Peaceable Kingdom

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

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.

"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.

"T.J.'s getting to the point where he can taste in the cup things that are happening on the farm," Patterson says. He shows me bags of green beans from Sumatra, Ethiopia, and Guatemala. I can barely tell them apart, except for a slight bluish tint to the Ethiopian beans. But Patterson is running them through his fingers as if the minute differences in size and shape were perfectly obvious.

Peace Coffee ships 5,500 pounds of coffee every week out of its warehouse just off Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis. Over the holidays they hit 7,000 pounds a week. (That's almost half a million shots of espresso, by the way.) And they do it with just 12 people in a room about half the size of a basketball court. According to Patterson, the company is growing about 20 to 25 percent a year and he expects to maintain that pace in 2006. "It's like riding a bucking bronco," he says. "That's my analogy right now. It's taken off and I'm just trying to stay on the bull."

Most of the coffee goes to Minnesota grocery stores and coffee shops, but a U.S. map in the main office is covered with pins, with noticeable hubs around San Francisco, Boulder, and the Northeast megalopolis.

All of the coffee is organic, shade-grown, and fair trade. What does "fair trade" mean? According to the Fair Trade Federation, the world's largest association of fair trade organizations, it means paying fair prices for goods produced in cooperative workplaces with an eye toward environmental sustainability and preserving cultural identity.

While coffee trades on the New York commodities exchange for about a dollar or so a pound, the fair trade price the world over is $1.26 per pound. Add in 10 cents to cover organic certification costs and another five as a "solidarity premium," you get to $1.41 per pound. But Cooperative Coffees, the coffee-buying cooperative to which Peace Coffee belongs, recently boosted that price to $1.50 per pound to cover some extra costs associated with organic certification for their growers.

In short, Peace Coffee pays about one and a half times what your average coffee roaster is paying for its beans, and even more than some of its fair trade competitors. (You can get fair trade coffee just about anywhere these days--at Starbucks, Bruegger's, even McDonald's, which serves fair trade coffee from Green Mountain roasters at locations on the East Coast.) What's more, Patterson is proud that his employees make right about the median hourly wage in Minnesota, currently about $16 an hour. And yet Peace Coffee sits right at the middle of the price scale for upscale coffees, at about $10 a pound.

One of the things that makes that possible is operating on the same cooperative model as the coffee-growing co-ops from which they buy their coffee, says Patterson. "We weren't going to be one of those guys who just goes down to our local importer and says, 'We'll take a bag of that and a bag of that and it's all fair trade, right? Wink wink,'" he says. "But it was just killing us, trying to do all the paperwork and all the importing ourselves. And we had to buy in much bigger quantities than we needed."

So in 1999, Peace Coffee and some like-minded roasters started Coffee Co-ops, essentially a buying club for small, independent shops. The co-op can buy whole containers full of coffee, more than any of its members could. Peace Coffee is the largest member and Patterson sits on the board; other employees serve on other committees, keeping them very connected to the source of their coffee. Peace Coffee employees regularly travel to Guatemala, Mexico, Ethiopia, and elsewhere to see how things are going on the ground and build relationships with growers.

"You hear roasters say, 'There's not enough fair trade out there.' But that's not how it works," Patterson says. "Fair trade is coffee you paid a fair price for. It's about sustainable agriculture and making it possible for family farmers to stay on their land."

At Peace Coffee, it also means a slightly different way of doing business.

In the Peace Coffee office, Nate Stevens, in charge of customer service, sits at the front desk. He's got a handful of people on hold, but he's still cool and professional when he explains, "No, we really couldn't put our beans in cloth bags. Yeah, I understand that plastic is not the most environmentally friendly, but we're trying to maintain a certain level of freshness and some shelf life. Yeah, we're always looking for ways to reduce our footprint. I really appreciate your calling. Thanks!" And he's sincere, friendly, and unharried as he says it. Then he takes another woman off hold and gets her credit card number for a 10-pound order.

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Peace Coffee

2801 21st Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55407


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