Meet Chicago’s most hustling coffee roasters. In conversation with Metric co-founder Xavier Alexander and San Vincente’s Benjamin Paz, we get to the heart of Metric’s “Made by Humans” motto.
Ray: I’m Ray.
Kandace: I’m Kandace.
Ray: Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week-
Kandace: We’re talking to Metric Coffee, out of Chicago, Illinois.
Ray: This week we spoke with Xavier Alexander—and also a little bit to Benjamin Paz—about what Metric Coffee is doing while they were in Seattle.
Kandace: Xavier is one of the co-founders of Metric and also their green coffee buyer.
Xavier: Hello everybody. My name is Xavier Alexander. I’m co-founder of Metric Coffee from Chicago, Illinois.
Ray: First, Xavier told us about the founding of Metric Coffee.
Xavier: I ask myself this every day…who is Metric?
Metric was founded by myself and my business partner, Darko Arandjelovic back in 2013.
I started roasting in early 2000s. Everything was super dark, super flavored. It wasn’t until 2004 when I had gone to my first SCAA—seeing everyone from all over the country come there, and then tasting other coffees—I then learned that, wow, this is a big world. I fell in love with it.
Kandace: He had a great job working as a head roaster at Intelligentsia.
Xavier: I knew that I didn’t want to just fall out of love with making coffee. I wanted to continue that passion. I did not personally feel like I had the platform to engage in such a way so I needed to just fly out and do it.
Xavier: My partner Darko owned a café in Chicago.
Ray: He met Darko and was able to combine someone who had café experience with his roast experience.
Xavier: So when I had met Darko, it became clear that I could do this. He’s a native from Serbia, so he came to the states not knowing any English. He just worked his way up. He’s another hustler. That’s when I knew I could take the chance and do it, and that’s exactly what we did.
When Things Get Tough
Kandace: To me the word that kept coming up was “hustle.” They basically went all in.
Xavier: I found a roaster. That roaster was a Probat that I found in a listing in Germany. The buyer’s like, “It’s ready. You can customize, etcetera, etcetera.”
“Sweet. Here’s all this money, stranger guy.”
And suddenly, not a peep. We don’t hear from him. He’s off his cell phone, and we’re like, “We’re screwed.”
Let’s jump another seven months after the machine arrives a complete mess. It’s just a piece of garbage, so Darko and I fixed it ourselves. We spent months fixing it. A lot of what you will see in our space are things that we hand built ourselves, or we found on Craigslist, or we had the help of friends. That’s really the birth of Metric, right?
A Bit of Chicago in Seattle
Ray: One thing they tried to do in Seattle was to bring the experience and culture of their Chicago neighborhood with them.
Xavier: Our shop is in west Fulton, or rather, it’s Fulton market area.
Ray: They actually did a panel that wraps around over the bar at La Marzocco.
Xavier: What’s cool about what we’re doing here at La Marzocco is that we partnered with our good friends, Good Beer Hunting. They have panels, if you guys want to do a little pan edit of the wrap around of the café. Goose Island Brewing, which is our beer partner, is also in the design. We have Unison, we have other companies that we’ve collaborated with. Also, the drinks that are on the menu, the specialty drinks, are made by our baristas. They’re inspired by Chicago, by the Midwest.
Kandace: We got a chance to talk to Benjamin Paz, who’s an importer in Honduras.
Benjamin: I started working with Xavier because it was based on a relationship through a friend.
Benjamin: You didn’t mean to visit us, right? You were with the other group-
Xavier: I was with another group, which I left.
Benjamin: I was picking up his friend, our friend, and then he’s like, “Hey guys, can I come with you?”
Xavier: He said, “Sure, come with us.” It was like, “Yeah, awesome.”
Benjamin: [I thought] “Cool, this is the time to present Dennis’ coffee.” I put it on the table and he liked it and he purchased it. It was the first relationship that Dennis, as a farmer, had. He stopped working for other people and coffee became his first source of income.
[Xavier] was like, “Why are you giving me all this treatment and all that if I’m only buying thee bags of coffee.”
Xavier: Only for four bags of coffee.
Benjamin: Three bags.
Xavier: Yeah, it was three bags.
Benjamin: I’m like, “Well, this is the kind of people I want to work with no matter if you buy one bag or 200.”
We’re Latin Americans, so we are very close to everyone. That’s the base of our product, the relationship or value and that connection that can be built in between a buyer and the roaster. This goes beyond a regular coffee transaction.
Of course, the quality has to be there as a guarantee, but there are a lot of important things around the coffee that we consider very important. Connecting with nice people that are doing a really good job, that’s one of the main ones, so this is why I wanted to work with these guys.
Xavier: This is not just a simple “cup of coffees, put in a bag, put it on the menu and sell.” It goes far beyond that. It’s a relational thing, and they do feel like family to a degree. When I go to their house, they’ll make some coffee. Literally, every producer’s house we go to … we already had lunch, and then they want to fix you lunch again, and then another lunch again. By the time you’re done with the day, you’re like, “Aw, man,” but they’re so honored to have you there. It’s like they rolled out their best, and they want to make sure they take care of you and treat you right. I’m never lost on that.
Ray: In a future episode, we’re going to talk in more detail with Benjamin.
Xavier: Today we’re serving a coffee from a producer named Alma Pineda. Parainema is originally from El Salvador. What’s really interesting about this variety is that it was introduced to Honduras to be an alternative to coffees that can grow at lower altitudes and be resistant to rot.
La Roya, or coffee rust, is an issue that’s affecting all of Central and South America. You’re expecting 100% of your yield to hopefully produce and be able to be sellable. Imagine if suddenly you have this issue, which is the rust, cut half of your production. It’s not like anybody’s easing up on the bills. It can be disaster, which is part of the reason why a lot of people abandon coffee.
This coffee can grow at low altitudes and the flavor profile is really interesting. Supple and creamy, a lot of florals and really nice acids. One taste of that coffee and I fell in love with it.
Furthermore, I fell in love with Alma and her husband Evan. They’re just such sweet people. Alma had spent a year overseas working and sending money back home so they could invest in their farms. What I connected with on a deeper level besides the actual quality of the product, was knowing that these guys are hustlers. They really just work so hard to get their farms to produce really good coffee, to be fair in what they pay pickers, and they’re just generally kind and amazing people, which is what you see in all of Honduras, which is really awesome.
These guys are a little younger, so they’re more with it and they’re very technology savvy. I do talk to them quite a bit through WhatsApp. Having that communication gives us and myself the ability to feel more connected to—not just them as humans—but to the product, and seeing: “How are things going? What are the issues? How can we help?” That’s just mind-blowing. I could have not ever imagined being here today and thinking that this is what coffee looks like.
Ray: I was a big fan of their packaging. The designer suggested Made by Humans and they ran with it. It became an informal motto of theirs.
Xavier: It’s obvious that we’re humans, that humans consume coffee. But, I feel subjected— through social media or just the regular news—to things that are just inhumane and make you feel awful about humanity. We were thinking, “What can we say that can actual make people think about the process?”
There are people behind the bag. Not just the people that are roasting and bagging the coffee, but beyond that, there are people like Benjamin or the producers themselves. We all collaborated to make this. That’s what Made by Humans means to us.
Ray: Metric Coffee of Chicago, Illinois.