An Interview With Chris of Alchemy Collective Cafe
We are happy to be offering coffee from Alchemy Collective Cafe, a majority QTPOC worker-owned co-op in Berkeley. Alchemy Collective offers quality drinks, community, and a place where coffee enthusiasts can make their dreams come true. Paying homage to each coffee bean, its journey, and the all-inclusive drinking experience, Alchemy Collective is building a space in the Berkeley community unlike any other.
- Why did you choose to become a worker-owned cooperative? How does this worker-owned coop model inform your community relations?
We started out specifically to become a worker-owned coffee business. All of the founders at the time were working as baristas in different cafes, and it seemed natural to us that the people working on the ground floor of a business day-to-day would be very valuable to include in business decision-making. Decisions do have to be made with costs and budget in mind, which is why we work financial education into the trial phase of becoming a member (currently a 6 month process). We were certain that drawing from the skills and knowledge of a group of dedicated people would only improve the business. Satisfied workers also improve business, and this is another strength of worker-owned business; the end-goal is to provide for the workers, which means the more energy and intentionality a worker brings, the more they and their co-owners benefit from that labor.
In general, we find we have a much stronger connection to our community and customers than we have had working in other places. There is a mutual respect that we gain with customers as they understand that we are essentially the managers, owners and operators of our space. And likewise that our goal is to make them excited to be our customers. Most of us live in or around the neighborhood, so the community for the cafe is the same as our personal community, which helps to strengthen that commitment to treat each other like fellow humans, in contrast to larger, traditionally owned businesses where the divide between workers and customers/workers and owners is huge and can leave little room for humanity.
- Bright, smooth, stone fruit - these are descriptions we associate more with wine than with coffee. How does this method of describing coffee contribute to the presentation of your coffee? What goes into creating a taste profile for your coffee blends?
We take the time to come up with these tasting notes because we want to re-frame the way we think about coffee consumption, from a quick commodity you chug in the morning to get through the day, to something that deserves to be appreciated and enjoyed.
One coffee tree produces enough coffee cherries in a whole year to brew only a single cup of coffee. The coffee cherries are picked by workers, inferior beans are discarded, the fruit is removed, the seeds (what we call “beans”) are washed, dried, bagged and shipped from countries all over the world. So, even if you’re not thoughtfully sipping our coffees to see if you can taste blood orange or toasted almond notes, as if you’re on a wine-tasting tour, we think there is just too much labor and effort put into coffee production to take it for granted. The tasting notes are a cue to our customers to think about coffee as the relatively accessible luxury that it is.
[note: we would love for people to keep in mind that the reason we are used to being able to buy a very cheap cup of coffee historically is that large coffee corporations were able to push long-term contracts on poorer coffee farms for exploitive prices if they were unable to sell all of their harvest. This pushes farms to pay their workers as little as possible and results in low-quality, high-volume processing].
Tasting notes are put on single origin coffees because they literally come from a single farm in a particular region of a country. The tasting notes in coffees from a particular farm will be much more clear and noticeable than those in blends (just as in wine, whiskey, or even chocolate). So we take these notes into account when creating blends. The profiles we aim for will be different for an espresso than for our house blend. For us, the profile for our house blend should be well balanced and smooth, with mostly deeper notes like chocolate or nuts, and a little bit of fruity sweetness.
- How did you get into coffee-roasting? Could you describe your journey to how you got to where you are today with Alchemy Collective and your current coffee selections?
Alchemy is unique in our journey compared to more traditional businesses. The basic foundation of Alchemy as a business was put down by the the original founders, but because all worker-owners participate in governance and business decisions, we have evolved a lot over the past 7 years. The things that work the best for the business, things that are reinforced by our customers’ feedback tend to stay and become institutional, while methods, recipes, and ideas that aren’t so strong are improved by new member’s innovations. Originally, none of us thought we’d ever be roasting coffee; we just wanted to make a great, inviting space that could build community, serve great coffee, and be a fulfilling place for baristas to earn ownership and put their labor into. One member started learning to roast coffee, and eventually introduced that aspect into the business. We eventually found Berkeley Co-Roasters; a roasting facility where small-scale operations can rent space on their machinery to roast their own beans. The original roaster passed what he knew on to a new lead roaster, and she taught our current lead roaster, Jasmine Reynolds. None of the 3 roasters had a previous background in it, but the great thing about our model is that we share skills and teach each other, so that we’re never too dependant on a single person for the survival of the business.
- How do you choose where to source your beans?
We use a couple of different coffee distributors, and we work with them to help us find great tasting coffees that have organic and fair trade certifications. Because coffee is seasonal, those that we use for blends change seasonally. At the same time we try to find coffees to blend that will give us flavors consistent with our blend profiles. Organic certified beans aren’t very common, so this can limit our ability to offer 100% organic roasts.
- What is the significance of single-origin coffee is terms of taste, community-building, sustainability, etc?
Every coffee bean will have distinct flavors determined by the country, region, farm, processing, soil, climate, and varietal. We roast our single origins to bring out the most of their natural flavors. As far as community, we are also unique in being a space that equally prioritizes quality and radical community building. That balance is a challenge we decided to take on in the beginning. We aimed to break free of the cliche that coffee pretentious if it is carefully made. Instead of being exclusive and dismissive of people who might not know anything about coffee, we welcome the chance to give folks a new experience with our lovingly made roasts, and answer any questions they might have with respect. We hope this inclusivity will catch on more in the “specialty” coffee world. In the cafe, we also have a “Pay it Forward” program; where people who can afford it contribute to a pool to help us give great coffee to those who can’t pay. Delicious coffee (and all coffee) is definitely a luxury, but we think everyone deserves a little luxury in their life.
Want to get to know this amazing team of roasters even better? Here’s where you can start. And don’t forget to pop in at their South Berkeley location at 741 Alcatraz Ave, Berkeley, CA 94703.