We spend 10 awesome minutes getting to know Michael Sheridan
10 Minutes With is our ongoing series where we invite you to take a little time getting to know some of the most interesting people working in coffee around the world. Today we talk with Michael Sheridan, the Borderlands Coffee Project Director, who is stationed in Quito, Ecuador.
Borderlands Coffee Project Director
Catholic Relief Services
What other coffee jobs have you had?
Hmm. Actually, I have only worked on coffee projects for CRS, so I guess I still really haven’t had a job œin coffee.
From 2004-2007, I managed the CRS Fair Trade Coffee Project out of our headquarters in downtown Baltimore. (Think HBO’s The Wire and you are getting warm.) From there, I moved to Guatemala (think of the Tijuana parts of Steven Soderbergh’s film Traffic and you’re getting the picture), where I was involved from 2008-2011 in a project called CAFE Livelihoods in Mexico and Central America. Since then I have been based here in Ecuador directing our Borderlands Coffee Project along the Colombia-Ecuador border, where we are working with growers of high-grown Arabica from the southern Andes of Colombia and low-grown Robusta from the Northern Amazon of Ecuador.
Oh, and I also write the CRS Coffeelands Blog.
What’s your favorite part about working in coffee?
What’s not to like?
I really love coffee people. There is just so much passion all along the chain for coffee ”growers who see coffee farming as a vocation, who are hungry to learn and who are always working to increase yields and improve quality, exporters and importers who innovate to make the trade more transparent and profitable and efficient, manufacturers tweaking design continuously to extract more of what a coffee has inside, roasters and baristas who tinker relentlessly to find the optimal expression of each coffee, and consumers who have woven coffee into all the sacred spaces of their lives. I am kind of on the outside looking in at all this through the projects I direct, focused on doing what I can to help growers squeeze more value out of their coffee fields, but I get to see them at the center of these complex relationships and marvel at the whole thing.
And then there is the coffee, of course.
Where do you ideally see yourself in 10 years?
Ooh, I hate that question! Mostly I hate the idea of getting it right ”that my life could be so predictable that I could tell you today where I will be in 2024. So many of the truly important things that have happened to me are the result of serendipity. I got hooked on international development work when I decided hastily to leave a job in New York and volunteer in the coffeelands of Nicaragua, despite having never even left the country before. I met my wife in Mexico City, where I moved on a whim to take a job at a newspaper despite having precisely zero days of experience in journalism. I hope in 2024 I am energized in my work and doing something meaningful that isn’t even on my radar today.
Who and what inspires you?
It’s kind of like the Oscars. There are SO MANY people in coffee I admire and who inspire me that if I start down the long list of people I want to recognize I will invariably miss someone. And run out of ink. There have just been so many people in coffee who have done so many extraordinary things to improve the trade, and so many of them have been so generous in sharing their insight and passion with me. You know who you are. THANK YOU.
Inside and out of coffee, I am inspired by people who remain earnest and committed and hardworking even when up against the most terrible odds. People speak truth and take risks with fearlessness and hope. People who are advancing the outer limits of knowledge and art and craft. People who serve others. People who love deeply, especially the ones who can convey their loves artfully in written and spoken word. Mostly I am inspired by people who do any of these things humbly and happily in anonymity.
What are you drinking right now?
Right now I am drinking two coffees, both from Colombia: a home-roasted single-farm lot from Huila (thanks, Virmax!) and the final bags of the first microlot from our Borderlands project in NariÃ±o (thanks Stumptown! And Virmax!).
Crazy/memorable coffee experience you’d like to share?
Hmm. So many are memorable. Fewer are memorable and crazy. Here’s one that was definitely both: the time I was pretty sure I was going to die in the coffeelands in Guatemala. I was involved in a traffic accident on a Sunday in a small town in while I was traveling with my family. We were all fine. The other guy, not so much. There was a head injury and lots of blood. He was whisked to the clinic and a crowd gathered. A big crowd. Things started to get so dicey that even the police officer who showed up suggested we weren’t safe. He took us back to the police station and the crowd followed. It was pretty chaotic. Lots of people pointing through the window at us. We were told we would be held to see whether the other guy made it. I was praying he did for his own sake but for mine, too. I was convinced that if he didn’t make it, I wouldn’t make it out alive. There are lots of lynchings in Guatemala, where people have grown tired of violence and impunity and taken justice into their own hands. It is a misnomer, actually. No one seems to get lynched. Instead, they are doused in gasoline and set on fire in the plaza or on the soccer pitch. Two days earlier, a crowd in this town had burned two people alive ”people who were in the custody of the police but were turned over to the mob. The same police who were holding us. Yikes. As I awaited my fate with resignation, my wife grabbed a local tabloid and used it to fan our three kids who were sweating under the tin roof of the police station. On the cover? A picture of the widow of one of the guys who had been burned on the soccer field two days before. Oh, boy. It was a tense time. Still not sure how long it lasted. In the end, the clinic couldn’t treat the injuries the guy had so he was transferred to a hospital in the nearest big town. There was no verdict so we were somehow off the hook. We slipped out and were transferred to another police station at a bigger town where I was placed under arrest. But that’s another story. (The other driver was patched up and turned out fine, thank goodness.)
What you’re doing when you’re not doing coffee:
Hiking somewhere in the Andes with my wife and three kids (and sometimes our pug). Riding my spinning bike. Home roasting. (Oh, wait. That’s coffee.) Writing for the coffeelands blog. (Oh, that’s coffee, too.) Clearly, I need more hobbies.