2015-05-14 / Front Page

It’s ‘Bean’ 13 Years, But Collection Finished

By James Merolla


Retired Navy Captain Bill Calhoun, pictured with manager Adelia Melo, was largely responsible for the extensive collection of antique coffee tins at Custom House Coffee. Retired Navy Captain Bill Calhoun, pictured with manager Adelia Melo, was largely responsible for the extensive collection of antique coffee tins at Custom House Coffee. When you visit Custom House Coffee in Middletown, don’t just look around; look up. A fantastic collection of vintage coffee tins fills the ledge that circles the perimeter of the store. It was 13 years in the making, but there are no longer any gaps in the row of 200 cans that sits high atop the walls, each more unusual than the next.

Some of the tins are more than 100 years old, and a few are unopened with coffee still inside. A handful are quite rare, such as the King Philip brand coffee, named for the legendary Wampanoag Indian chief Metacomet, known as King Philip by the colonists.

“It’s hard to say how old they are; a lot don’t have dates on them,” said owner Bob Mastin. “The King Philip can is on the back wall. I thought that was pretty rare; I have never seen anything like it. Obviously, it’s something local.

“We have others scattered around above the service counter with eagles on them. Those might be the oldest, but, again, none of them are dated. Although I’m a collector and have many cans, I don’t really know just how old they are,” said Mastin. “I’d say some are as old as when they started using tins for freshness, whenever that might have been.”

The coffee tin came into being in the early 1800s, shortly after the first tin can was invented, spurred by a competition offered by Napoleon to find a way to better preserve food for his soldiers.

Coffee tins were initially used by people who bought fresh green beans to roast and grind at home. Roasted coffee was widely available in the 1880s. The containers have been produced in many shapes and sizes – square, cylindrical, rectangular or trapezoid, ranging in size from one ounce sample tins to large bins holding more than 50 pounds of coffee. A pound of cheap coffee in the 1800s was never more than 35 cents.

A large part of Mastin’s collection came from regular customers who received a pound of coffee in exchange for a unique tin. “It’s been 13-years-plus since I opened the store. Any coffee container made out of metal is going to be an antique soon. Nobody makes them anymore,” he said.

Mastin couldn’t fill the space himself; he was too busy running the store. “So I invited my customers to help. I told them if they brought in a tin that I could use, I’d swap it for a pound of coffee. If the tin was really rare, I gave them a couple of pounds.”

One regular customer who loves to poke around antique stores is Bill Calhoun of Portsmouth; he has contributed nearly one third of the collection. The Custom House regular is a favorite of staff and customers alike.

“Bill Calhoun and his wife, Jane, and their twin sons didn’t really do it because of the coffee trade. Bill has a lot of family down South; he’s originally from Georgia. He loves antique shops and every time he visited family he’d bring me back one, or two, or more. I’ve lost track of how much coffee I owe him,” said Mastin. “Whenever he wants coffee, I give him whatever he wants. Even Jamaica Blue Mountain, which is $45 a pound, but he’s earned it. It’s pretty fancy, but Bill can have whatever he wants – forever.”

To honor what Calhoun has fostered, Mastin recently added spot lighting to highlight the collection from above.

“Now that we finished a full row of cans, we are starting a second row stacked on the first,” said Mastin. “My offer to trade a pound of coffee for a unique tin still stands.”

There is vertical space for four rows of stacked cans, so at the current pace his tins will reach the ceiling by the year 2050.

“I’ve got a lot of room to go. It took me 13 years for one row. I may be 100 by the time we get to the ceiling,” he chuckled.

Custom House Coffee is located at 796 Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown. Call Bob Mastin at 401- 842-0008 for more information.

A Hit in Hollywood

Veteran Coffee Roasters coffee, a new local brand by the same roasting crew that produces Custom House Coffee, is now being served at film shoots in Hollywood. Kit and Kaboodle Craft Services, LLC, a craft service company in Los Angeles serving the entertainment industry, serves the Veteran brand on film shoots, commercials, music video productions, and, most recently, on the set at Dolby Theatre for the filming of “America's Got Talent.”

Kit and Kaboodle owners Jisu Hahn and Nick Umbenhower, whose extended family includes veterans and active duty military members, share one dollar for every pound they brew to support wounded and disabled veterans. Kit and Kaboodle has already ordered 150 pounds of the R&R Roast, a favorite with its coffee drinking entertainers and crews.

Veteran Coffee Roasters donates to the Wounded Warrior Project and local veterans groups. Six different blends are available: Reveille Roast, B-52 Blend, Recon Roast, R&R Roast, DEFCON Decaf, and Bosun's Blend.

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