Chris Tellez: The Sprudge Twenty Interview

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Photo by Daniel Smith

Welcome to The Sprudge Twenty Interviews presented by Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2019 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty.

Nominated by Priscilla Fisher 

Chris Tellez is a coffee professional and entrepreneur based in Ontario, where he serves as a regional sales representative for Phil & Sebastian Coffee and owns and operates Show & Tell Coffee. A career professional, Tellez has been competing in the Canadian barista competition circuit for more than a decade. His work came to international attention in 2019 for a protest routine on the Canadian Barista Championship stage, calling out an official World Coffee Events rule disallowing the use of alternative milk. Tellez’ routine was timed to the launch of a petition formally requesting WCE reconsider the rule.

What issue in coffee do you care about most?

I’ve spent the last several years focusing on personal wellness and its role in the coffee industry. We are largely a customer-facing, service-oriented business, and being in that position requires creating an emotionally, physically, and spiritually stable foundation. I think there is a serious problem of burnout in our industry, which leads many, many people to end up leaving the customer-facing positions, or the industry altogether. I see very little being done to cultivate all-around health within organizations and I think this is a huge area where we can improve.

I should also mention that currently I am putting a lot of effort behind trying to change rule 2.2.2 in the World Baristas Championships, which indicates that competitors must use cow’s milk for the espresso and milk course. As a vegan, and someone with sustainability in mind, I really feel like this is a regressive rule and it is definitely time that we work towards updating it to reflect the current culture in the industry, where more and more plants milks are being enjoyed, at a fraction of the ecological footprint of dairy milks.

What cause or element in coffee drives you?

I think the driving force for myself in coffee is creating accessible spaces to learn about coffee. At the cafe level, we work really hard in our spaces to create an environment where everyone can ask questions and learn at their own pace without feeling alienated. But on a broader level, I really love to work with new coffee professionals, to get them thinking about coffee in new and unique ways, and to try and learn from their experiences so that I can better understand where people are coming from when they start to pursue coffee. It makes it a lot more exciting for me and it allows me to connect with people on a more honest level, which is the most motivating thing I can think of.

What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?

Lately, my mind has been on green coffee quality and the issues we are facing in getting quality roasted coffee, due to green issues. We get sent tons of samples, and so, so often the coffee tastes past crop. When I taste age on a coffee, it no longer feels like specialty coffee to me. When we get into the end of the winter months, and everyone’s coffee is starting to taste its age, there are only a few roasters really doing anything to combat this. It’s something that has inspired us to create a pretty hard-line on the coffees we will be bringing in, and that in the future we simply cannot accept old coffees. I really look forward to more roasteries addressing this in a sustainable way.

What is the quality you like best about coffee?

Coffee gives us the opportunity to connect with a plant every time we drink it. I have a great respect for the power of plants and the medicine they hold. Coffee has been known for a very, very long time to be a powerful and potent medicine, and I think our ritual of roasting and brewing the seed builds a very direct relationship with the plant, something most of us lack in our day to day lives. In addition to having a career in coffee, I am also in the final stages of finishing school to become an herbalist, and I like to see coffee making as a daily practice in connecting to the plant world.

Did you experience a “god shot” or life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your
career?

Probably not dissimilar to a lot of people, but I remember in 2007 going to a coffee shop and being served an “Aricha” Ethiopian Clover coffee. You probably could have assumed it was 2007 because I said Aricha and Clover. Anyways, it was the first cup of coffee I paid a lot of money for, and it was the first time I tasted something that was entirely outside of my preconceptions of coffee. It was a blueberry bomb, no subtlety, no nuance, no elegance, just big, loud, and full of blueberries… and roast. Definitely opened my eyes up to the idea that there was something else going on, and led me to pursue working with a roaster, which helped me explore these things.

What is your idea of coffee happiness?

I don’t know if I’m interpreting this question properly but I think “coffee happiness” to me is just being served a really well-made, fresh coffee from a barista who genuinely cares about providing a good experience. I get to travel a fair bit for my work and I go to a lot of cafes. When I meet a barista who clearly has the intention of making something special out of the experience, I get really stoked. That’s what I try and do as much as possible in my cafes and what I really try to encourage staff to think about. It also really helps when the coffee tastes amazing. I’m a sucker for a really well made batch brew.

