Erik Modahl is revolutionizing social exchange in Boston through a simple but powerful concept: coffee and conversation. As the founder of Beantrust, Erik focuses on growing community by providing unique coffee programs to workspaces in Boston. Last week, I spoke with Erik over a hot cup of coffee to learn more about his work.
As Erik and I sat down to chat, I admired the brilliant view of the 50 Milk Street’s 15th floor community table. From broad glass windows of Cambridge Innovation Center’s co-working space, it seemed that the entire cityscape of Boston was visible. The sun shone through to illuminate the high-rise centralized space for entrepreneurs – some focused in meditative bubbles and others intently exchanging ideas in their comfortable communal space. Yet the scent of fresh-brewed coffee brought me back to the large, wooden table. From his shiny silver canteen, Erik poured me a mug of his Beantrust blend. This week, it was combination of Papua New Guinean beans as its base note, Guatemalan beans to add a nutty flavor, and Ethiopian beans to give “a little bit of tip at the tongue, a little bit of acidity”.
Erik told me that he had been around coffee his whole life, but that for him, it was not exactly love at first sip. Growing up in Washington State, a coffee pot was always on the back-burner in his home, but Erik was far from a fan of this coffee, often dousing it in cream. Yet after graduating from college and moving to Lexington, Massachusetts, he found himself as a regular at Coffee Connection. This space just happened to be one of the creations of George Howell, an American entrepreneur and pioneer of the specialty coffee movement in the United States. Erik became inspired by Howell’s tales of his time in the trade, stating “George Howell would travel to Brazil and different places, and I got his story about going to Guatemala in a little VW van, and his story from coming from the West Coast to the East Coast, not having any good coffee, and doing French Presses in Howard Johnsons along the way. I could just kind of resonate with that story. And he did roasting right here on the dry dock down in Boston so I was able to go to the roasting plant and see how the coffee was roasted. So I took in the whole thing.”
Erik’s learning from Howell’s legacy eventually led him to develop an appreciation for the beverage that made his name. As he explains, “The coffee was strong, and I’d use milk, but I gradually started enjoying the taste of coffee.”
Finally, Erik came to true terms with the taste through his hands-on experience with beans that his occupation provided. He stated, “I worked for a distribution company for a long time, about 30 years, and I did some blending in that distribution company. We were recognized as a good fit for Peet’s Coffee. So we were actually the first distributors outside of the Berkeley area for Peet’s Coffee here because of the blending that I was doing. And I really started enjoying coffee.”
“Enjoyed” may be an understatement for Erik’s newfound passion. His eyes lit up as he continued to describe the infinite connection to the world that he has consumed through each cup. “It’s only been a few years that I really started appreciating coffee in a new way, in all the different nuances. The coffees from Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and some of the different type of coffees from Kenya that are grown in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, all the way down to Peru… And really some great coffees in Brazil and Colombia. And I thought that Colombian coffee is just marketed well, but no, there’s some great coffees there!”
Erik’s put to use his exponentially-growing passion for coffee by forming Beantrust two years ago. By crafting fresh-roasted coffee and organizing community-building events throughout workspaces in Boston, Erik hopes that he can grow social connections through coffee. He explains, “The premise is that there is a need for genuine connection in our fast-paced, data-driven world, and there’s a lack of community. So my heart’s desire is to impact locally and in a larger way, utilizing coffee, and the old world coffee shop feel of Vienna or Constantinople – just that early world coffee shop vibe, where people can come and get to know one another and work out loud business ideas and philosophy so that we can really work together.”
Among other exciting projects, Beantrust has created social impact through its weekly events and coffee distribution at Greentown Labs (a cleantech working space in Somerville); through conducting team-building exercises alongside coffee at the Startup Institute of Boston (an organization that designs programs to help new entrepreneurs build technical skills, culture skills, and a robust network); through catering events and maintaining an espresso bar at Impact Hub-Boston (a community co-working space); through its semester-long event series at Northeastern University; through organizing simple “science of coffee” demos at The Engine (a workspace for tech founders built by MIT); through monthly “Tea Talk” meet-up events that enable its participants to discuss culture over coffee; to running a pourover bar and coffee services where we chatted in Cambridge Innovation Center. In short, Erik uses coffee to create community among some of the most interesting and innovative individuals in Boston.
One of the biggest perks of the job is that by facilitating conversation, Erik also gets to be a part of the uniquely inspiring dialogue. For instance, at the “Tea Talk” events, he says, “Topics are usually centered around culture, so it can be from Venezuela to Argentina to Syria to The Gambia to most recently Sweden... Yeah, the Swedish event was all about coffee and goodies, and then halfway through we talked about opening borders.”
