Community through Coffee People Zine

The café was buzzing even though it was 9:00 pm. Baristas, roasters, and other coffee people were packed inside the small coffee shop, excitedly talking about the evening’s event. Most coffee parties revolve around the espresso machine, where baristas compete to pour the best latte art. But this was different. Instead of huddling around the espresso machine, people had their noses buried in the pages of a brand new publication. It wasn’t latte art they were ogling over, but drawings, poems, photographs, and other creations on freshly printed pages. The artists themselves were in the room, proudly pointing out the work they had submitted. Friends, coworkers, and other community members were there too. This was in March of 2018, the first release of Coffee People Zine – a publication that celebrates the creativity of the coffee community.

Since that first event, Coffee People Zine has grown in size and scope. That first issue published work by local artists, and has since grown to include art by coffee people around the world. It has expanded from 44 pages to over 100 pages each issue. That first release was over 5 years ago, and Issue 22 just came out. Coffee People Zine has published work by thousands of coffee people artists; opened spaces for the coffee community to connect through in-person events; and showcased the passions and talents of baristas, roasters, and coffee professionals outside their cafés and roasteries.

Coffee People Zine is a small publication – my passion project in every sense of the phrase – yet this platform has had a profound impact on me as the curator, the individual artists involved, and as it contributes to the coffee community at large. Let me tell you about it.

From Idea to In-Hand Publication

The initial idea for Coffee People Zine came to me a few months before that first release party. I was a barista in Denver, Colorado, USA, as were many of my friends. We would get together at latte art throwdowns, visit each other during barista shifts, and meet up for coffee at other shops around town. Our conversation usually revolved around our jobs, brew recipes, latte art tips, upcoming coffee events, etc. One day, my friend Breezy mentioned that she was going to have an art show at a local coffee shop. I had heard her talk about art before – she studied art and design in university – but I had not seen much of her work. She invited me and a few of our other friends to the opening, so of course we said yes.

When I arrived to the shop and saw her work adorning the café walls I was blown away by her creativity and talent. Her drawings and paintings transformed the space from a coffee shop into an art gallery – photography integrated into collage, poetry transformed into dynamic designs, sketches and prints imbued with meaning and feeling. Here was this person I had known for years. I knew she was knowledgeable about coffee, yet I had no idea she was so brilliant an artist! It was at this moment that I started wondering about my other friends, the baristas in my favorite cafés, my own coworkers. Who among them had hidden passions and skills? Who had I failed to see as multifaceted, multitalented, dynamic individuals, and had only known them as coffee people? It became my mission to discover the answer.

Around the same time as this revelatory art show, I had been attending local latte art throwdowns, where baristas compete to see who can pour the best latte art. Winners receive prizes, cash, and acknowledgement by the local community. Throw downs always brought a lot of people together, but I noticed that the same few people were winning time after time. This left very little room for other competitors (those that did not place in the top 3) to receive recognition. As I looked around the room at the coffee people I knew, I noticed that there were poets, photographers, musicians, and other artists who would lose the throw down and go home without being appreciated for the skills and talents they did have.

These two realizations percolated in my mind for a few months. What would it look like to create a platform for coffee people artists to share their passions? And what kind of events was the coffee community missing? I thought about writing a blog to share stories of coffee people artists. I considered starting an Instagram page that would showcase barista artwork. However, online-based ideas didn’t feel quite right. I wanted something visceral, physical, and personal. Eventually I decided I would create a print publication that could be paged through again and again, passed around from barista to barista, and left out at a café for customers to enjoy. A few months later in March of 2018, the first issue of Coffee People Zine was released.

The First Two Years, At Home and On The Road

That first issue of Coffee People Zine included 44 pages with work by 24 artists, all of whom I knew personally from the local coffee scene. However, through word of mouth (boosted significantly by the power of social media), it didn’t take long for the zine’s reputation to grow into something far beyond anything that I initially imagined. Issue 02 came three months after Issue 01, with a 50% in- crease in artists and double the page count. I quickly recognized that the community of coffee people who longed to express their creativity extended far beyond my immediate circle. Baristas, roasters, and coffee professionals around the country had been waiting for an outlet to share and connect on a deeper level outside of competition and latte art. With Issue 03 (September 2018), I started receiving submissions from international artists as well. And by Issue 04 (December 2018) I knew that this project has potential to continue growing, creating a sense of community, and giving space to coffee people who might have been overlooked otherwise.

Not only did the zine exist to celebrate the creativity of the coffee community, but so did the corresponding release parties. The first party (described above) was just the beginning. The party for Issue 02 was a unique take on a latte art throwdown. There were two brackets – one for seasoned competitors, and one for new baristas. This allowed everyone regardless of skill level to participate without feeling like they were unworthy of entering the competition. This party had a supportive atmosphere, wall-to-wall people, and an all- around positive energy. For Issue 03, I coordinated a film festival, inviting coffee people videographers to submit short videos ranging from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. Again, the house was packed as coffee people enjoyed the video creations of their peers. The last issue of that first year, Issue 04, was released in December of 2018. We held a gift exchange and raffle, and held space for people to relax together and enjoy each others’ company amidst the holiday rush.

The network of Coffee People Zine expanded in its second year, as I took the zine release parties on the road – from Denver to Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. The zine releases went from one-off parties to multi-day events including coffee crawls, roundtable discussions about labor rights, art shows, coffee tastings, throwdowns, collaborative art time, and more. With each zine and each event I attempted to create welcoming, accessible, unique ways for people to participate in the coffee community. In contrast to com- petition events where only one person wins, I wanted to foster a sense of collaboration and inclusion where everyone could be their full creative selves and connect with other people over things other than coffee.