If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?

This is such an awesome question, and I think my answer actually has a few caveats. Firstly, I kind of have exactly the job I want now; I run a couple cafes (along with my business partners) and I do wholesale management for Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters. It’s a really cool blend of work that gives me a lot of opportunity to build personal connections, which is what I care most about. But if I wasn’t doing this, I think I would really like to create a role within a large coffee company that focuses on blending elements of HR and community engagement. Acting as a voice for both the baristas and/or roasting staff to help maintain a healthy internal community, while bridging the gap between what the company is trying to achieve and the outside community’s role. I would also foresee some kind of overall “Wellness” attribute to it.

Who are your coffee heroes?

Oh man, I have a pretty long list of the people who have inspired me. As a competitor I was always so, so inspired by Colin Harmon. Watching his sets just made me so excited, because I could see a little bit of how I liked to perform in him, just on a whole other level. I would also put Ben Put into that category. No one in my competitive life has set a better example than him. Outside of competition, I have to say Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb. Every day I see the phenomenal amount of dedication they put into what they do and I am so deeply humbled and inspired. The things they do at origin, the way they approach problems like green quality, and their excitement surrounding roasting is just such a good reminder of why I care about coffee.

On a more personal level, every one of my staff members inspires me, though we have worked hard to try and promote female coffee professionals within our organization, which was something that my very first coffee job was really good about recognizing and set the tone for me. Having strong female voices in the mix just feels so natural and so so important, and gives me a much better understanding of the industry as a whole, so they are definitely my heroes.

If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

So, he’s more of a tea drinker, but it would have to be Ram Dass, my spiritual teacher. He is the person who taught me how to live in my heart, helped bring me out of the depths of my depression, eating disorder and self-harming thoughts, and really just opened my eyes to so much of the beauty in the world. Without him I couldn’t be the person in coffee I am now, so a coffee date would be a pretty big experience. We did have a Skype date once, but I don’t think I had a coffee with me.

If you didn’t get bit by the coffee bug, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I might be working on a vegetable farm in some strange corner of the world, living in a van near a climbing crag, or likely working in the health industry. I studied nutrition, and am finishing up my schooling in herbalism, so I suppose that would probably be somewhere in there too!

Do you have any coffee mentors?

The Phil & Sebastian team for sure, I think the Cat & Cloud team really has helped me better understand my own vision for managing a team, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without my bosses at my first cafe, Mark and Christene at Espresso Post in my home town.

What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?

I was 16 so, there was a whole lot of lessons I needed to learn, but I think the biggest one would be to just stay quiet and curious. I had a lot of self-esteem issues and I really only knew how to play those off by faking confidence. I think this got in the way of some of my learning early on, especially when I took my first serious coffee job after high school. It led to certain assumptions about me that I don’t think were very accurate and I probably could have avoided some of that. Regardless, it helped me grow into who I am now, so I’m thankful for that.

Name three coffee apparatuses you’d take into space with you.

I guess a scale wouldn’t be much good, hey? So maybe like, a cup with a lid, some freeze-dried coffee, and a straw?

Best song to brew coffee to:

At the risk of sounding way too Canadian: “Big League” by Tom Cochrane. I used it in my comp playlist this year and I was pretty happy with it.

Look into the crystal ball—where do you see yourself in 20 years?

I have a kind of grandiose plan. I would like to create a network to provide people within the coffee industry access to health services that are normally outside of their financial means. Things like nutrition, personal training, meditation, talk therapy, etc. We work in an industry that really doesn’t do a great job of promoting a healthy lifestyle, and I think we need to start changing that. In 20 years I would love to be operating a space which acts as an almost wellness centre to provide that to our industry. And of course, there would be a cafe involved too.

What’d you eat for breakfast this morning?

A ton of berries and some almonds. Pretty standard!

When did you last drink coffee?

Literally right now… it’s happening.

What is it?

La Magdalena #1 from Colonna Coffee. It’s a Colombian coffee comprised of a bunch of microlots from Tarqui, Huila. It’s a total slugger, insanely delicious and a very perfect morning coffee.

Thank you.

The Sprudge Twenty is presented by Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2019 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty

Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge. 

 

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