Intriguing people gravitate toward Erik’s fresh-brewed batches in his line of work. Case in point, our interview was unintentionally interrupted several times by entrepreneurs who were craving a cup and a few friendly words from Erik during his “Coffee Conversation” hour. For example, ten minutes in, we were joined by a woman who came with an empty mug at the ready, complimenting Erik on the quality of his brew. Erik replied with a grin, “I do think it has to be good coffee! You can say ‘this is great coffee’ and have a conversation, but it’s good to put away aaaaall of the distractions. And if this is a distraction right here, it’s not good!”
The woman replied with humor, “If you don’t even want to be with your coffee, what’s life then? I had a cup this morning – it’s my Bodega’s coffee. It’s a dollar seventy-five for a large. I go there cause that’s the only option I have. Woe is me.”
Erik said, turning to me, “So Julie and Sierra are doing this… It’s a little bit beyond the scope of this work, and it’s kind of hard to communicate...”
The woman replied, “We’re building The Love Economy.”
I asked, curiously, “The what?”
She repeated, “The Love Economy.”
As Erik chuckled, I followed, confused, “Oh okay… what is that?”
The woman replied, “It’s using business as a force for love, and being more explicit about positive impact, all the good stuff. It’s already happening. Erik’s a love economist. So we’ve been organizing events in Boston and New York, and we’re trying to cultivate the community by figuring out what we can co-create that’s going to be supportive to entrepreneurs and people who want to create love in the world.”
I said, thinking, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
She continued, enthusiastically, “Yeah, I was trying to explain it to this German Air BnB guest of ours. He goes, ‘love economy…?’ Don’t try to think too hard, just get the general idea. He says, ‘What are you selling?’ Nothing, we’re just loving, it’s like a universal currency!”
Erik affirmed, “Give without return! It’s a tough concept. But when you contrast it with greed, it pops! It’s like okay, are you all about profit, what is the world we’re in, so when you contrast it, just whoa, yes!”
She finished her thoughts, taking a final sip of her coffee, “That’s the thing, love being a universal currency is just a nice thought. All of it is just nice, provoking thoughts.”
Such provoking thoughts are exactly what Erik aspires to inspire through cultivating conversations over coffee. He says about Coffee Conversation, “it’s civil discourse so we can get to know who people are rather than what they do. It’s an exciting time when we can talk about politics – "
A man who came for a cup stopped Erik short in his speech, “When do we ever talk about politics? I don’t want to be there for that!”
Erik continued, unscathed, “We’ve done this over two years, Charles, so we’ve covered a lot of exciting topics… And we share ideas on vision, how we can encourage one another, things like that. Kind of replicating the old-world coffee shops, where you can talk about philosophy, science, business, mission of Impact Hub, anything works.”
Politics aside, Erik’s coffee companions are able to connect in a meaningful way. Coffee is their social lubricant, and when it arrives to the table, the floor opens for exchange. Erik understands that the act of coffee-drinking is fundamental to social exchange throughout the world and for centuries past. Coffee has no sense of time, nor does it know borders. Erik explains, “Socially, coffee is really integral… I think of the Dutch traders in the 1600’s – it was a social way to bring coffee around from Ethiopia to Yemen to the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka to Jakarta to England – there became coffee houses all over. Coffeehouses were where businesses started, (they were) a social enterprise for people – Beethoven, Mozart, Freud… I’m not sure if it’s experienced all the time socially in our culture. I think sometimes it’s been something that people do to get caffeine, but I think there’s a lot more that can be done.”
Erik attempts to bring the old-world feel of unrushed, inclusive, open dialogue through his coffee endeavors. Yet he believes that these may not necessarily be the goals of business as usual in the coffee scene of America. He noted that investors have seen potential for financial gain through coffee enterprises. Erik contrasted this prediction by describing his dreams for the development of coffee shops in Boston, stating, “It would be a space that would be working with current technology, maybe it’s crypto currency. Maybe it’s something very comfortable and accessible to all of us, where we walk into a space and can be served without feeling like we have to rush out. So it’s that old world coffee vibe.”
Erik described a real need for this business model within our modern society, stating, “I see an opportunity for a space like that more and more. It’s been well-stated and documented, the people who have been born since 1990, (have unprecedented) levels of loneliness and lack of connection and so I think meeting that problem with a space would be really cool. I don’t see that here right now, but it would be really fun to be part of an enterprise like that.”
From old-world European coffeehouses to coffee shared within high rise co-working spaces, sold by the currency of crypto and love, coffee adapts to serve the ever-changing individuals in their time. Yet the common theme, as Erik understands, is that coffee connects.