Pull up a Chair: a Conversation with Michael McSherry, of Grinderman Coffee
May is National Bike Month! To celebrate, A Table in the Corner of the Cafe is featuring a spattering of bicycle-related posts throughout the month.
Chicago, where I’m from, has a very dense population of bicyclists and bicycle enthusiasts and this populace even spills over into the coffee community. With the likes of most of the baristas I know personally biking to and from work, Heritage Bicycles General Store, and the Tour de Cafe campaign, it seems like bikes and coffee go hand-in-hand in this town. In nobody is this relation more evident than in Michael McSherry, founder of Grinderman Coffee – a roaster who personally delivers his product to his customer’s door a la bicycle messenger style.
Today I welcome Michael to my table, here in the corner of this cafe, for a chat. Michael – feel free to pull up a chair.
Before we get started, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you?
My name is Michael McSherry. I went to college at Northern Illinois University and there I got a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art. I have been creating my “job’s” ever since.
When was Grinderman Coffee born?
Sometime in the Winter of 2009.
Is your business moniker inspired by Nick Cave in any way?
Yes. I admire Nick Cave as a writer, performer, innovator, and artist. I was listening to the band’s first album at the time I was thinking of naming [the company]. On this album there is a song called “The Grinderman”. It speaks of a man who is the Grinderman: “In the silver rain // he is open late // seven days a week // in the pale moonlight.” The churning, grinding, working feel of the music in this song also made me think of someone who is always working and thinking and doing his craft. The ideas and feelings of this song struck me as a relevant to what I was trying to develop with Grinderman Coffee.
I am often asked if I grind coffee. This is not what I do – unless right before brewing.
So you’ve been roasting for a few years now – what equipment do you use? Have you always been using that equipment?
I started by building a coffee roaster out of a propane gas grill. I outfitted a grill with a small steel drum mounted on a rotisserie spit. I then attached a rotisserie motor to the grill and started roasting. I continued modifying the grill roaster setup for about two years. It is endless as far as modifications go. I also enjoy tradition and simplicity, so I have roasted coffee in cast iron skillets over campfires, popcorn poppers, modified heat guns, putting beans in the oven… Again, endless ways to roast coffee if you have enough heat.
Any advice for all the young home roasters reading this interview?
. Be prepared for a fire, do research, and, most importantly, experiment.
What has your coffee journey looked like so far? How did you get into it?
It was winter and my band was playing a show at Schuba’s in Chicago. At this show I met David Meyers of Resistance Coffee. After talking, I learned he was roasting and delivering coffee to people, so he began delivering me coffee. We would have conversations when he would deliver.
I am also a house painter – work was slow and I told him I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do to find other work, and he asked if I had any interest in roasting coffee. You can guess my answer. I started doing a lot of research on coffee roasting and the coffee industry. Along the way, I started roasting and bicycle delivering coffee, selling coffee at music concerts, talking to other roasters, doing cuppings with roasting companies, helped start Cafe Chicago, went to Puerto Rico to stay with a small coffee farmer, went to El Salvador with a coffee importing company called Cafe Imports, and developed a wonderful relationship with Dark Matter Coffee (with whom I toll roast). These are a few of the highlights of my journey so far.
Do you remember your first really great cup of coffee?
The first batch of coffee I ever roasted. A Nicaraguan coffee from La Fem Cooperative. It was a lucky good first roast on my newly made machine and I reveled in my success.
The next roast I did caught on fire.
What are some of your favorite coffees?
Some of my favorite coffees have been micro lots from Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Kenya.
How did you decide to take your love for coffee further by starting up a roasting business? Had you had any experience with roasting before Grinderman was born?
I have always created what I do for money. This was basically just another idea I had to carve out a living for myself. I did not have any experience. I just started doing it.
Now I have experience.
How has business been for you? Can we find your coffee in any cafes or grocery stores? Which ones?
It has been exciting and challenging.
Grinderman Coffee always is available at GrindermanCoffee.com. Stores include Food Smart (2901 W. Armitage) and New Leaf Natural Grocery (1261 W. Loyola Ave.). I am startring to get into more farmer’s markets now.
The idea I began with is “bicycle delivered coffee,” so a bicycle is where I hope most people find it.
You have a fairly unconventional approach to delivering your coffee – you personally deliver to a recipient’s door via bicycle! What was the motivation for that approach to home delivery? Jealous of the well-toned calves of all the bicycle couriers zooming around downtown Chicago?
