In the 1970s, a young Russian man named Aleksandr Malchik moved to Montana for graduate school, a state he would call home for 17 years. He quickly took to the West, relishing not only in the mountains and open space but also the local coffee culture. Many Montana residents are of Scandinavian descent—serious java drinkers—and their passion galvanized Malchik’s interest in its production. His own love for the stuff had been born at an early age when coffee was a rare delicacy in Russia; he still recalls the thrill of tasting his first Turkish-style coffee ice cream as a teenager.
While living in Flathead, Malchik began to hang around with local roasters and learn their techniques. Witnessing what he calls Montana’s coffee revolution, Malchik pondered whether Russia would ever be receptive to fresh coffee. Prospects seemed bleak—his country a land of tea drinkers, and the few Russians who enjoyed coffee were fond of instant. Freshly roasted coffee was a product too expensive for most Russians, and specialty coffee was out of the question.
At the time, Malchik was working in high tech communication, an industry that ultimately brought him little satisfaction. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, he toyed with the quixotic idea of starting a business in Russia’s emerging market, although he considered the tech industry infeasible. It was Malchik’s first wife who seriously encouraged him to start a coffee roasting operation. Malchik took inspiration in her confidence, and from witnessing coffee bars opening among local Native American communities. If coffee roasting could take hold on reservations in the middle of Montana, Malchik reasoned, it too could happen in Russia.
Malchik eventually created a joint venture with the founders of Montana Coffee Traders, who sent staff to Russia to teach Malchik tricks of the roasting trade. Others would soon follow suit, including investors who took advantage of Russia’s financial crisis in the late nineties, but Aleksandr Malchik is credited as being Russia’s first coffee roaster.
Malchik now runs Montana Coffee Traders, a successful and primarily wholesale company that he considers to be the most knowledgeable source for coffee know-how in the country. The market is slowly becoming more receptive to his craft, although the country’s penchant for the instant stuff is taking time to overcome. Malchik has worked tirelessly to promote quality coffee and good service, instituting new equipment and taking a didactic approach to fostering an appreciation of fresh roast that most Russians were wholly unfamiliar with.
It wasn’t easy to start a roasting business in post-Soviet Russia, a place where Malchik says he ran greats risks of violating rules and regulations that were not even formally established. Those times were like the Wild West, he recalls, citing the country’s nearly nonexistent legal systems. Firearms were rampant, and businesspeople were common targets for killings.
In fact, the mafia’s initial attempts to take over Malchik’s business clearly could have sealed his demise. He recalls eight mobsters entered his shop one day and aggressively declared ownership of it. Naturally, Malchik was petrified. To his astonishment, his second wife Olga (who is Russian) took charge, stating something to the effect of, “Number one: Gentleman, remove your coats and hang them on the rack. Number two: Only three of you will be permitted to meet with the head of the company.” The thugs complied, apparently impressed by a woman so brazen. Malchik says he later made friends with the mafia, even advising them on business matters.
Since those lawless days, Malchik has continued to make a name for himself in the global coffee scene. He was instrumental in coaxing fresh roast into Russia’s mainstream market, even helping Starbucks iron out trademark issues. He helped translate Mark Pendergrass’s coffee bible Uncommon Grounds, and he served on the international jury for Cup of Excellence. Malchiks hope to expand his company to a small chain in the near future. He is proud to note that Russia now boasts several hundred roasters.
Truly something of a renegade himself, even today Malchik wears a large brim cowboy hat like the kind common in Montana, where his vision for bringing freshly roasted coffee to Russia was born.
Written by: Laurie Smolenski – Laurie is a writer living and working in New York, NY. To view more of her prose please visit – Laurie Smolenski writing
Editor Note* I was first introduced to Aleksandr at the 2013 SCAA show in Boston. He was easy to like and his story was incredibly compelling. Hearing from one of the true pioneers of the coffee industry is a real treat and one of the biggest benefits of participating in the SCAA experience.