Change is brewing at 5th Element

From working in politics to running a coffee...
Change is brewing at 5th Element

More often than not, important advances in our food culture–new levels of care, respect and quality–have been the result of a convergence of time, place and passion. Madison has its share of examples in the by now familiar farm-to-table component of the local food chain, including meats, cheeses, beers, wines, crackers and on and on.

Add coffee to the list. Coffee in Madison has just taken a big step forward with the addition of 5th Element Coffee and a new yet refreshingly old-fashioned element–the human element.

Todd Allbaugh found himself at a point in his life when something he was “super passionate about … was not available,” and he was looking for something into which to redirect that passion. That passion was politics, which had been part of Allbaugh’s life since he was twelve. And it was the human element of politics that impassioned Allbaugh the most. His boss at that time, state senator Dale Schultz, a last-of-his-breed, moderate Republican, had decided not to run for re-election, and Allbaugh was wondering what was to come next.

“I was forty-four, and I thought, I’m either going to do this or not,” he says.

“This” was coffee. It’s safe to say Allbaugh’s passion has again found a home. And it’s a home with deep roots, in Allbaugh’s second home, actually–El Salvador.

Allbaugh met Silas Valle when both were students at the University of Wisconsin-Richland Center. Valle was there as part of a Central America scholarship program started by another Republican, U.S. Senator Bob Kasten. Valle invited Allbaugh to his home in El Salvador, an experience Allbaugh describes as life-changing.

Allbaugh kept coming back, getting to know the people and the coffee, especially a latte he tasted at a cafe called Viva Espresso, where Alejandro Mendez worked. It was “the most amazing cup of coffee” Allbaugh had ever tasted. It had “incredible richness, tasted like it had sugar in it, and there was no sugar–just coffee and milk but with amazing caramel taste,” he says. “I couldn’t get enough.”

Allbaugh met the owner and they talked about opening a place in Madison. In October 2013, Allbaugh invited Mendez to visit Madison. It was a beautiful fall day and he took him to the farmers’ market, which sealed the deal. His coffee shop “would never be here if it weren’t for the Dane County Farmers’ Market and the farm-to-table restaurants in Madison,” Allbaugh says. “He saw how much the producers loved being at the farmers’ market, and seeing how Graze had the farmers names up on the wall, and realized there was potential here.” World Barista Champion Mendez, Valle and Valle’s brother Nelson agreed to partner with Allbaugh, and this summer 5th Element Coffee opened on University Avenue.

“We’re a concept coffee bar” is how Allbaugh describes 5th Element–named for the element needed along with earth, water, air and fire to make great coffee being the human element.

“Our direct relationship with the farmer, with the producer, is what makes us different, and that really is the new wave in coffee, direct-relationship coffee. Certifications like Fair Trade and Rain Forest Coffee are great starting points, but unfortunately those certification requirements have been changed. One only needs to have a small percentage of one’s farm certified to be able to claim that everything grown on the entire farm is certified.”

Allbaugh calls the certification issue “a shell game,” and he doesn’t play. “People ask if we’re Fair Trade coffee. No, we’re not, because the farmer has to pay a lot of money for certification. Our farmer would rather take that money and give it to workers. We’re on our farms two or three times a month, we know the workers are being paid well and treated well.”

Allbaugh says it bothers him that people who so value knowing where their food comes from approach coffee with the attitude of “oh, it’s just coffee.”

“It’s not,” says Allbaugh. “It is an extraordinary specialty food with as many nuanced characteristics as wine. And too many people buy a little bit of good coffee and a lot of bad coffee and blend them and then, to avoid all the bad flavors coming out, they roast it really dark and sell what is essentially burnt coffee. And that’s why people think they need to put so much milk and sugar in coffee and you shouldn’t need to do that.

They’re selling people a bill of goods. It’s what used to drive me nuts about politics. Just tell people what it really is; don’t sell them a bill of goods.

“It comes down to honoring the producer,” continues Allbaugh. “The men and women working their fingers to the bone, that’s who should get the credit. And by giving back, making sure the farmer gets the money, we can have a real impact on a whole village. I love coffee, but, like politics, the joy is helping individuals solve a problem or make a difference in their life. That’s what 5th Element is all about, the human element. We want to truly impact lives through our coffee, and we better be doing it in the right way for the farmer and the consumer, and we better prepare it in a way that is professional and make ourselves unique in a community like Madison that holds people to a pretty high standard when it comes to food.”

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. He and wife Nancy Christy, who runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food, have written about food for fifteen years.