More than 7 years ago, we opened a small shop in a neighbourhood we couldn’t possibly afford under normal circumstances. It was a bootstrapped, do-it-ourselves project with a thrifty lease that came with a hefty gamble: only 2 years and a demo clause that at any moment could level our work for steel and glass.
We opened this shop with multiple programs under the same old victorian roof: coffee and alcohol, as categorically disparate as night and day. "Is this a coffee shop, or a bar?" we'd commonly be asked. It was both. Intentionally, unapologetically, and, at times, clumsily both.
Boxcar Social started with the conviction that, not only are the fields of coffee and wine more similar than we think, but that a sameness connects them at the most fundamental level—at their very roots, you could say.
We spent the last 7 years trying to find the most interesting, flavourful, and sensorially transcendent products in each category. Sometimes we sourced based on hype, other times we leaned on personal relationships, swept by our own romanticizing. With every passing year, our curiosity pushed us up the chain of supply: past the labels, through the importers, into the hands of producers, then straight into the dirt. We began to realize the real profundity of terroir: deeper — or rather smaller— than the soil, down to the microbiome that makes up what we commonly take for granted as something static. Bacteria populations are in flux, varieties mutate, ecosystems change, and generations of people make way for new ones. These are the ingredients that combine to produce the cultivated fruits of agriculture—whether a coffee cherry or a wine grape.
Coffee trees in West Valley, Costa Rica
Wine vines in Willamette Valley, Oregon
While we denied it would happen, engrossed in whatever challenge defined that particular moment, it was all but inevitable we would begin roasting coffee and importing wine. You can only get so close to understanding a product before immersing yourself in its provenance.
Subtext Coffee Roasters is a project that goes beyond just gaining a deeper understanding of our product; it's about having a voice: in our communities, in our field, and in our industry; it's about participating more directly in a supply chain in order to disrupt its exploitative, commodifying tendencies; it's about holding ourselves accountable to more traceable practices, not for a name or a label or a certification, but to humanize the stewards of the land on which our field’s diversity depends.
We are in a moment of sensorial liberation with unprecedented access to under-celebrated regions, their people, varieties, and processes. Subtext is our window to this world, and our means to deliver the bounties of flavour diversity in order to tell a story of these places and peoples: their efforts, successes, and challenges.
You’ll only see single origins —and more likely single producers— on our menu. Where the diversity of flavour in any coffee is the byproduct of its origin characteristics, we see our role as facilitating the expression of this character, rather than covering it up with dark roasts or blends. It’s an approach only possible when quality is high, and that’s only possible when labourers are compensated fairly and the most fastidious care is taken.
Acting responsibly in an industry built so heavily on exploitation is about humanizing at every stage. We are working hard to build meaningful relationships that go far beyond transaction and marketing. We believe in it, we've tasted what it can produce, and all of our lives become richer for it.
A lot has changed in 7 years. The movement away from purchasing effaced and anonymized coffee has grown considerably, laying a foundation for more substantive change in the power balance of coffee producing and coffee drinking countries.
Great coffee exists when craft, details, and precipitous standards are minded at every stage of production. For those who have been with us for a while, you've made our exploration into more equitable and higher quality coffee possible. For those just joining, we can't wait to show you what we've been working on.