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Using Their Beans 

Addison County wakes up and smells the coffees

Published November 17, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

International connections may be no big deal to most Middlebury residents: Renowned language classes at the college make for plenty of students speaking in foreign tongues -- or at least trying to -- all over town. But greater Addison County is predominantly rural, and local-minded, and its north-country farms are all about dairy. That's why it's so surprising to find three burgeoning businesses that are all about a way south-of-the-border farm product: coffee. Cafe Alta Gracia, the Vermont Coffee Company and Awake have emerged in Middlebury, Bristol and Bridport, respectively, over the past couple years, importing beans from Central and South America, Africa and Indonesia and roasting them in small batches for Vermont consumers. These companies were preceded by the 4-year-old Bud's Beans, a teeny Middlebury enterprise selling exclusively to local outlets (see sidebar). But it's not just Addison County that's feeling the buzz.

Vermont Coffee, the first to step into the shadow of the giant Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, in 2002, is now fueling the caffeine-crazed from Burlington to Brattleboro, St. A to St. J. Owned by Paul Ralston of Bristol, the business has acquired some 100 accounts around Vermont and the Hanover, New Hampshire, area. Ralston also roasts Cafe Alta Gracia, which is owned by Middlebury author Julia Alvarez and her husband Bill Eichner. Ralston recently began handling the sales and marketing of that company as well.

The aptly named Awake, the newest coffee contender, was launched about a year ago from deep in the Champlain Valley. Owners Mark Pruhenski and Troy Griffis are still doing all the work themselves with the enthusiasm of downhill ski racers. The extreme-sport analogy extends to the pair's hip graphics and high-test names for their seven varieties, such as Tsunami Espresso and Red Eye Roast. At Burlington's City Market, shoppers can't help but notice the sleek silver packages in Awake's display case, a shiny contrast to the plain-brown-wrapper approach of its other Vermont competitors.

Besides beans, what all three companies have in common is consciousness. At Vermont Coffee, which uses the tagline, "Coffee Roasted for Friends," Ralston extends that friendship to the farmers, paying them fair-trade prices; to the environment, using only certified-organic beans and recyclable bags; and to the customers, delivering coffee beans very recently roasted. Awake's website touts "Coffee with a Conscience," meaning it uses exclusively organic beans -- and those sealable silver bags are reusable.

At Cafe Alta Gracia, the social mission is more personal. Anyone who's read Alvarez's eco-fable, A Cafecito Story (Chelsea Green, 2001), knows that the couple owns a farm in Alvarez's native Dominican Republic, which supplies the beans and is also the centerpiece of a broader commitment to sustainable agriculture, livable wages and literacy. Clearly, the coffee businesses brewing in Addison County amount to a lot more than a hill of beans.

"I've always really loved coffee," says Paul Ralston in his modest quarters set back from Rt. 116 and within earshot of the New Haven River. "It goes back to my bakery days." That would be the Bristol Bakery, which Ralston started with his wife in 1977. "There was no good coffee then; everyone was drinking Colombian." That's why Ralston, after reading a book about coffee, sought out his own small roaster, which he gave a prominent place in the window of the bakery and used to make coffee for customers.

After six years, he sold the bakery, finished college, and wound up working for Autumn Harp, a Bristol manufacturer of natural personal products. Ralston eventually became president of the company, but left that position to work for The Body Shop, for whom Autumn Harp was making balms and creams. Ralston and his second wife, Deb, lived in England near Body Shop founders Anita and Gordon Roddick for three years before deciding it was time to come home. But not before Ralston got a lot of international business and social-mission experience under his belt.

In 2001, after spending some time as a consultant, Ralston was casting about for a new enterprise. His little roaster still in personal use, it occurred to him that a small coffee business might be as satisfying as, well, a steaming cup of joe. "I admit I kind of missed the boat on the boom years," he says wryly. But the Roddicks helped Ralston make some fair-trade connections, and the Vermont Coffee Company was born. Within six months, it was cash-flow-positive. Two years later, it has five employees and is approaching annual sales of $500,000.

"One of the secrets to our success, modest as it is, is how fresh the coffee is," says Ralston, now 52. "Everything we roast today is packaged and delivered today and tomorrow." He and Deb still make deliveries themselves, but last week some further-afield customers began receiving their Vermont Coffee shipments via UPS. "With the cost of gas rising, it's more environmental -- it utilizes an existing truck already on the road," Ralston reasons.

Vermont Coffee Company buys its beans from Peru, Sumatra, Mexico and Costa Rica, and roasts a dark and a mild blend -- both of them smooth and rich, without a trace of bitterness. "The Mexican and Sumatran also come in decaf," Ralston says. That water-processed decaffeination happens in Vancouver, British Columbia -- one of only two places in North America where it's available.

For Ralston, the organic and fair-trade aspects of his business are as important as the coffee itself. "This isn't a sideline for us," his promotional literature touts. "It's our only line." The international organization called Fair Trade ensures farmers are paid based on their local cost of production and living, rather than the market price. This is especially important now, Ralston explains, because the market is at its "lowest world price" due in part to the influx of lower-quality beans from Vietnam and India -- relatively new players on the world coffee stage. Remarkably, he informs, coffee is the world's second-largest traded commodity, after oil.

"It's been a great way for us to fulfill our social mission," Ralston says. "Fair trade is the justice; expecting poor people to assuage our environmental guilt without even paying them for it -- that's pathetic." Of course, conscientiousness has a cost: About 11 percent of Vermont Coffee's expenses go to Fair Trade and its administering licensee, TransFair; the company pays an additional premium for organic beans. At the other end of the chain, consumers shell out around $8.99 a pound -- in the upper end, but not the top, of the retail spectrum.

