Imagine, if you will, a warm darkness surrounding you, a sleep from which you’re slowly eased, as birds chirp their morning mantras. You stretch your sore limbs and emerge from the vestibule. After a few groggy minutes, the sweet hiss of boiling water announces itself.
With great anticipation, you pour the water into your titanium mug, and then drop in a single teabag. Sip. Steep. It billows. You wait, then sip again. Bliss.
We aren’t talking tea here. We’re talking coffee. Java. Cup a joe. Brew. What have you.
High Side Coffee, to be precise. And they’re here to prove that a trail roast need not taste of petrol, and you can, in fact, get that punchy flavor in a cup of backcountry joe.
“It’s a motorcycle term,” explains Shea Sjolberg, co-founder of High Side. “When you crash your bike, it’s generally either a low side or high side crash. High side’s way worse. You usually get jacked up in the air.”
The name evokes a spike upward, characteristic of their brew’s potential punch … if you decide to let it sit for long enough. Helmet optional during consumption.
I met Shea over webcam in his apartment in San Diego. Behind him hung a tasteful array of abstract pastel canvases, and in the corner sat a flourishing swiss cheese plant. He’s a graphic designer by trade, evidenced by the well-balanced crimsons and creams that constitute his coffee company’s aesthetic. His brand takes a caffeinated twist on 60s psychedelic motifs, while maintaining the tried and true certainty of a final product that can speak for itself.
“I actually didn’t know much about the coffee industry before High Side. I was more interested in the methods of coffee, as I go camping a ton. . . . I reached out to an importer who I’d done a graphic design commission for, and they vouched for a small bean farm in Guatemala pursuing fairer price points on their product.”
It didn’t take long for Shea and Dimitri—Shea’s business partner who handles the less glamorous essentials of the operation—to convince each other to take a trip down to Guatemala to meet the families who would soon be supplying the beans for their business.
“We toured the farm, based in Palín, which is actually a collective of farms. Each has a plot of land, working collaboratively to cultivate coffee shrubs for harvest.”
At the time of the interview, in my naivete, I had no idea that the coffee bean isn’t simply picked off the stem ready to go. The process is way more complex.
“Covering the bean is a ‘rind,’ kind of resembling a cherry,” Shea explains. “Once they’re picked, these fruits only have a shelf life of about 2 weeks if they aren’t cured and dried. Once they’re dried, they can last for months at a time while the farmers wait for the best deal.”
Just a few years ago, the Palín collective didn’t have any husking equipment, which forced them to sell their product at ridiculously low rates. A client of Shea’s bought the farmers a husking machine, which allowed them to wait for more reasonably-minded customers, resulting in double the profits.
“We bought their beans for cash the first time around,” Shea reveals. “Packed them into eight suitcases and headed back for the States.” This, of course, caused heads to turn at customs; but after a few hours in a sound-proof sideroom, they were permitted to bring the beans back to California. They’ve since taken measures to import the crop through more standard channels, though the eight suitcases remain emblematic of High Side’s scrappy business style.
“We’re just two dudes working on our passion project, and no one’s getting paid.”
Quite yet, at least. It’s not a sales problem. It’s just the nature of a new business, where two years of operation means you’re still just a baby in the cradle.
When I mention some of the sour brews I’ve forced down on trail, Shea tells me, “That gasoline flavor is a product of over-roasting beans.”
“You’ll find that our dark roast is lighter than a Starbucks light roast.” And about a million times more ethically sourced, to boot. “We do our best to meet the farmers. And when we obtain new, different beans, we work with the importer to ensure that their sources are being treated fairly.”
Shea and Dimitri sell their coffee bags individually wrapped. Each of the three roasts possesses particular flavor notes authenticated by a coffee sommelier, specifically known as a Q-Grader in the industry.
When he’s not on the “grind,” Shea can be found building and restoring old choppers, or listening to Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, or ideally, doing both simultaneously. All sorts of things are possible when you’re adequately caffeinated, whether in a bike garage or on a leaf-strewn clearing off the PCT.