Specialty coffee is often compared to wine, although the two beverages might have less in common than many coffee professionals might wish. For one example, the top wines of the world are usually vinified in a cellar located on or near the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Coffee, on the other hand, is usually roasted thousands of miles from the land that produced it. Although practically all specialty coffee drinkers have had coffee from Colombia, Brazil, or Kenya, how many have had coffee from a craft roaster in one of those countries? Yonder Coffee is trying to change that. The rather unconventional coffee subscription program aims to connect specialty coffee consumers with specialty roasters in coffee producing countries. We caught up with Yonder’s founder Caleb Durham to learn more about their new initiative.
You’ve been running a very unique coffee subscription with Yonder Coffee for a while now. How did that come about?
Yeah, it’s been a wild ride so far! I’ll give a little backstory. I’ve been traveling pretty much full-time since 2012. Most of those years, I have worked with a charity that rescues children from different forms of trafficking and abuse and places them in safe homes. My background is in design, video, and storytelling, so for me, working overseas means short, whirlwind trips to gather and tell stories to help raise funds and awareness. I feel really lucky to have gotten to see so much of the world (over 70 countries so far!), but the intensity of the type of work that I do can really get you down. Coffee shops were my space to recenter and process.
Eventually, finding great coffee around the world sort of became a passion project of its own, and I started a database of great coffee shops called A Traveler’s Guide to Quality Coffee Around the World. Fast forward a bit and I was hosting tastings where I’d bring home coffees from 10-15 roasters in a specific region of the world. We’d get 150 people out on a Saturday afternoon to taste coffee from Australian roasters, Scandinavian roasters, or Asian roasters. It was a ton of fun, and I started to realize how great it would be to help connect people to great roasters internationally.
That idea stuck in my head, and last summer, I finally just decided to go for it. I think supporting local business is so important, but I think sometimes being too locally focused can just cause you to put up blinders to great things happening far away. I am who I am because I’ve learned from people who are super different than me from places that are far away from home. So I wanted my company to be anti-local in a lighthearted way, because in reality there is no such thing as “local coffee.”
I’m from North Carolina, and Yonder is the most local way to say something’s not from around here.
Our Global Roaster Subscription features a coffee roaster from a different country each month. We try to tell that roaster’s story, discuss coffee culture in their country, and share their values with our subscribers.
The international scope of Yonder’s subscription makes us pretty unique, but the other things that have been really important to me are packaging and shipping time. Part of the customer experience with a company is the way we interact with their branding, so when we highlight a roaster, we use their packaging and supplemental resources; I want Yonder to feel like the canvas for a roaster can paint on, so our branding and packaging are pretty neutral so that the roaster’s look is the highlight. I also know that it’s really frustrating to pay a premium price for an exciting coffee and have it arrive a month old, tasting like an echo of what it once was. We ship in bulk to our facility in North Carolina and then mail it out from here, to ensure that everyone gets their coffee as fresh as possible. We’ve managed to deliver each month’s coffee under a week after it was roasted (except for one month, when it was held at customs and was delivered 9 days off roast). I’m pretty proud of that. We sent out our first coffee from an incredible microroaster in Tokyo last August, and since then, I’ve had the privilege to bring roasters from Copenhagen, Istanbul, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin, London, Gothenburg, and most recently Wellington.
Your new quarterly subscription focuses on introducing to subscribers to roasters from coffee origins. What inspired the business idea?
As I’ve traveled, I’ve ended up near coffee producing regions in a number of countries over the years. What first struck me as a weird coincidence, I’ve since realized is sadly the norm: it’s really hard to find good coffee in the countries that grow it. See, zooming way out, a lot of world history was shaped by the production and export of coffee (along with other agricultural products like vanilla, saffron, and tea). Getting those crops from where they grew back to the Crown was one of the primary motivations behind colonialism. And even though post-colonial countries have more independence now, there are still a lot of remnants of colonial structures that affect economies in the developing world. So between centuries-old trade routes and a lack of local demand, coffee farmers have historically not had the opportunity to sell their coffee locally, and—in a self-repeating cycle—their communities then never get the chance to try that coffee and continue to not buy it. That always felt weird to me, but once Yonder was up and running, I realized I could maybe help do something about it.
