El Salvador in Wisconsin

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To learn how the 2011 World Barista Champion, Alejandro Mendez of El Salvador, came to operate a coffee shop in a Midwest college town, first you have to understand how his business partner got to El Salvador.

Todd Allbaugh—one of Mendez’s four partners in 5th Element Coffee, which opened in Madison last year—is a born-and-bred Wisconsinite. During the late 1980s, he took classes at the University of Wisconsin–Richland, sixty miles west of Madison in a farming town of 5,000 people. A Salvadoran exchange student named Silas Valle invited him home for Christmas in 1992. “I’d never been out of the country except for Canada,” says Allbaugh. “It was a real life-changing experience for me—the lifestyle, the people, the culture, and what I learned about myself.”

He would return to El Salvador thirty-four times over the next twenty-four years, visiting Valle and meeting others. Sometimes Allbaugh, who knew little Spanish, even navigated dirt roads and passed through small villages not that dissimilar from those he grew up in in Wisconsin. “It’s really become like my second home,” says Allbaugh, who slowly picked up elementary Spanish during these immersive trips. All this time, he was building a career as a political staffer in the state capital.

Through these travels he developed a love affair with the country’s coffee. In 2002, Ricardo Valdevieso gave him a tour of his shade-grown coffee farm and restaurant in Apaneca. Allbaugh was taken aback by the craft and beauty behind the harvest and preparation of this coffee, an experience that jolted him to the core. This kind of feeling didn’t exist in his career. “I was at a point in my life where I wanted to see what was next,” he says. “Ricardo is the one who really ignited my passion for specialty coffee and doing coffee the right way in terms of the environment, people, and impact on others. Without him, 5th Element would not exist.”

Coffee was woven through another trip Allbaugh took to El Salvador, this time in 2008, in which he dropped by Viva Espresso, a coffee shop, and ordered a latte. “It was like a food orgasm. I was used to American lattes that taste like they’re from a gas station. It had this beautiful caramel ring; it was sweet and smoky and creamy. It changed my life,” he says. It was Mendez who was behind the bar that day.

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Alejandro Mendez in 2011, moments after winning the World Barista Championship in Bogota, Colombia. (Photo: Chris Ryan. Photo at top: Joseph W. Jackson III.)

At Viva Espresso, Mendez was being coached by owner Federico Bolanos to compete in barista competitions. Three years after serving Allbaugh, at the age of twenty-three, he’d be crowned World Barista Champion in Bogota, Colombia—the youngest to ever win the competition and the first champion to hail from a coffee-producing country. Since El Salvadoran coffee is hugely popular among competitors in the World Barista Championship, it felt right to Mendez that a Salvadoran would achieve that distinction.

At that same time, Allbaugh—by then serving as chief of staff for a Wisconsin state senator—knew his enthusiasm for his career was waning. He was ready to walk away, but the what next? question nagged at him. In 2014, he approached Mendez, who had just left Viva Espresso to launch 4 Monkeys Coffee Roasters in El Salvador, with an offer: “‘Would you be interested in doing a coffee project with me in Madison?’” Silas Valle and his brother Nelson were already on board.

Mendez flew up to Wisconsin for the first time that October, when the leaves were spun into rich tones of gold and fuchsia and college football was at full throttle in Madison. That was all charming, but what took Mendez by surprise was the farm-to-table scene, which included visits to the country’s largest farmers market and a meal at James Beard Award–winning chef Tory Miller’s Graze. These mirrored the direct relationships he was forming with coffee buyers at a friend’s coffee farm in El Salvador. “I discovered that [Madison] is a real foodie city,” says Mendez. “I realized that’s exactly what we are doing with coffee.”

Allbaugh left his job in January of 2015 when his boss retired. Mendez flew back to Madison, marveling at his first sighting of snow. The two trekked to the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual meeting in Seattle that spring—which coincided with the World Barista Championship—to snap up a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle from Nuova Simonelli that was used in the competition. “We’re pretty proud to be the first café in Wisconsin to have a Black Eagle on the bar,” says Mendez.

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Alejandro Mendez pulls shots on the Black Eagle at 5th Element. (Photo: Joseph W. Jackson III.)

5th Element—named for the four elements needed to make coffee (land, air, water and fire), plus human interaction to brew—is in Madison’s Regent neighborhood, home to a mix of students, faculty, and staff from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and only a few miles from the domed state capitol where Allbaugh worked. Reclaimed wood from a now-shuttered Madison bowling alley is one of the many design touches from OPN Architects. Mendez was heavily involved in building out the interior, going so far as to put forth his desire for a coffee bar that mimics the set-up at a barista competition to encourage customers to interact with baristas.

Mendez’s innovation has translated to a unique cold-brew method he’s developed using the Yama Glass cold-brew tower. Mendez’s twist is to place ice on top of the tower. “The result is an eight-hour extraction time and the temperature of the water, just off the ‘freeze,’ seizes up the bitter aspects of the coffee and allows the richer, more floral notes to come through,” explains Allbaugh. Customers can also have their coffee brewed in a Chemex, Aeropress, and V60.

5th Element has connected with other local food businesses to offer noshing options that pair well with coffee. This includes chocolatier Gail Ambrosius’s El Salvadoran and Colombian chocolates, Batch Bakehouse’s pastries, and made-from-scratch-in-house waffles and paninis. Organic Valley milk from Wisconsin cows is employed for espresso drinks.

What makes us unique is that literally, from farm to cup, we have complete control of the coffee.

Not one to be idle, Mendez opened his 4 Monkeys roastery in El Salvador just as 5th Element welcomed its first customers. He continues to fly between Wisconsin and El Salvador, doing double-duty at the roastery and the café. Having a man on the ground has allowed for the creation of a coffee unique to 5th Element: Finca Santa Rosa’s Lot 2 Black Honey pacamara, which won El Salvador’s Cup of Excellence in 2014. It takes between twenty-two and twenty-four days for the beans to dry in raised beds in the shade, says Mendez—an extreme time among honey-processed coffees.

“What makes us unique is that literally, from farm to cup, we have complete control of the coffee,” says Mendez about 5th Element. All of the El Salvadoran coffees ground and brewed at 5th Element are roasted in El Salvador and shipped fresh to Madison on a two-week rotation. To broaden the geographic selection for customers beyond El Salvador, beans are sourced from other Madison roasters, including Yes and JBC, along with Counter Culture Coffee. “Our goal is to give our guests access to some of the finest single-origin coffees of the world that you can’t find anywhere else in Madison while still focusing on our direct-relationship coffee with our farmers in El Salvador,” says Allbaugh.

Mendez talks to Allbaugh daily and is in constant contact with the Valle brothers too. “The key to having a successful business in that way is to have partners who have the same mindset,” says Mendez, who turned down offers to open cafés in Portland, Brooklyn, and Australia, in favor of a small Midwest city where the coffee scene was just beginning to percolate and where he could make a difference.

His journey there began long before he ever worked behind an espresso machine. It started when a Midwesterner was invited to El Salvador and discovered a love for coffee and the people working to bring it to him. “I was fortunate to learn about coffee at origin,” says Allbaugh. “When you see how hard people work picking coffee and carrying fifty-pound bags, [you see] it’s such a labor-intensive food. If Americans would experience what I did, they would have no problem paying $5 for a cup of coffee.”

Thanks to 5th Element, though maybe without their knowing it, Madison’s coffee drinkers are now on the cutting edge of coffee’s drive to connect consumers to farmers.

Kristine Hansen is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer who co-authored the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee and Tea.