The bags of coffee that lined the shelves at the Malibu coffee shop where Michael Shewmake first hatched the idea for his business had the name of the roasting company on them but little else.
To Shewmake, there was a lot the bags weren’t saying. He had spent the morning chatting with the knowledgeable barista about the coffee — “where it came from, how it was processed, all of the things that led to the way it tasted” — and learned things he wouldn’t have necessarily known if he’d bought the bags without consultation.
“What I realized was, ‘Wow, I got all that story, but all that was left was just a bag. Just a plain bag with the roasters’ name on it,’” he said. “So I thought there was an awesome story to tell about what makes coffee different. Not just, ‘Oh, this coffee’s from this country,’ but also why it tastes different, which has a lot to do with the way the country has traditionally produced it.”
From that epiphany during his California vacation, Atlas Coffee Club was born. It’s now an Austin-based subscription service that highlights single-origin beans (or grounds, if that’s your preference) of some of the top coffee growers in the world, from Brazil — the largest producer — to Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee as we know it today.
Atlas has one main component: a Coffee of the Month Club that sends you coffee from a new country each month in a small branded box that also has a colorful postcard, tasting notes and brewing recommendations.
The bags are striking, with most of the surface covered in bright patterns and designs that “tell something about the culture” of where the coffee came from, Shewmake said. Along the sides are the names of the represented country, and beneath that, in much smaller lettering, is the Atlas logo. Keeping each of the countries front and center is pivotal to Atlas’ mission and a big reason why Shewmake teamed up with Jordan Rosenacker to start the company.
With a background in television production, Rosenacker knows what looks good. But redesigning coffee bags to reflect the focus on their origin countries, he said, turned out to be tricky.
“How can we do something that really exemplifies the true spirit of Atlas?” he said he contemplated one evening during dinner at West Austin bistro Cipollina. “For us, we see that as, we’re kind of like your glorified coffee tour guides. We’re not going to stand in front of a waterfall, in between you and that view while you’re trying to take a picture. We want to get out of the way. So we didn’t put branding on the front of the package and just let the designs speak for themselves.”
All of the patterns, he said, are connected to the landscape of the country or are recognizable “textile patterns or themes” from the country. Costa Rica’s bag, for example, zigzags with stripes of turquoise, sunset orange, deep purple and bright fuchsia — inspired by the ox carts that 19th-century coffee plantations began to use to carry the beans to the coast for exportation. In the 20th century, the carts were hand-painted with geometric shapes to give them life.
“They were kind of like a license plate for the family business,” Shewmake said.
He and Rosenacker are full of ideas about the direction to take Atlas, like any founders of a startup business, and they spout their thoughts in high-energy bursts — as, perhaps, only two constantly caffeinated owners of a coffee company can.
They agreed to create Atlas together within days of meeting each other, when Shewmake took a train to New York from his then-home of Boston a couple of years ago and stayed with Rosenacker to brainstorm their vision for the business. They hit it off immediately, with Rosenacker agreeing to partner up after tasting the coffee. Not long afterward, they embarked on a road trip across the U.S. to introduce potential customers to their products.
Now, they’re bona fide experts on both bean and beverage, and Shewmake handily has acute senses of smell and taste that help him select the coffee that will become the following months’ selections.
Neither of them expect their customers to be as knowledgeable about coffee, however, and have actually found their main audience to be “people who are one or two steps above Folgers,” Shewmake said. “They’re like, ‘OK, I don’t like Folgers, but I want to make French press at home.’ And they don’t necessarily have a place to go.”
In that way, Atlas Coffee Club has found a niche within the competitive world of coffee subscriptions, many of which appeal to people who already know exactly what kind of coffee they like. And don’t expect to find many dark roast options, the preference of the average coffee drinker, on the Atlas website: Shewmake and Rosenacker generally roast light to medium to bring out the tasting notes described in each subscription box.
“When we select the coffee” — through a sampling process called cupping — “we want it to be balanced and a great cup of coffee, but also something that indicates this is kind of what the country’s known for,” Shewmake said. “Which is admittedly harder for a place like Tanzania. It’s so new and rare, so it’s tough to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s classic Tanzania!’”
Other countries, however, do have recognized, if somewhat broad, flavor profiles. Kenyan coffee tends to be bright, full of lemon, grapefruit and berry notes, while Peruvian coffee, like other South American beans, has “super traditional chocolate notes,” he said.
The way some of these countries process their coffee truly does have a say in how it will ultimately taste. Many Indonesian coffee farmers use a method called wet hulling, which produces a very distinctive and often polarizing taste.
“They let coffee cherries sit in water beds, rake them for weeks to roll them over, and then they go pick the beans out of the coffee cherries,” he said. “It has a very earthy, grassy flavor to it. Almost a tobacco flavor. That’s very emblematic of that region. If you put one on the table, I’d say, that’s a Sumatran/Indonesian coffee. I’m personally not a fan of it, but I’ll just pass the coffee to Jordan.”
Since officially starting the subscription service last August, they’ve heard from quite a few customers who aren’t accustomed to coffee having such a wide range of flavors. Both Shewmake and Rosenacker are eager to explain the diversity of coffee.
Just being able to provide people with something they constantly rely on is gratification enough.
“It’s awesome to be part of someone’s ritual every day,” Rosenacker said. “That’s one of the most motivating things for me, not just to provide their caffeine fix but give them more of an appreciation for where it came from. This coffee came from Ethiopia; that one from Peru.”