Serious Eats: Drinks
Stimulating Work: 5 Careers in Specialty Coffee
Thinking about breaking into the coffee biz? Here are five gigs that have the potential to become the best part of waking up.
Turning green beans brown is the ultimate act of coffee alchemy, and it's a job that requires an intimate understanding of coffee chemistry and the deliciousness spectrum on which roasted coffee falls.
Barista-turned-roaster Kyle Tush, who's getting started with a new specialty-coffee project set to go public in a few weeks, says that it's what happens inside that hooked him on roasting. "The science of roasting, cupping, and evaluating different coffees appeals to my right-brained tendencies and that really excites me," he says. "I felt like there was only so much I could learn about those things standing behind an espresso machine everyday—I had to just take the leap, get in there and do it."
Roasting, however, tends to be a somewhat lonely gig: Most days are spent standing alone (sometimes from the very early morning hours) in the serious heat and roaring noise of the roasting machine. Monitoring temperature, time, color, batch number, and roast level is an attention-heavy task, and there's little conversation that can happen over the din anyway. But hey, at least there's plenty of caffeine.
How to get started: Check local roasters' listings for openings in their production departments, where beans are bagged, blended, and shipped after roasting. (Some experience on the production floor is typically necessary for a transition into roasting.) Once you spend a little time behind the heat sealer, start asking around about apprenticeships: Master roasters will typically train newbies with test batches for a spell before they're able to handle the real stuff.
There are myriad opportunities to get into sales in the coffee industry, whether you're selling the coffee itself or accessories and tools; specialty paper goods, ceramics, or coffee-making equipment like espresso machines and coffee grinders.
Molly Soeder, a sales representative for the espresso machine manufacturer Slayer, says she was hesitant to get into the role at first, because "the thought [of a salesperson] still conjures up images of a 1960s car lot. I stumbled into sales by accident, out of my love for coffee and Slayer."
"I had been a barista for seven years and had worked on a dozen different espresso machines, but nothing compared...taking espresso and making it infinitely better like I could on Slayer. When I heard they were hiring, I knew I had to be near that machine any way I could," she continues. "The only drawback to sales is that as soon people learn my title, it's assumed that any praise I have for Slayer is disingenuous. I sometimes struggle to overcome that barrier to communicate that when I say Slayer is the best machine I've ever worked with, I mean it!"
"The coming generation of salespeople have a huge spectrum of possibilities, but I encourage them to pair their passion for sales with their love of something else," Soeder enthuses. "Do you love coffee? Sell for a roastery. Cars? Go after Ferrari. Did you dream of being an astronaut as a kid? Even NASA needs salespeople! The possibilities are limitless. Do something you're crazy about." (That, my friends, is great advice.)
How to get started: For wholesale gigs, it's often beneficial to either have previous coffee experience or previous sales experience. Knowing the product is key, so learn as much as you can about coffee (even a part-time barista gig will help), and having a basic understanding of market trends, local competition, your target demographic, and the art of the pitch will also prove crucial.
You and I might be able to say what we like about a coffee, but could we actually objectively identify the aspects that make a particular set of beans good or bad? Professional coffee cuppers, tasters, and judges have to do that all the time: Instead of just sitting back with a mug, they are constantly analyzing cups for presence or absence of defect, cup clarity, body, and other characteristics that allow them to make numeric assessments of the quality of a particular lot, either for sale or for auction, or for control and consistency.
The duty is an important bridge over the gap of understanding that exists between what growers expect their coffee to taste like, and buyers who are looking for particular characteristics. Assigning a common language and an objective review of a coffee helps every player in the chain better understand the multitude of variables that affect flavor on both sides.
The highest level of coffee taster, called a Q Grader, is put thorough an intense battery of tests to his or her palate before being given the proverbial silver cupping spoon. Candidates for this level of coffee professional must correctly identify flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter), defects, blend components, and even pick out a misplaced cup within a group.
