Do you love coffee enough to make it your career? There are countless different roles in the contemporary coffee industry, including roaster, buyer, barista, and many more. But how do you move into the area of the industry you’re really passionate about?
Read on for some practical tips and insight from coffee professionals on how to progress in the specialty coffee industry.
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A barista pours milk into a cup. Credit: Fernando Hernandez
Know Your Stuff
Are you working in a position that you’ve outgrown or lack passion for? Or perhaps you’re ready for a change. The good news is that you’re already inside the industry and this can help you move to a position you really want.
The first step is making sure that you’re doing your current job well and really know your stuff. People are connected and if they see you doing a lacklustre job, you may be ruining your own reputation. Instead, take the opportunity to learn as much as you can.
If you know your core technical skills backwards and take the initiative to learn about other areas such as roasting or processing, you’ll expand your own knowledge and show others that you’re truly passionate about coffee.
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Authorized SCA Trainer Edita Chodarcevic teaches a brewing course at a Barista Camp event. Credit: Jordan Sanchez/SCA
Kim Staalman is a Netherlands-based Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Europe Community Representative. She suggests expanding your knowledge by signing up to the SCA’s Coffee Skills Program, checking out the Coffee Quality Institute’s Q grader courses, or getting familiar with World Coffee Research’s resources like its sensory lexicon.
Kim also recommends Barista Hustle, which offers courses and certifications, and Third Wave Wichteln, which provides a platform for the global coffee community to interact. Keeping up-to-date on global trends and innovations, and connecting with the wider community can all help in your career progression.
But don’t get too focused on the theory. “It’s important to get a good dose of hands-on experience,” Kim tells me. “Competitions can really spike learning curves. Training so intensively in one subject can really make a massive change in understanding. Also, I think that working in the service industry, if even for a short time, is a great learning school for people in general.”
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Members of The Kore Directive arrive at the organisation’s soft launch event. Credit: Carolyn West
Sierra Burgess-Yeo is a founding member of The Kore Directive, a London-based network for self-identifying women including LGBTQIA+ persons and women of colour in coffee. She tells me that she has little formal training and learned her trade almost entirely through hands-on experience and independent study.
She recommends absorbing as much information as you can, from a variety of sources. This includes technical books such as The Coffee Atlas by James Hoffman and Water for Coffee by Christopher H. Hendon and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, as well as blogs, podcasts, and specialty coffee magazines.
Once you’re comfortable with the basics, Sierra suggests attending local cuppings to improve your palate and make connections.
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Members of The Kore Directive connect at a cupping. Credit: Carolyn West
Network in a Meaningful Way
The specialty coffee industry is made up of people driven by a common passion: great coffee that is well-produced. Your willingness to approach, connect, and follow up with other people in the community can make all the difference in your career path.
Sierra tells me that started out by immersing herself in the coffee community and asking baristas questions. “Go to lots of cafés. That’s where you get started. And drink lots of coffee,” she says. She tells me that she sees networking as a fancy way of saying “make as many industry friends as possible.”
Kim says that this is a people business. “People who are looking for their dream job should talk to the people who have already made a career in the chain. A good idea would be to go to a trade show, for example World of Coffee,” she advises.
Kim Staalman in the Cupping Room at World of Coffee in Amsterdam. Credit: Jordan Sanchez/SCA
Networking isn’t just introducing yourself to a sales representative or champion barista and chatting about your preferred method of brewing.
Seek out people who have the position you want and set up a conversation. This could be an informal chat over a latte or a more structured informational interview. In either situation, ask specific questions about how they got their role, what barriers they experienced, and what advice they have.
And don’t be afraid to follow up. Send a simple email thanking them for their time, or consider a more proactive request such as asking for a tour of their roastery or to attend a cupping. The aim is to keep contact and to demonstrate your enthusiasm and respect for their insight.
Perhaps they’ll soon be in a position to hire a new staff member or know of someone else looking for an apprentice. If you’ve shown yourself to be polite, professional, and enthusiastic, you could be top of their list.
A barista prepares a drink. Credit: MultaMedia
Take Up The Challenge
At every level of your career, you’ll undoubtedly face a few challenges. “People in the coffee industry deal with the same issues as the rest of mankind,” says Kim.
This could be learning new skills, working with people you find difficult, or finding yourself out of your depth. It could also mean biding your time until the right opportunity comes along or you’re able to make one happen.
Be adaptable and open to trying new things, even if that means a little discomfort or an unexpected route. Perhaps you have your heart set on being a Q grader but fail the certification. After the initial disappointment, think about what new methods you can try to improve your skills or how to switch up your study habits.
Maybe you’re offered a position as a coffee shop manager, but really want to be a roaster. Evaluate what you can learn from being a manager. Will you be able to select beans for your shop? Will this put you in contact with roasters? It could be a great opportunity to learn about roasting techniques and make connections.
Baristas behind the bar. Credit: Coffee and I
Believe That You Belong
It can be intimidating to try to enter an industry that you don’t see yourself represented in, or to move into a role that has historically been filled by people unlike you. But the coffee industry is for everyone. Sierra encourages people from under-represented communities to pursue careers in coffee and tells me that her own experience has been positive.
“Being an immigrant person of colour, getting into an industry that was very welcoming [to me] was something incredibly fortunate,” Sierra says. “If you’re someone like me who is looking to get into coffee, go for it! It’s a good thing to do. You’ll make lots of friends!”
Participants in a coffee cupping. Credit: Devon Barker
Consider joining a group of likeminded people for networking opportunities and to share experiences. The Kore Directive is just one example. Search for local groups and global online communities.
“Industry professionals have been confronting issues of equity, inclusivity, and diversity head on and you can find many initiatives on social media,” Kim tells me. She highlight’s SCA’s Leadership Equity and Diversity Scholarship program and Strong Women of Coffee as examples.
Sierra says, “I definitely think that shedding light on the broader conversation about being inclusive and accepting of other people’s differences, and making their stories known in the industry, is super important and makes for a more cohesive industry.”
Roasting coffee. Credit: Devon Barker
You may not have your dream career in coffee, but if you’re already working in the industry you have a wealth of resources. Learn your craft well, read up on new areas, and make sure to network.
By demonstrating your enthusiasm and being open to new experiences, you can open the door to the next level of your career.
So what are you waiting for? Find a nearby cupping, join a peer group, or simply have a meaningful conversation with the barista when you order your next coffee. You might see some opportunities arise.
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