Coffee sorcery at Alchemy

A man with ties to the Pacific Northwest has brought that region’s coffee-making sensibilities to RVA.

“It’s literally like a jam bomb explosion in your mouth,” said Eric Spivack, owner and operator of Alchemy Coffee, one brisk morning on a day off. He’s was discussing a new coffee he’s started serving, one made from Ethiopian beans naturally sun-dried, a process that yields a fruitier taste.

Fruity coffee may seem odd, but Spivack’s speciality is brewing the best.

For instance, Spivack prefers if people omit milk and sugar from his drip coffee. “I’m always pushing people to drink their coffee black,” he said. The reason? Spivack is finely attuned to brewing temperature, ratios, particle size (i.e. whether the beans are finely ground or not) when brewing coffee, all done so that milk and sugar–often used to mask bland coffee–are unnecessary.

It’s just one way that a small 4’ x 8’ tear drop-shaped trailer tries to alter how Richmond drinks its java.

A pinch of France, a dash of America

Spivack spent much of his early life bouncing from France to the Pacific Northwest (his mother is French and his father, American). France exposed him to premier coffee, bread, and other staples. “So many basic things were better over there,” he said.

The Pacific Northwest may not have had the delicacies of France, but its coffee was pretty damn good. It was one of the few regions with a hand in Third Wave Coffee, a modern movement to produce first-rate java.1 Spivack moved to Seattle, a city best known for creating Starbucks (to the chagrin of Seattle’s true coffee aficionados), after finishing college in Minnesota.

In Seattle, he began working for Altria, and in 2011, he moved to Richmond to work for the company here. Spivack said he judged his new city, not by size or affordability, but by its culinary bounty. “I generally judge towns based on their restaurant scene,” he said. In addition to enjoying cooking and dining out, he thinks the quality of a city’s restaurants underscores its residents’ proclivity to appreciate that quality. His opinion of Richmond? “I thought for a smaller town, it had an impressive food scene.”

But where it excelled in food, it lacked in coffee. He felt “that coffee was behind the curve here, by comparison [to the Pacific Northwest],” he said. But the Third Wave was steadily moving down the East Coast from Boston to New York to Washington D.C. “It’s been moving down I-95” and was bound to hit Richmond, he said.

But instead of waiting for the Wave’s arrival, Spivack quit his Altria job to swim out and meet it.

Catching a wave

There were two things that compelled Spivack to start his own coffee trailer business: 1) he knew Richmond already embraced food trucks and 2) the quality of the city’s restaurant scene.

On the first point, it was financially practical to invest in just a small trailer, as opposed to a more expensive brick-and-mortar store. Also, coffee carts were successful in Portland, so Spivack was confident his idea would work here where food carts are abundant.

And to the second point, Spivack reasoned that if people appreciated restaurants like Heritage, Pasture, Comfort, and others that exceeded the norm of dining out, those same people would also appreciate coffee that exceeded the norm of brewed coffee, largely established by Starbucks.

But his job at Altria hadn’t afforded him years and years of professional coffee brewing experience. So why suddenly shift gears from marketing to coffee? Simple: Spivack loved the stuff and loved talking about it. “I’m definitely a dork when it comes to coffee,” he said. He trusted that passion, and quit Altria in early 2012 and began work on his trailer.

He hired the help of Tom Brickman, who’s designed restaurants like Balliceaux, Comfort, Lulu, Kuba Kuba, Secco, and others. The 4’ x 8’ trailer Brickman created incorporated wood and metal, the former representing the organic quality of the coffee, the latter representing the industrial side of brewing it. Although the cart design is unlike other carts in Richmond, Spivack said he drew inspiration from those in the Pacific Northwest. After the six months used to construct the cart and apply for necessary permits, Spivack debuted Alchemy on November 19, 2012.

He chose the name Alchemy after realizing “a lot of my passion was science-based.” Experimenting with brewing temperatures, how fine or granular the beans were, etc. was vital for him to repeat the coffee-making process to brew superior and repeatable results.

“Alchemy is the origin of chemistry, but [also] a time when there was still a sorcery aspect,” he said. Harnessing beans to create a drink people love and clamor for isn’t that dissimilar from sorcery. “To me, that’s exactly what I do.”

Brewing sorcery

He creates his modern sorcery using beans provided by local Blanchard’s Coffee Company and additional products from Counter Culture Coffee based in Durham, North Carolina. Instead of coffee blends, which he calls an “inferior” form of coffee that combines beans from different regions and countries, he uses single-origin coffee, beans that can be traced to a single farm.

In addition to brewing coffee, Spivack also aims to educate people on the finer nuances of coffee making. Not only for people to appreciate the coffee he brews, but for them to brew better coffee at home. That’s why the tagline on his trailer reads “Brewing Enlightenment”–he encourages people to ask questions to better understand what they’re drinking and how to recreate it. “Everything I do I want to be approachable,” he said.

You can approach Spivack for a cup of coffee and to pick his brain on VCU’s campus, downtown, and at local famers markets where you’ll routinely find Alchemy.2 He’s also actively looking for a brick-and-mortar location3 and contemplating opening a drive-in spot.

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to forego milk, or try a fruitier bean than you’re used to. “They may not understand why it’s better,” Spivack said. But you should trust him enough to try.

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  1. One of the epicenters of Third Wave Coffee is Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. 
  2. Follow Alchemy on Twitter and Facebook for location updates. 
  3. He considered purchasing Crossroads Coffee near VCU. 

photo courtesy of Alchemy Coffee

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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