The motive of this idea was no start-up costs. I had a bicycle. I had freshly roasted coffee. Done. Bicycle-delivered coffee.
Occasionally a nice calf will catch my eye, but most of the time I am water flowing around and through the hazardous drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians of the city.
Were you a serious cyclist before you started delivering via bike? Are you really geeky about bicycles now that you’ve been doing this for a while?
No. I still am not what I would call a “serious” cyclist. I ride a lot but it is not my life.
I’m not really that geeky about bicycles. I really like things that have versatile functionality. Bicycles are great at this! I like the cargo abilities of bicycles too. You can also modify and use bicycles to do so many things and they use human power. Granted, there are electric assist and gas powered bicycles as well which I am glad people are modifying things for their own purposes – it’s exciting! This idea is what applies to my lifestyle and everything I do – modify, and make things fit your needs.
What do you ride currently? Do you have multiple bikes for specific purposes?
I currently am riding a 1980’s Cannondale touring bicycle. It has lots of holes for racks and attaching things to it so I really liked that element. It is solid! An aluminum frame, so at this age it is really creaky and makes a lot of noise, and everything I have attached to it shakes around a lot; but it’s solid. Curbs, pot holes, winter… it’s been over and thru a lot of obsticles and terrains. I am currently working with Comrade Cycles to build up a new delivery bicycle from a Surly Crosscheck. I do have different bikes for different things. I have one for delivery, a few others for casual riding, but mainly I only use two bicycles.
This might be a fairly broad question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Almost all of the coffee enthusiasts I know – particularly here in Chicago – are also huge bicycle enthusiasts. I’m thinking of the folks at Heritage Bicycles General Store, a lot of the baristas that use bicycles to get to and from work, the Tour de Cafe campaign, yourself, the piles of bikes locked up to a single post outside any given coffee shop here in the city… Do you think there’s an intrinsic relationship between coffee and bicycles? If so, what do you think that relationship is?
I think it may be intrinsic, but by no intent of coffee itself. I also feel like a lot of those bicycles locked outside are people living on budgets that are small. People who own those bicycles outside coffee shops have realized it’s the quickest way to get around Chicago; and you can save your money from not driving, then spend it on things like coffee and beer and nice dates.
Also, certain coffee cultures do have a certain theme of fancy. Being fancily “hard core” to your cup of coffee and your bicycle have become a growing, “fancy” culture. You know what I’m talking about.
In conclusion, intrinsic is “belonging naturally and or being essential to” – I believe coffee would be just fine without the bicycle.
Do you have a favorite experience in this journey so far? What do you love most about the identity transformation that takes place when you start roasting a batch or load your delivery cart – when you morph from Michael McSherry to Grinderman?
I love creating and problem-solving and using the resources I have access to. I created Grinderman Coffee out of the resources, relationships, and materials that surround me. This is what I enjoy.
I have learned to roast, what happens to coffee when it is roasted, what specific regions taste like, how coffee is processed, sold, cupped, how it is loved and despised.
Coffee in itself, I have learned, really does connect the world. Anywhere most people go one common thing they are looking for is coffee. I love bringing it to people in many different ways. The conversations I have and the relationships I have developed through coffee and through Grinderman have changed my life and outlook on life forever. Forever for the better. Coffee has made me feel more connected the myself, the world I live in, and the people around me. All the things I do are not my job, they are my life and they are me.
Anything coming up in the near future that we should be getting excited about?
Grinderman Coffee! I am always looking for new and exciting ideas, relationships, and opportunites. I am working on a mobile coffee serving “box” for private events I hope to have done this summer, I will be at some Summer farmer’s markets here in Chicago, and I am going to be making a move to largely subscription based model for bicycle delivered coffee.
I perform and play music regularly in a band called Desert Soap, solo and with other groups. Summer in Chicago! Look for the Grinderman Coffee Bicycle, look online for news of Grinderman – you know where to look.
Also, life! Don’t forget about your life! Make it amazing! If your life seems a little dull, change it! Start by drinking great coffee. Start your change to a better life by placing an order for freshly roasted, bicycle-delivered coffee from grindermancoffee.com – you will be glad you did.
Michael, thanks so much for your time. I wish Grinderman nothing but success. May the road rise to meet your bike’s wheels and may the wind be always at your back.
Thanks for your kind words, encouragement, and the opportunity to be interviewed by one whom I view as a wonderful voice of words.