Summer has officially started and downtown Harrisonburg is once again open for business, following some temporary closures due to COVID-19. An exciting new addition to the downtown Harrisonburg scene is the second location of a local coffee shop currently gaining a national reputation for high quality, ethically sourced coffees.
Merge Coffee Company was founded in 2017 by two different families who came together through a shared love of coffee. Cousins Darryl and Charles Mathews and sisters Emily and Larisa Martin started out getting together as friends who stayed up late drinking coffee. They were all impervious to the effects of caffeine, enabling them to drink coffee until midnight, and then go soundly to sleep. They began to source coffee from all over the country to sample different types. That led to the purchase of a 1 pound coffee roaster and a hobby of roasting “terrible” coffee. Gradually, the group got better at coffee roasting and their friends started to enjoy their efforts. From there, the hobby became a business.
Merge started their business as a coffee roaster that sold to established coffee shops, then expanded into a retail location in Park View at 821 A Mt. Clinton Pike, next to A Bowl of Good. Co-owner Darryl Mathews explains how direct trade sourcing is a key aspect of the business. “For us, sourcing well is very important, most of our coffee is direct trade, purchased directly from the farmers. Coffee is the third largest commodity in the world. Because of this there are a lot of middle men typically involved in the coffee supply chain, which ultimately doesn’t help on the farm end for their profits and being able to invest in infrastructure. So we eliminate those middle men, so that the farmers get a better profit margin, but also reinvest in infrastructure”.
Merge’s primary supplier is a multigenerational complex of over 10 farms, started three generations ago by a pair of brothers in Honduras. All the farms are still run by members of the Santiago family, and among the various farms grow a wide variety of different coffees. “They can serve everybody as far as their coffee tastes go, within these farms,” says Darryl. The Santiago farms produce several coffee varieties that are certified fair trade organic, but the certifications, which the farmers must pay for, apply only to certain lots on the farm. For Merge, it is more important that they and their customers know they are sourcing responsibly whether or not there is an official government certification. Darryl explains, “Fair trade organic is not as good for the farmer as it sounds, because the cost of getting and keeping that certification up could go towards other things.” Currently Merge carries seven different types of coffees from different parts of the world. Some are certified organic, and most are bought directly from the farmers.
Although a young company, Merge has already won two awards for coffees they roast from the Specialty Coffee Association. The SCA hosts an annual, national coffee roasting competition, with about 20 different categories into which coffee roasters can enter their various coffees. Merge entered two African coffees, one from Ethiopia and one from Burundi. Darryl described both coffees as being “very fruit forward”, with the Ethiopian roast having berry notes and the Burundian roast having a stone fruit flavor. Out of 1200 coffees, these two were included in the top 150 coffees chosen, winning Merge two bronze medals.
In addition to their commitment to direct trade relationships and an excellent quality product, Merge is also passionate about community building and heroic hospitality.
“We love the fact that coffee shops are a springboard for communities to flower,” says co-owner Darryl. We enjoy being the canvas for people to come in and work on that podcast, work on that book, get to know friends, debate, reflect. We love to be that canvas for neighborhoods to dream, to explore, and to grow.” After putting down roots in Park View, Merge has recently opened its second location in downtown Harrisonburg, at 425 North Main Street. The light-filled, airy interior has clean lines punctuated by vibrant green plants. Darryl describes the company’s aesthetic as fresh and modern, but still comfortable and inviting. The atmosphere feels warm and open, reflecting Merge’s vision of a coffee shop as a space for community building. Service is another important aspect of Merge’s business. “We want to serve people well with excellence, and have a great experience, we want the experience to always be consistent,” Darryl explains.
Both Merge locations are now open Monday through Saturday from 7 am until 4pm.
In addition to their coffees and classic espresso drinks, Merge is featuring some signature summer beverages. Darryl shared some highlights from the summer menu. “One thing that’s really popular right now is our coconut macaroon latte. That’s an iced latte with coconut, a little caramel and toasted coconut garnish. And for the non-coffee drinker we’ve got a rose gold lemon soda.” The soda is made in house from fresh, hand-squeezed lemons. “It’s a sparkling drink with a mineral-based glitter that goes in it as well. So it has bit of a shimmer to it.”
Merge’s new location is a welcomed addition to a vibrant, and growing downtown Harrisonburg scene. It is sure to become a hotspot for excellent quality, ethically sourced coffee and a neighborhood hangout. For more information about Merge, please visit https://www.mergecoffeeco.com/.