How to get started: Before blowing a bunch of money on a Q Grader exam before you have a chance of passing, spend a little time really flexing those palate muscles. That is to say: Taste, taste, taste. Attend coffee tastings and cuppings whenever possible, start setting up your own comparative exercises, and, probably most importantly of all, stop adding milk and sugar to your morning cup if you want to really improve your abilities to detect nuances on the regular. Once you've laid a solid foundation of flavor ability, check out a class—Coffee Quality Institute offers intensive programs for those interested in learning to put their mouths to serious work.
Ah, the glamorous life of a green-coffee buyer: Traveling around the world all year, meeting coffee growers, taking pictures in exotic places, tasting delicious coffee...
Sorry to burst your bubble (if you have one), but green-bean buying isn't all adventure and romance, despite what Dangerous Grounds might have us believe.
A green buyer's job is to make decisions about what coffees a roasting company will purchase to roast, market, and sell to its customers. This means not only making decisions based on coffee quality and price, but also keeping and managing inventory, navigating contracts, determining storage needs, dealing with errors in shipping and processing, and working closely with the roasters in order to make sure that quality and flavor are always present in the finished product. In recent years, more of this work is done on the road—visiting farms and co-ops, traveling to origin countries to meet with existing producing partners—but there is a lot of desk action, as well. The paperwork can be staggering, and often green buyers will spend hours at their home base office, cupping through dozens of samples sent by importers and brokers. Some of the coffee is good, sure, but a lot of bad stuff has to get tasted, too.
All that being said, there are a ton of rewards, as well. Gabe Boscana, green buyer for Sightglass Coffee Roasters, says about his job: "I love learning about different cultures, and I love supporting people who only want to do better for their families, themselves and their country through coffee cultivation. The choices that I make individually will truly have a real impact on many folks lives. It is a huge responsibility but ultimately one that is worth all the blood sweat and tears. It is a super meaningful and impactful job."
How to get started: A love of and basic knowledge of coffee is important, obviously, but so is a real gift for organization: Being able to keep track of paperwork, calculations for inventory purposes, budget limitations, and communications in various forms (and languages) is key. Also necessary? The ability to be a team player. There are a lot of relationships a buyer needs to nurture and develop, both within his/her company (the roasters, for instance) and beyond, with importers, exporters, and coffee growers.
If green buying is on your fantasy-job list, my recommendation is to rise through the ranks and learn as much as possible: Starting out as a barista with a roaster-retailer is a great first step, and spend your free time reading as much as possible about the places that coffee comes from.
Believe it or not, being a barista isn't a side job for everybody: The old trope of working in the service industry while waiting for that big break doesn't hold true for everyone behind a counter or in an apron.
"Making coffee is my chosen way of doing that for two reasons," explains barista Sam Lewontin, of New York City's Everyman Espresso. "First, coffee has provided me with some of the most wonderful, memorable sensory and social experiences I've ever had. A great cup of coffee is a really unparalleled joy, and to be able to share that joy with people for a living is pretty special. Second, coffee preparation is a complex and exacting craft which never ceases to yield new and interesting challenges. Making tasty coffee has been many things to me, but it has yet to be boring."
"The most important single aspect of working as a barista—and the thing that, more than any other, ensures that I'll never really get away from the front lines—is service," he continues. "I love sharing wonderful experiences with people. I love making people happy, and as a barista it's my job to show up every day and do just that."
Lewontin, himself a seasoned performer (and coffee maker—he combined both skills to win 2013's Northeast Regional Barista Championship), does offer one caveat to the new barista: "Service can be a double-edged sword. It's a fast-paced public performance, it requires a tremendous amount of energy and focus to do well. Making yourself emotionally available to so many people every day is exhausting, and if seeing them made happy by your work isn't reward enough for that effort, you'll find yourself burning out very quickly."
How to get started: Most professional baristas will admit to having put in at least a year or two in the trenches before really getting going on the idea of a "career" behind the counter. Many of the best cafés will hire based on work ethic and personality, not experience: Getting to know the baristas as your favorite coffee shop is one way to get recognized as interested and dedicated (not to mention a good way to occasionally have a coffee bought for you), and check more specialty-focused job-search sites like GoodFoodJobs.com for openings at quality places. (Pro tip: If you wouldn't drink the coffee from a particular café, don't apply for a job there.)
Are there any other jobs in specialty coffee that you're curious about? Let me know in the comments.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.