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I got a note saying that a relatively new Chicago-based coffee roaster, Metric Coffee in West Town, had won a Good Food Award, an award given in San Francisco to artisan producers in various categories. OK, that's nice. (Metropolis also won an award for their coffee.) But as I kept reading I discovered that the two guys who own Metric, Darko Arandjelovic (Caffe Streets in West Town) and Xavier Alexander (formerly of Intelligentsia), spent a year restoring a 1960s German coffee roaster to make coffee just the way they wanted it. Now I was interested; we were in the realm of the truly obsessed, which is where all the really good food and drink comes from.
The story of the coffee roaster proved to be such a shaggy-dog tale in Darko's mile-a-minute telling, full of the Kafkaesque absurdity of his Central European origins, that I’ll tell it more fully tomorrow, as a kind of parable for would-be entrepreneurs. In the meantime, I met up with both of them last week at Cellar Door Provisions, where they were doing a tasting, and we chatted about why they decided to team up to make coffee their way.
Michael Gebert: So what are you doing here at Cellar Door Provisions today?
Darko Arandjelovic: Basically they're selling our coffee here, so they're sampling the coffee that won the Good Food Award. It's a little bit fruity, it's Kenyan, African coffee. People don't drink that on a daily basis, especially in the midwest, it's more of like a fruity coffee coffee. Like my father would say, the coffee is not good, something went spoiled, something is wrong.
What do you think would taste off about it?
Arandjelovic: People are just not used to it being as strong. When they say it's a strong coffee they're talking about the roast. This coffee, it's like a medium-light roast, it's really fruity, a bit juicy, it's not for everybody.
Yeah, I'd say not just fruity, but almost kind of vegetable soupy—
Arandjelovic: Yes. A lot of minestrone, tomatoey—and sometimes people find that offensive. They're like, ooh, too much. At my coffee shop, Caffe Streets, we serve Metric and we serve like a regular and a premium pour-over, and then we have the special coffees, and people know and on the weekend, they order it.
So how did you get interested in coffee in the first place?
Arandjelovic: I'm coming from Serbia, and in our house and I guess nationwide, it's tradition and almost a must that people get together and bring coffee. It's a custom, you go to see the a friend, or the doctor, you bring 100 grams of coffee. I kind of didn't like it because I was always in trouble, so if people were getting together, they were talking about me, and I was like, oh, again?
I had my first espresso when I was 15. And I was like, people sell these? And this is legal? Awesome! I was ditching school, drinking coffee. My father, after being a mechanic, bought a [tour] bus and I went to work for him, so I got to try coffee in different places, try this and that one and say, oh, this is delicious.
And then we came to the states and I worked in the construction business. After a while, I told my wife, I'm tired of the construction business, I want to open a coffee shop. And she thought that was crazy, suicidal. Then I sold my soul to the devil and we opened a coffee shop, four years ago.
Xavier, what about you? How’d you get into roasting coffee?
Xavier Alexander: I've been roasting professionally for 14 years, so this is a passion of mine, and I think anyone who is drawn to doing anything that is based on quality and craftsmanship—for me that was because I liked mechanical things and working with my hands, and roasting seemed like the right industry for someone like that to go into.
When I met Darko a couple of years ago, I was working for Intelligentsia Coffee, we started talking about possibly collaborating, and what I was doing was Googling in German looking for an antique roaster, and I got a hit, and, lo and behold, we started doing business with the man who ended up screwing us over. But honestly, it was kind of a blessing in disguise, in that we learned how to put it back together, and it's been working beautifully ever since.
Arandjelovic: I met Xavier, he was coming in in the afternoon, and we were drinking coffees, trying different coffees when it wasn't busy. We kind of gauged what we liked and . . . we always liked the same stuff. He was ready to leave Intelligentsia, and we went and got five beers at Big Star and decided to open a roastery. I said, "I've got just one problem: I don't have any money." And he said, "Neither do I." So we shook hands and started a roastery.
Alexander: We wanted to do something in terms of coffee together, just because we have a vision of coffee in Chicago. As we all know there's not a shortage of good coffee in Chicago, but we knew that there is room to create something new that is quality-based, and in order to achieve that I have to connect with importers, who are able to provide the quality that is essential for us to use.
And we've been happy with them ever since. We source seasonal coffees, anything under a year, from harvest up to a year, and we work with some fantastic restaurants that do a good job with our coffee, so that's sort of our goal right now. Just to source good coffees, roast them well, we want to be accessible, approachable. We want to have a coffee company that is not exclusive, though we like working with these kinds of restaurants.
What were you aiming for with the flavor profile?
Alexander: We like coffees that are clean, coffees that have a really nice balance of sweetness and acidity. But on our menu we have other styles, we have a dark roast, for instance. We do try to cater to different palates.
We offer African coffees, they're among our favorites because they are the ones that are really bright and fruity, though we do have coffees from Colombia, from Guatemala, from Brazil which we use for our espresso. Our menu is very limited because we don't want to buy too many coffees and then end up sitting on them. We keep it pretty small and pretty focused on coffees that are speaking to us, that taste good. And then change them throughout the season. Ideally we don't want to hold onto any single coffee for more than four or five months.
My job, besides roasting, is I taste the coffee, so in cupping them I want to evaluate how they're tasting, so if they're tasting really funky and past crop, we remove them from our menu and move on.
Arandjelovic: I go somewhere for a nice dinner and at the end, the busboy makes me a coffee, and then when I leave, it's the last thing I tasted, he ruins the meal! I like to eat, I like good food, and it's not that coffee in restaurants is always bad, but it could be better. After the really good meal, you want good coffee, they should go together. So I said, let's just deliver our coffee where we would like to go eat.
I experience places where they give me almost a list of what I should taste and how and why—I just want coffee, man. If you're justifying why I should be tasting this flavor and that, that's all good, but I just need five minutes to gather my thoughts. I just think people deserve a good cup of coffee.
So what are your plans for growth or world domination?
Alexander: Honestly, we think that coffee service and just doing coffee is a simple thing. I mean, it's not simple on the back end, but it's about people, it's about connecting, it's something we have in common that we can all share communally. Because people are doing a really good job with coffee, and we can put our little spin on that.
We're not really looking to take over the world like the big guys. We want to do a good job locally, and if we get noticed that's great, but if not, we're happy with what we do and we're content, and I think at the end of the day that's what matters to us.
Arandjelovic: In our first year we get the Good Food Award and . . . I don't want to sound tacky, but that kind of recognition—people like labels and stamps. I don't think it will hurt us for sure, but we just do what we like doing. At the end of the day, whoever was judging . . . they like the coffee, but I'm telling you, I love my father, but this wouldn’t fly! He'd be like, good for you, but give me a coffee, man.