Ralston is also on the board of Grounds for Health, a nonprofit started by Dan Cox, founder of the international industry consultants Coffee Enterprises in Burlington. Pooling a dollar from every pound of the Grounds for Health blend sold, the program provides health services -- primarily cancer-screening for women -- in coffee-growing communities. Vermont Coffee keeps the good will flowing close to home, too, with a "Frequent Friend" program offering merchandise, such as mugs and caps, for returned bags.

For all his international connections, Ralston is delighted to be back in Bristol. "This is where I want to have my business. I get to go home for lunch," he says. "The kind of place where you work is important."

In Los Marranitos, life is defined by backbreaking and poorly paid labor, illiteracy and an eroding environment. Or at least it was until Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner came along. After they bought Alta Gracia, a 260-acre farm in the central mountainous region of the Dominican Republic, in 1996, the couple set about transforming the place. They planted shade trees to protect the coffee plants and restore the soil; most coffee plantations are the equivalent of strip-mines, clear-cutting the trees and disrupting the ecosystem. Alvarez and Eichner have also planted fruit and nut trees and other food crops, helping the farmers to become more self-sufficient. They began paying $1.25 per pound for their beans; the average commercial coffee company pays farmers 43 cents per pound. Alvarez has started a school and a lending library in Los Marranitos, connecting the projects with volunteers from Middlebury College, where she teaches. And more recently, she and Eichner have established a "work-visit" program at the Alta Gracia farm.

"When I started roasting, they were carrying coffee beans back in suitcases," says Ralston. "Julia took the coffee on her book tours. I just love these people and what they do."

Ralston has been roasting Cafe Alta Gracia since 2002, but he concedes, "It's not the easiest coffee to work with -- if you don't roast it just right, it's easy to disrupt." CAG has a milder, fruitier taste and a more delicate aroma than Ralston's own dark roast. But, he says, "If you lose that, the flavor comes out muddy and harsh."

Part of the challenge, Ralston explains, is that CAG is a "single-source" coffee. Blending beans from diverse sources allows a roaster to combine the strengths of each and create different flavors. In fact, he's recently developed a new roast, called Tres Mariposas ("three butterflies"), combining Cafe Alta Gracia beans with coffees from two other countries. Ralston describes it as "a full-body coffee with a rustic, nut-like character and sweet, floral aroma."

Since he took over sales and marketing of Cafe Alta Gracia just a month ago, Ralston says, the brand is in about a dozen stores and has become an "instant hit" at City Market. The coffee retails for $8.99 a pound -- $1 of which goes to Founda-tion Alta Gracia. "We're getting organic-certified now," he says. "It will take a while to get into Fair Trade. We want to bring the value back to the farmers."

Several coffee plants in clay pots soak up the northern light at Awake headquarters on Basin Harbor Road in Bridport. About 3 feet tall, the plants seem healthy, their dark-green leaves shiny and exotic-looking. But Mark Pruhenski has no illusions about starting a coffee farm in Vermont's cold soil; the plants are "just for fun." Instead, he and Troy Griffis are importing bags of beans from Sumatra, Mexico, South and Central America and, when they can, from Uganda. "That one's touch-and-go," Griffis says.

The same might be said about a start-up business selling a single product in a highly competitive environment. But about a year after launching Awake, the two eager young partners -- Pruhenski's 30, Griffis 25 -- say they're paying themselves and making it work.

Pruhenski, who has a wife and two children, moved to Vermont from Massachusetts just two years ago. For five years prior, he had operated a Berkshires coffee business that grew out of an organic-coffee cafe. He worked at American Flatbread in Middlebury and Mountain Greens, the natural-foods store in Bristol, before deciding to make the coffee connection once again. Griffis, who had been growing and selling heirloom vegetables and salad greens, met Pruhenski at Flatbread, where they began to talk about having their own business. "We both cared about organics, and this seemed like a good fit," Griffis says.

The two converted a garage-sized shed on Pruhenski's property, attended a coffee-roasting school in Utah, and bought a roaster -- the shiny Diedrich model dominates their tidy quarters like a shrine. "It's only ever had organic beans," Griffis says, adding that the machine roasts just six pounds at a time. "It's a lot of time and labor," he adds. "But we wanted to work at home for ourselves."

The sweat equity doesn't seem to faze this pair; in fact, they wear their independence with pride. While they get some help from family and friends -- Griffis' girlfriend's father is creating their website -- the two essentially do everything from designing package labels to delivering the goods. Pruhenski estimates their current accounts in the "low forties." He's equally uncertain about the year-end bottom line, but estimates that the Diedrich goes through 700 to 800 pounds of beans a week -- more than 100 of which are sold at his former cafe in the Berkshires. "In the next six months we'd like to get to a thousand pounds a week," suggests Griffis.

He and Pruhenski roast beans from different countries separately and then mix them together in packages; this means that in some blends the beans are varying shades of brown. Awake markets both dark and mild roasts, as well as a couple of decaf blends; all their flavors tend toward full and rich with no bitterness. "We're going for depth of body and flavor," Griffis says, noting that Big Buzz -- a medium-roasted Sumatran with a bit of espresso -- is the company's most popular blend. "We do best at a place that serves and sells it. When people can taste it, you get a good following," he says. Griffis reports that Awake does very well at, for example, the Shelburne Supermarket. And though many of their accounts are natural-foods stores, it was a challenge to get into the coffee-saturated City Market. Awake sells for $7.49 to $8.99 per pound, according to Griffis.

"We haven't gone through the process for Fair Trade certification," says Pruhenski. "We felt like a lot of that money goes to advertising. It was more important for us to know where it came from." Besides, he adds, "We both want to make a living."

And that's getting easier, now that customers are starting to call them. "We are looking for a new location, though," Griffis throws in. "We're bumping into each other in here."

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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