As the zine grew and I continued to realize how much people valued this platform, I decided to take a step further into the creative coffee community. I quit my job at the end of 2019 to dedicate more time, energy, and brainpower to Coffee People Zine. My plan was to continue to tour around the United States (and eventually the world) to bring release parties and creativity-focused events to other communities. And we all know what happened early that next year.

Cultivating Community in a Time of Social Distance

The first issue of 2020 was released in mid-March in the midst of global lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All my plans changed overnight, as did the lives and livelihoods of nearly all the coffee people I knew. Coffee People Zine could no longer host in-person zine release parties, much less make a global zine tour. Additionally, I had previously encouraged subscribing cafés to set the zine out for customers to browse, but this was no longer possible as coffee shops pivoted to “to-go” orders only (or shuttered altogether). The very essence of the zine had been the celebration of community, bringing together coffee people through in-person release parties and the physical publication. As the pandemic continued, my goal remained the same but my methods had to change.

It was a time of uncertainty for so many and I must admit, I considered shutting the publication down on quite a few occasions. As the pandemic’s death toll rose higher and higher, as more privileged people worked from home and working class people had to put themselves at greater risk, as a racial reckoning unfolded within the United States and abroad, I wondered if Coffee People Zine was important at all. Was this small art publication significant in the grand scheme of things, or was it inconsequential?

I wrestled with this question on and off for months, but came to the conclusion that art may be one of the most important things in times of struggle. Despite the challenges and the inability to hold in-person events, I continued to publish Coffee People Zine in order to hold open this space for coffee people to express themselves, to connect over something beautiful, and to maintain whatever sense of community I could. So, while I no longer held in-person celebrations, I focused on the publication itself and on connecting with people online.

Coffee People Zine continued to be a source of connection, holding zine release parties on Instagram LIVE, posting art prompts, hosting raffles and giveaways, sharing behind- the-scenes stories of coffee people contributors and their artwork, and more. Though it was founded to be an in-person experience, Coffee People Zine became a virtual stage for contributors to share their artistic talents beyond the pages. For me, the publication became a lifeline to maintain a sense of connection, to open a space when people were otherwise isolated, and show artists that their work matters to someone.

I heard from many artists, contributors, and readers that they felt the same way. One poet told me he was about to give up writing entirely until his piece was published in Coffee People Zine. This gave him confidence to continue expressing himself through this art form he loved. Another artist told me that, upon learning that her work was accepted into the zine, she felt emboldened to submit to other publications and has since been published elsewhere as well. A reader told me that they felt a sense of community every time a new issue came in the mail. Through the artwork on the pages, they felt like they were connecting with people over shared identities (being coffee people), which made them feel less alone. I kept hearing that people who had previously felt isolated working within the coffee industry now felt welcomed on the pages of Coffee People Zine. The publication became a hub where they could express their love for coffee and creativity, free from the constraints of traditional coffee culture. This feedback bolstered my dedication to the zine, and I continued to release new issues every 3 months throughout 2020, 2021, and 2022.

I wish I could say it was easy once I realized how meaningful Coffee People Zine is not only to me, but to contributors, readers, and the community, but it has not been a smooth road. Funding that once was plentiful has significantly decreased due to reduced budgets. Global supply chain issues created a paper shortage, and the cost of printing has risen dramatically. Sales have slowed as people and coffee shops are (understandably) more cautious with their discretionary purchases.

Return to In-Person Celebration and The Future

Though it has been anything but easy, Coffee People Zine celebrated another year of publication in 2023, and a revival of in-person zine release parties. The effects and waves of COVID-19 are ongoing, yet it finally feels possible (and appropriate) to invite people to celebrate together again.The first event celebrated the release of Issue 20 (March 2023) with live music and an artist/craft fair in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The belated Issue 21 party (September 2023) was a collaborative 2-day event in Seattle, Washington, which included an art show, live music, a coffee tasting, and a draw-along event. These release parties weren’t just events; they were reunions. They brought me back to the foundation of Coffee People Zine, the reason I created this publication in the first place – to celebrate the creativity of the coffee community.

In all honesty I am uncertain about the future of Coffee People Zine. I am proud of this publication and the community that has gathered around its pages. However, the realities of running a print publication are harsh. Cost of production continues to rise, digital platforms are becoming more common than print/physical, and sponsorships and sales haven’t recovered from the COVID dip.

As I write this piece, I have just celebrated the newest release – Issue 22 (released November 2023). This is my favorite moment of the publication process, when I gather together all of the submissions and marvel at the talent, skill, brilliance, diversity, passion, multidimensionality, and creativity of coffee people worldwide. It’s a special thing – to hold the artwork in its physical form, to flip through the pages of all the submissions sent in, and to send it out into the world.

Publishing Coffee People Zine fills me with a deep sense of gratitude for artists, that they trust me with their work, and to readers, that they want to be part of this community gathered at the crossroads of coffee and creativity. I have come to understand that, above all, a sense of community is essential to people’s wellbeing. Everyone wants to feel included, recognized, and valued for who they are and what they bring to the table – whether as a latte artist, a poet, or anything in between.

Many things have changed since that first issue in March of 2018, and though I am uncertain about the future of Coffee People Zine, there is no doubt in my mind that this publication has celebrated the creativity of the coffee community with every issue. It will continue to do so as long as it is in print.

Contributor: Kat Melheim

A coffee roaster, writer, artist, and founder of Coffee People Zine. Based in Raleigh, NC, USA, her favorite things about the coffee industry are: the endless learning possibilities, boundless travel opportunities, and connecting with brilliant and creative coffee people all over the world. Find her on IG @roasterkat