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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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May 27, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner


The Coffee Mug Revolution

How one coffee stand owner is challenging the take-out coffee cup and building a back-alley cappuccino community.


Jon Steinman


You pull up to a roadside coffee stand. Your intention; grab a latté and hit the road. The beverage is ordered, the money exchanged, and you signal to the stand's owner that the ceramic mug in which your latte is being concocted won't suffice; you require a disposable cup. His response shocks your well-planned routine. You see, Benji Hansen's Clean Bean Café in Nelson, B.C. does not offer disposable cups, only ceramic mugs!


Arriving in Nelson in early 2006, Hansen did what most arriving to this isolated mountain community are forced to do - go into business for himself. With the mining and forestry industries having all but disappeared, making a home in Nelson requires quite the entrepreneurial skills. The Clean Bean Café is one of the many unique businesses within the community, and the ethics behind the business have spawned a whole new community unto itself.


Nestled in a small trailer in a back alley of Nelson's downtown is a refrigerator, a sink, an espresso machine, a vast collection of ceramic mugs, and Benji Hansen. It seems Benji knows everyone who arrives at The Clean Bean Café, and everyone knows Benji. What has generated such a close-knit relationship between business and customer is up for debate, but the complete absence of disposable cups in the trailer may be one reason. "It's my conscience," says Hansen. "I can't stand walking down the sidewalk seeing a paper cup that's been walked on. It breaks my heart to know that that cup was once the meat of trees, and there it is lying there on the street. I can't stand for that and I can't stand to even see it in a trash bin let alone on the street. There are plenty of artisans making beautiful ceramic mugs, and there's even a bit of vintage mugs out there too at your local thrift shop that are maybe looking for a home"


In an age of finite resources, a rapidly changing climate, and a culture that operates at blinding speed, it seems Hansen is on to something. The disposable coffee cup is taken for granted in our culture and could perhaps act as an ideal metaphor to showcase how disconnected we are from the earth and from each other. It seems North America is the only region of the world where disposable coffee cups are used more than ceramic mugs. Most cultures would find it hard to believe that anyone would forego the joy of sitting down over a coffee, but many Canadians pass up such an opportunity every day.


First-time customers are understandably taken aback when arriving at this back-alley café. "I've had an assortment of responses," says Hansen. "Everyone seems to respond in their own way, either taken aback, or seemingly on the verge of frustration. I've probably had three customers that have turned around to leave because I didn't have take-out cups with lids."


While The Clean Bean's ethics may sound restrictive, they are far from it. Hansen gladly encourages customers to take their mug with them. Referring to his "mug orphanage", Hansen relies on the community to keep his "orphanage" stocked. "People are dropping off mugs all the time," says Hansen. There is little concern as to whether the mugs leaving the café will ever return. "They're coming back, and if not, they must have found a good home. I trust that people won't just disregard a mug as something to be forgotten. Someone, somewhere, sometime, is going to consider that mug and not throw it into a trash bin."


Hansen takes great care choosing which mug to offer to his customers. "There are a few mugs here in my "orphanage" that are handcrafted by local artisans. If [the customer] is going to stick around the trailer, I might give them one of those special mugs. If they're going to walk down the street, I'll send them away with a more generic mug."


This back-alley coffee revolution does more than simply change one's perception of the lowly coffee mug, The Clean Bean Café is even challenging the exchange of money. Hansen gladly supports a system of barter, that is, an exchange of goods and/or services, no dollars attached. I tried it out myself and traded a pound of locally grown kiwis for a credit of two coffees. Some customers provide Hansen's lunch, and others, a bouquet of flowers or a handmade gift.


With so much consciousness being raised at the Clean Bean Café, what about the coffee itself? Exclusively offered at the café is Capulin Coffee. Capulin founder Daniel Fourwinds insists that his coffee provides the highest financial return of any coffee to the Mexican village in which the beans are grown, harvested and processed. Capulin Coffee is its own story, and a remarkable one at that ( – Jon Steinman


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (




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