Because things are starting to change. There are a number of countries that in the past few years have seen a growing middle class with expendable income who want to support local business. And there are also some really great roasters in producing countries who are helping carve out local coffee-enjoying culture there. That creates options for farmers, and with concerning issues like the pricing crisis that Colombia is currently facing, I think options are really important. If we want to enjoy a future in coffee that is more equal, more wholistic, and more fair, then we have to pay it forward. I think a lot of people in the industry know that, but as an international roaster subscription, we can help in a unique way. So while green buyers and roasters focus on paying farmers more sustainable pricing, we will be supporting the roasters in those same communities.
Obviously, there are a lot of coffee subscriptions out there now. How does this one create value for your consumers? Producers? Roasters?
That’s for sure. I don’t think I really had any idea how many subscriptions are out there until I got into this industry. But yeah, it’s a crowded space. I think though that there aren’t many subscriptions with such an intentionally global scope. With that in mind, we share many different expressions of high quality specialty coffee, and I always try my best to create context for how coffee is enjoyed in the country that roasted it. For our consumers, I think both our subscriptions provide them a chance to remove themselves from what is familiar in a really accessible way. It is a cultural experience that is pretty special.
As far as creating value for our roasters, a number of them have expressed surprise at how our pricing works. We just let them set the pricing that works for them and covers their bases. I guess a number of other subscriptions ask roasters to deeply undersell their coffee for the exposure they’ll get from the subscription feature. We will never operate that way, because I want to see people taken care of at every level of the supply chain. It’s kinda brutal out there, and brand exposure is definitely its own kind of currency, but so is taking care of people. It’s so important to me that every roaster we feature is still really happy to have worked with us after the fact, so we work hard to tell their story well, point future travelers to their cafes, and pay them well for their time with us.
For producers? Well, unlike other parts of the industry, we rarely work directly with producers. But in our new quarterly subscription, we will be giving all the profits each quarter back to a charity or NGO that does important work in their communities. By featuring roasters from their countries, we are investing in a more independent future for that producer, and by donating profits back into their community, we are helping make sure there is access to clean water, good education, advocacy and human rights protections, etc.
What roasters can we expect in the line up?
We have some really exciting stuff planned for the quarterly Producing Country Subscription. We’ve been in talks with roasters from all over. Benjamin Paz and I are trying to find time in his truly insane schedule to figure out when we can feature his Honduran roastery El Dorado. We will also feature incredible roasters from countries like Thailand, which has a thriving specialty market built mainly around its local economy. As demand for Thai coffee is low internationally, the specialty industry there has grown impressively fast, right alongside the local consumer demand for it. Thai roasters work directly with farmers, and that symbiotic relationship has ratcheted up quality really fast. We’re in talks with a Peruvian roaster that is helping us time our feature around the harvest of a really interesting Peruvian grown Gesha that I’m excited about, and we have samples coming in from a really promising new Indonesian roaster this week. I’d love any leads that your readers have to great roasters from origin countries. As we get started on this new project, we will be playing it safe—featuring places with reliable infrastructure, so we can still deliver super fast—but the future looks wide open.
On the Global Roaster Subscription, we have Canada’s Lüna Coffee coming up this month, followed by Ireland’s Calendar Coffee, and Australia’s Five Senses. Samples are en route from Singapore’s Apartment Coffee, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing what we can do together. In the coming year, we’ll be visiting some of the same countries to try other great roasters there, and we’ll also be working with a number of roasters again for a second time this year. We’re excited for another month with Copenhagen’s Coffee Collectif, and Berlin’s The Barn has already locked in for this year’s holiday season. We were really blown away by almost all our roasters in the past year, and we’d be thrilled to work with all of them again, but I want to keep some surprises up our sleeve for now. There are a number of amazing roasters from countries we haven’t explored yet, so come along, hey?
How can we sign up?
Music to my ears. You can check out all the details of both subscriptions at https://www.yonder.coffee and you can use the code COMPASS for 25% off your first month. We can’t wait to bring you some delicious coffee really soon.
Always feel free to message if you have questions or comments. I’d love to connect. Instagram is the best way for that to happen—I’m available there most of the time. So give us a follow and feel free to reach out anytime!