Local roaster Lambda Coffee heats up

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Shawna Vacca and Eve Freeman, partners in business and life, at their Lambda Coffee farmers market stand. (Courtesy photo)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

For some, coffee is simply a morning pick-me-up; for others, it’s a necessary and meaningful part of a daily ritual. But around this time of year, coffee drinkers everywhere try to hold off on indulging in what some would call an addiction.

Lambda Coffee, a new local coffee roaster, is sure to test some of those New Year’s resolutions.

Partners Eve Freeman and Shawna Vacca, two Alexandria residents, started Lamb- da Coffee in July 2019, roasting beans out of their kitchen for friends and family. Now, they rent a space in a food incubator and sell at several Northern Virginia farmers’ markets, including the Burke Farmers Market and Cascades Farmers Market.

The business is still in its infancy, but Freeman and Vacca have a firm philosophy for Lambda Coffee: to supply socially conscious, sustainable, ethically sourced and delicious coffee.

“It’s kind of like civil rights activism. Your dollar is your vote and, in a sense, when you’re voting for us, you’re voting for a more equitable world, a fairer world,” Vacca said. “In this political climate it’s gotten to be more crucial to put your money where you want the world to go.”

Two software engineers, Vacca and Freeman graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology a couple of years apart, before eventually finding one another through the alumni network and mutual friends.

“[Freeman] came to stay at my house during the lunar eclipse in Oregon [in 2017],” Vacca said. “I used to live in Oregon, and she came to stay for a week, and we hung out the whole week and we’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve got something here.’”

Later that year, Vacca moved back to Alexandria to live with Freeman. It was here, not in Portland, that she started roasting coffee beans. Vacca was starting to explore green coffee, beans that haven’t been roasted, because she liked decaf coffee, an expensive habit if one relies on buying roasted beans.

“We started roasting green beans and started roasting regular beans and decaf and we thought, ‘Oh, this will make a nice Christmas present,” Vacca said.

Like Freeman’s first visit out to Oregon, Vacca knew they had something special on their hands. They both liked the process and taste of roasting their own beans, and before they knew it, the couple had a roaster, a website, a Facebook page and an online store. They officially launched the company in July.

Navigating through the pitfalls of starting a new business with little experience, Freeman and Vacca have learned new things about each other.

“She is conservative about growth, and I’m pushing and pushing,” Freeman said. “It’s actually really good to have that balance.”

In some ways, it’s helped the couple become closer, as they work to bring the business to life.

“We’re partners in life and in the business, so if something goes wrong, we’ve got each other,” Vacca said.

Vacca and Freeman started the business out of their kitchen with a tiny roaster. Before long, the demand of their customers and the tiresome blaring of their smoke alarm forced them to level up. They bought a bigger roaster – one that allows them to handle their order capacity and produce upward of 50 bags a week – and rented a space in Frontier Kitchen, a food incubator in Lorton.

Although they were both relatively educated coffee drinkers, Vacca and Freeman had a lot to learn. Wine has about 100 flavor compounds, but coffee, with nearly 800 flavor compounds, is much more complex, Freeman said.

The couple flew out to Portland for a week in August 2019 to go to coffee school at Café Bellissimo. They went through barista training, roaster training and business training and took additional roasting classes at Café Amore in Vienna, Virginia.

It became clear that a good roast means nothing without good beans, Vacca said.

“The biggest factor in having a good coffee for us is in the bean,” Vacca said. “If we got a good bean, that forgives us sometimes on the roasting side.”

To that end, Vacca and Freeman have found three beans they feel confident selling. The beans are all medium to medium light roast, much to the chagrin of the many dark roast drinkers the couple has converted.

Lambda Coffee sells an Ethiopian coffee with notes of blueberry and lime, a Sumatran coffee with more complex flavors that contains notes of vanilla and pipe tobacco and a Columbian coffee with notes of red fruit, lemon and sweet honey. They plan to add a decaf to the mix soon. Each bag costs $18.

For the couple, the ethical and sustainable qualities of the beans are just as important as the material and flavor qualities of the beans. Vacca and Freeman have pushed themselves to foster direct relationships with farmers and work with local suppliers that pay their farmers fairly.

“One thing we like to ensure was that the coffee was paid to the farmers well over fair trade,” Freeman said. “Fair trade is kind of a pretty low bar these days, unfortunately, but our suppliers have been transparent.”

“We’re trying to do everything right,” Vacca said. “We’ve got compostable cups. One of our coffees is from a Café Feminino program, which is all woman owned and all woman operated.”

Vacca and Freeman said they hope that Lambda’s socially conscious approach – the fact that it’s Queer-owned and donates money to LGBTQ organizations like Casa Ruby and Lambda Legal – draws in customers as well.

It seems that it has. In addition to selling beans online, Lambda’s stands at local farmers’ markets have been especially successful and regularly sold out around the holidays.

For Vacca and Freeman, who each dedicate around 20 hours per week to the business in addition to working full-time jobs, the future of Lambda is exciting and uncertain. Freeman and Vacca are split on how they see that future – Freeman wants to see Lambda Coffee expand to a coffee shop/queer hangout space, while Vacca would prefer it remain a quality roaster – but they both agree that coffee is more than just a morning beverage.

“It’s an experience, coffee,” Freeman said. “… There was a guy from Ethiopia that was like, ‘Give me some of your Ethiopian coffee.’ And he tasted and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I wanted.’ That’s really cool actually.”

“I think about how [a] business owner is approaching it and how they’re causing delight,” Vacca said. “Whether you’re a musician, you’re causing people delight, and it’s the same with coffee. You’re causing people to have delight, and that’s a gratifying thing.”

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