Peaceable Kingdom

Fair trade brews are popping up all over, but Peace Coffee is still a cup apart

Peace Coffee
2801 21st Ave. S. #120, Minneapolis

The Ethiopian in the air pot is labeled 8:30-- just about an hour and a half ago--but that's just not fresh enough for someone in the coffee business, so Scott Patterson brews a fresh pot of Guatemalan Dark. He's even picky about his mugs, digging through the employees' collection to find the two stoutest ones.

For fun, we search the illustrated wall charts for adjectives to describe the flavor notes. We agree on "honey," but he's tasting "leather" and "smoke," and I want to go with, well, "roasted coffee." Then I realize that, yeah, the Guat dark is hitting the back of my throat like a cigarette, so we add "tobacco" to the list. Of course, there's a cheat sheet that says this particular combination of beans and roast is supposed to bring to mind dark chocolate and cherries.

The perfect mix of java and justice: Peace Coffee's Scott Patterson
Bill Kelley
The perfect mix of java and justice: Peace Coffee's Scott Patterson

Location Info


Peace Coffee

2801 21st Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Category: Coffee Shops

Region: Powderhorn

"Everybody's palate is different," Patterson says, displaying a remarkably forgiving attitude for somebody who's been in the coffee business for 10 years, as the director of Peace Coffee.

But don't mistake broad-mindedness for a cavalier attitude toward his stock in trade. Patterson knows coffee and he expects his employees to, too. His staff members attend weekly cuppings--coffee-tasting lessons hosted by the house roastmaster--and everybody from the marketing manager to the delivery guy can talk intelligently about the goods.

This happy band of bike-loving, fleece-and-flannel-wearing coffee purveyors could have lost it all in Hurricane Katrina. Peace Coffee's coffee-buying cooperative shipped its raw beans through New Orleans, the number one coffee port in the United States; they had almost a million dollars in beans stored in New Orleans's biggest warehouse.

"It was Monday morning and the hurricane hadn't hit yet, but we knew it was coming," Patterson says. "So I told T.J. [Semanchin, Peace Coffee's roastmaster] to just start buying all the Guatemalan he could get his hands on." Fortunately, their insurance covered their lost goods and the rush on beans and subsequent price spike Patterson was expecting never quite materialized. Business recovered easily and the raw beans now come through Montreal.

Peace Coffee got its start in 1996 when the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy--champions of family farms around the world--found itself in possession of a lot of coffee and decided to make a go of selling it. Patterson came on as the company's first employee in 1997. "I managed inventory by going to the closet and dusting off the bags," he says. But he was persistent, recognizing that paying coffee growers a fair price serves not only a higher purpose, but a thirsty and growing market, as well.

As the client list lengthened, Patterson was soon spending one day a week in his car delivering coffee. Then two, then three. "It got to be a real drag," he says. When T.J. Semanchin joined the company, the two split the routes. As more folks came on board, it became a regular part of every employee's job to drive the coffee around to grocery stores and coffee shops.

Now the company has 12 employees, including Nick Johnson, a full-time delivery guy. He hooks a 400-pound trailer to his bike and rides up to 40 miles a day: "I can only go, what, eight miles an hour. Today's not bad. I just have to go to Uptown and back twice. And there's only one hill."

Semanchin took over as roastmaster in 2003, when Peace Coffee stopped contracting with a local roaster. "It was time for us to get closer to the product, take control of the quality," Patterson explains.

Semanchin's tools are a big old roaster (the same size, but less flashy than you might see in your local Dunn Bros.), an old PC that charts heat over roasting time (because how fast your coffee gets hot is as important as how hot it gets), and a roasting "playboard" showing his target heat and roasting times for each of today's batches of beans. He also keeps a close eye on the humidity and air pressure. "The weather changes every day, of course, but we're aiming for the same flavor in every batch," he says.

He sees the thermometer hit the number he's looking for, somewhere in the high 400s, and he pulls a tiny scoop out of the roaster to inspect the beans. Done. He opens the hopper and 50 pounds of beans slide into the cooling bin, where a rotating arm keeps them moving.

"You hear that? That popping? That's what we call the second crack." The beans are pinging faintly, a background crackling like distant fireworks. For a light roast, the roasting stops right at the first crack. For a medium roast like this, you stop at the second crack. At the third crack you've got burnt beans. "Yeah, that would be pure carbon," Semanchin says. "When you see a lot of oil and a lot of broken pieces mixed in with your beans, you've just got burnt beans. Of course, you see that. People will serve it. But we don't roast like that."

Semanchin and Patterson exchange looks. They know which local roasters they're talking about, but they're not naming names.

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