whatever he's doing, in terms of irrigation, weeding, pruning, and maintaining a staff, so now the farm is in poverty, lives all around him are ruined. And then, whatever coffee comes out of the untended farm, well, it tastes just terrible."

To combat this terrible trend and terrible taste, the Bohbots labor mightily to import "fair trade" and "relationship" coffee, terms that basically refer to systems of distribution that ensure that the farmers who grow the coffee are paid a fair price, and in turn run an ecologically and morally reasonable operation. (Much as organic farms in this country are certified by a third party that visits and tests the soil to make sure that the foods are being grown organically, third-party fair-trade organizations supervise relationships between the far-flung growers who labor in the less developed tropical nations where coffee thrives, and European and North American coffee importers and roasters.)

About 40 percent of Alakef coffees are fair-trade or relationship coffees, says Bohbot. "Our goal is to have a full relationship with specialty growers, to move totally away from the commodity market and support these niche farmers," he explains. "People don't realize how much work is involved in every pound of coffee: Each bean is handpicked, hand-sorted; each coffee tree is picked five times in a season, because the coffee ripens at different rates. Coffee is sorted on a conveyor belt, with people picking out the flawed and bad beans and throwing them on the floor. For a higher price, they slow down the conveyor belt--I've seen them do it. At the end of the day, they sweep the floor for bad beans and twigs, gather it up and sell it."

Ever wonder why some coffee is really so very bad? Now you know: It's the floor sweepings from your good coffee, run through an industrial grinder. I got a gander at a coffee professional's tasting wheel while I was at Alakef, and I was alarmed to see that it contained categories for horsey, hidey, wet cardboard, caustic, sauerkrauty, and ashy. Mmm, that's bad coffee.

Meanwhile, if you're running a coffee shop, you can't afford to serve bad coffee. You pay a specialty roaster like Alakef to ensure that your coffee not only tastes great, but allows you to, um, sleep better at night. (Insert decaf joke here.) Alakef has a Twin Cities following for just that reason. At first I found it hard to believe, but dozens of the metropolitan area's most prestigious independent coffee shops get their coffee through Duluth, including Pandora's Cup, European Grind, some Ginkgo Coffee Houses, Nokomis Cup, Swede Hollow, and lots more.

St. Paul's Prairie Star serves only Alakef. "Being a coffee-shop person myself, I realized that the coffee shops I went to the most were the places that served Alakef," says Prairie Star owner Kristina Gronquist, who also serves only organic and fair-trade coffee. "It's not just excellent coffee. You call and place an order and they roast it for you that day and you get it the next day, which is amazing. But it's a political statement, and a health statement. A health statement because the coffee isn't coated with herbicides and pesticides, so you're not drinking a hot cup of who-knows-what. But just as important is the political aspect: You know you're not paying a grower who's basing his business on child labor. I hope that's important to people. To me, we've got a situation where Americans are hated in the Third World, and you've got to ask yourself, 'Well, why are we hated?' One small thing you can do is ask, 'What is the effect of the products you're buying on people who live thousands of miles away?' You do what you can in your lifestyle to make a difference."

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