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Mighty Peace coffee shares beans, mission with Wisconsin roasters

Jake EkdahlMay 22, 2019

When most people drink their coffee in the morning, they don’t think too much about where it came from.

For JD Stier, where the coffee comes from, and how it gets here, is just as important as how it tastes.

Stier founded Mighty Peace Coffee after several visits to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. His roommate in Madison was a refugee from the region.

Stier calls the area “the other Great Lakes region, the African Great Lakes.”

They’re “very similar to the American Great Lakes region. You’ve got these massive, massive lakes and agricultural populations (living in) that area in the center of Africa,” Stier said.

Corruption and instability have created consistent turmoil and violence in the region.

“Many of (Mighty Peace’s employees) are women who are survivors of sexual violence,” Stier said. “They had to flee their homeland and they formed these cooperatives to grow coffee.”

Stier reached out to Liza Elena Pistrilos to “explore the market viability” of exporting the coffee grown in the DRC and selling it to American consumers.

Pistrilos, now the CEO of Mighty Peace, connected with Black Earth Farmer and Mighty Peace Partner Heather Foseid, who recommended for a roaster a business familiar to many in Sauk Prairie: John Joseph Coffee.

“(We didn’t) have a roaster right away and we wanted to make partnerships with the community,” Pistrilos said.

For John Joseph Coffee Owner John Brennan, the choice was easy.

“Being a startup myself, and fresh in the business, we saw a lot of ourselves in the way they were starting out,” Brennan said. “They didn’t have a ton of experience in coffee (and) we thought it was a good opportunity to pass along what we’d learned on the way… and the coffee turned out to be really good too.”

Brennan’s willingness to roast Mighty Peace Coffee was an early help to the fledgeling company, Stier said.

“Many of the big roasters in Madison didn’t want to work with us,” Stier said. “They didn’t want to work with an unknown company and I also think there was a stigma to Africa and African coffee. John was just an early and immediate support to understanding the human mission (and) with an open heart. That shined through immediately. That’s why we’ve stayed with John now that we’ve been growing.”

Mighty Peace has received orders for preliminary samples from about 200 coffee roasters in the US.

Part of what makes the coffee attractive to roasters is the quality and the flavor.

“What roasters are commenting on throughout the United States is the uniqueness of the flavor profile,” Stier said. “It’s got a shockingly low acidity… because the soil is so clean, you can actually taste hazelnut, vanilla, cocoa and some of the things that grow in the forest nearby.”

The mission of Mighty Peace, and the people it employs, is another part of what makes roasters interested.

“They get paid above fair trade labor,” Stier said of Mighty Peace employees. “Our coffee’s not cheap. It’s high quality and we want to pay the farmers for that and we want to pay the cooperative for that… people are being respected for their work.”

With the money made from the coffee production, farmers are replacing their thatch hut homes with concrete ones.

“Building a permanent structure, building solid walls and a roof makes the biggest change for families,” Stier said.

As filmmaker who produced a documentary about supply chain due diligence, Stier filmed every step of the coffee process and shared it online on their website and social media pages.

The result is a fully integrated company that traces its product from seed to table, and also shares the process with customers.

One video depicts one of the older farmers, Katambara Pendeza Apoline, reflecting on the employee-employer relationship at Mighty Peace. “I see the cooperative treats women well, we do not hide when there are benefits and when we withdraw we all withdraw by giving the signatures to the bank in the presence of everyone,” Pendeza Apoline said.

Pitsirilos emphasized the quality assurance benefits of being a fully integrated coffee company.

“We touch every step of the supply chain from seed to table,” Pitsirilos said. “That means when the coffee is grown, cooperative members pick the cherry and seperate the coffee bean from it, it gets dried out, it gets washed, all of those steps. And we watch that, we can actually track every step of the supply chain from when it’s shipped from the cooperative all the way to importation in the United States.”

Stier hopes the prospects of the Congolese can be raised as interest in the coffee they produce grows.

“If they can tap the international market and get their coffee out the same way Kenyans, Ethiopians and Rwandans have got their coffee out, there could be a rapidly rising economic sector in the region,” Stier said.

John Joseph Coffee isn’t the only business to have helped Mighty Peace along the way. Owner of the popular Michelangelo’s Coffee House in Madison Samir “Sam” Chehade allows the company to use the basement of his popular State Street coffee house for storage, free of charge.

“He insisted on hosting us for free,” Stier said. “We’ve never paid a penny to Michelangelo’s.”

Chehade said he believes in the company’s mission.

“When you bring stability to one place you are helping basically the whole world,” Chehade said.

Mighty Peace Coffee is available in bags of whole beans or in coffee pods for one-cup machines like the Keurig. Stier said the company coordinated with a manufacturer in Green Bay to produce eco-friendly fully compostable pods.

Along with John Joseph Coffee in Sauk City, Mighty Peace Coffee will be sold at Burman Coffee Traders in Middleton and Bariques Coffee in Middleton and Madison.

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