South Berkeley's stretch of Adeline Street is not the most promising drag. Peppered with empty storefronts and neglected lots, it's a string of blocks I used to forego walking on most days, until recently, when I spotted Alchemy -- a tiny, glimmering sign of neighborhood revival that happens to be the best coffee on this side of Berkeley.
A narrow hole with subtle signage, I don't wonder why it took me so long to find it. I do wonder, though, how coffee this good managed to stay under my radar until just a few weeks ago. The space fits only two tables and the coffee cart that was Alchemy's first incarnation -- a mobile brewing setup at farmers' markets -- before the brick and mortar materialized just over a year ago.
This cart is not your average coffee cart. It's a lovely, wooden counter that one would mistake for an elegant wine bar were it not for the espresso machine on top and the almost hidden wheels.
Everything about Alchemy is curated carefully. The pastries come from Starter Bakery, making one more place you can get your hands on that fabled kouign-amann. An eclectic rota of installations adorn the walls, the current selection resembling what might come of Basquiat and Pollock getting lost in the woods together with glue and the right drugs. I like it. The bookshelf is small and thoughtfully stocked with writerly manuals and things like David Foster Wallace and George Saunders (short and whimsical fiction). Paired with sunlit benches and a cappuccino, it's the perfect spot for morning loafing. Or a cuppa before the Tuesday farmer's market down the block.
The coffee on deck is Verve, a roaster out of Santa Cruz that's been making big waves in the coffee scene this year with consistently beautiful and interesting lots that have coffee folks happily buzzing around them in a sort of hot and bothered fuss over those magical stonefruit notes. And the Alchemists, if you will, are very thoughtful about the preparation.
That leads us to perhaps the most interesting thing about Alchemy, it's cooperatively run. As a collective, everyone that works there also owns a piece of the company, which means the baristas behind the bar have invested a lot more in the cappuccino they're making you than is quite typical. It's a rare business model, but it makes a lot of sense. Aligning the incentives of baristas and owners (by making them the same person) ensures the quality of the coffee will be good, and hedges against the pitfalls of disgruntled staff.
"We realized a cooperative is a really powerful way to do a café, because so much of the experience depends on the barista. It's nice to have a stake in the business and be driven to make something you're proud of," says Chris Meyers, one of three owners.
Meyers formed the idea with Payam Imani when they were coworkers at another café, originally aiming to buy out that place and convert it into a cooperative with Meyer's friend from childhood. Plans changed and after one kickstarter campaign and a few fundraising parties, Alchemy was born. They are still small, but looking to move into a larger space (with real plumbing) close by sometime by the end of summer. I can't wait.