Turning your coffee passion into a profession
I have been working for quite a while in the specialty coffee industry, but I still seem to never stop learning and understanding coffee. Working as a barista and being hands on the machine is the most important part of my job, as this is where I can learn and understand the most.
For many people, entering the coffee industry is the pursuit of a dream and passion for coffee. The first step is usually getting a job working on a register, as a waiter/waitress or, if you're like me, washing (a lot) of dishes. I often hear from people that they want to turn their passion for coffee into a profession, or career. Making this jump is hard work and even when you manage it, sometimes you feel like you 'haven't made it' yet - believe me, I still feel like that a lot of the time.
There are several important lessons I’ve learned as a barista that helped me to turn my passion into a career.
Coffee is about hospitality.
One of the most important things you learn is that even if the job is a little bit repetitive, being a barista is mainly about customer service and hospitality. In my experience of working in several cafes, in a roastery and on the competition stage, I've realised that every aspect of the coffee industry is about serving and helping others.
When many people enter coffee, they have an idea that they'll work on the register, then on the machine, then win a competition, then become a roaster or green bean buyer, and so on. Within this idea, there's a notion that at some point, you'll be able to stop serving customers - I can definitely tell you this is not true. Sure, once you're working on a coffee roaster or in an office, you might not come face to face with customers every day. But you are still there to help serve, sell and communicate the message of coffee, which has travelled across the world. The hospitality aspect of coffee never stops - so embrace it, and be the best you can be.
Harnessing passion and motivation.
No one is going to come into your bar and tell you that they will show you everything you want to know about coffee for free, train you and help you do taste experiments all day long. I always had to find my own inspiration and that is the thing that is always the hardest.
Work a full shift, give the best service possible and then after the shift stay longer to cup coffee or make hand brews and train brewing techniques. For my first coffee competition I worked everyday and stayed at least four hours after work for five days of the week for training; for my second competition, I stayed at the shop 7 days a week and even came in on Christmas Day. This isn’t to say that you need to spend all your spare time at work – it’s important to maintain a balance between work and your personal life. I’ve learnt over time that the best way that I learn is by motivating myself to go the extra step, and to use my spare time for training. If you can find a way to motivate yourself to put in this extra effort, your skills as a barista and/or roaster will flourish.
A lot of people have the idea that career in coffee is an amazing, romantic job. A lot of the time, it's super repetitive and labour intensive. Being able to motivate yourself and harness your passion for coffee will not only make your work more enjoyable, but it will make you a better coffee professional.
Share your motivation with others.
Motivation is the key and if this is really a job that you are passionate about, then try to build a community around you that you can share your passion with and that you can develop with together. I was lucky enough to have experienced that myself during my time in Australia – the people I met there are incredible and so passionate about their job. We met up for coffee cocktail sessions nearly every Sunday, just trying out new recipes, making ferments, hanging out for cuppings and always chasing the best flavour. My skills developed due to the people around me and I became more inspired. Now, I basically have ferments going 24/7 at home and am always trying to involve others in the process of tasting and experimentation, so we can grow together.
For roasting, this means trying and experimenting with new profiles, and involving the team in the process of judging and providing feedback. Over time, this will make us all better baristas (and roasters) and improve the quality of the coffee we serve.
Involving a team at a roastery or coffee shop can be really difficult and at times, discouraging. Not everyone has the time, patience or interest in doing lots of tasting and providing feedback. However, if you can find people that share this passion, you can motivate each other and become better coffee professionals.
Focus on the basics.
Over the last years new products and toys are popping up every single day. And that is amazing! But there are things that we should focus on and other things that we can invest in once the basics are set.
I did a whole backflip in this regard. At home, I had an Espresso machine, about 15 fancy tampers and a horde of shiny milk jugs. But did that help me understand flavour? Did the cool beanie or pin or merchandise help me extract better coffee?
Over time, I have realised that coffee is such a fragile product and that if I wanted to understand it better, I would have to start understanding fermentation better, I would have to understand roasting better, and that I would have to invest in better beans and get more information about harvesting and geographical features of origins.
Recently, I sold my prized Espresso machine and reinvested the money into a roaster - I had the opportunity to buy an Ikawa and went for it straight away. Cupping coffees isn't that costly if you are using small amounts, and for me monitoring flavour has become far more important to me than showing off with my home latte art.
There are a lot of great machines, tools and new products in the world of coffee – but it’s no use investing in them if we don’t have a good understanding of the basics of coffee first.
And last, but not least...
Prove that you're a professional. It's very likely that there will never be a moment when people say to you 'You're a coffee professional.' The only thing you can do is prove to yourself that you are a professional, or that you are doing your very best to advance yourself in a career with coffee. It's not enough to know a bit about coffee machines, steaming milk and pouring cool latte art - there has to be a passion to learn more, to innovate, investigate, and be curious.
I'm not anywhere near where I want to be with my knowledge and a lot of the time, I wouldn't refer to myself as a coffee 'expert'. For this reason, I am constantly learning, growing and experimenting so that I can advance myself in my career and help to create a world of better coffee.
If you want to talk more about making the leap from passion to profession, please get in touch!