How to progress in the coffee industry

I get a lot of email (a lot of emails) from baristas from all around the world, and the most common theme could be summarised as:

“I currently work as a barista, I’m really passionate about coffee and would love to progress in this industry. Do you have any advice for how I should do that?”

It’s a fair question – coffee is a relatively opaque, shrouded industry that doesn’t really give much away in the way of direction for those who have fallen in love with it and wish to do more.

This is similar to the talk I gave at the Nordic Barista Cup, but that crossed over quite a lot into talking to employers and those already established within the industry.

This post is by no means a definitive answer, but hopefully it offers some helpful advice.

Demonstrate Patience

There’s a whole other topic that should probably be covered about writing effective CVs (résumés) and performing in job interviews, but this particular one straddles both. The expectations of those entering industries have changed. People expect to be able to progress quicker, and often the most visible within an industry rose very quickly (or at least appeared to). Other industries generally do a better job of explaining why you should spend a couple of years toiling away for little reward, or at least set clear goals for what must be achieved to progress. Coffee is one of many where this isn’t really a thing yet.

However, employers look at your work history for two reasons: to see what kind of experience you have and to see how long you generally stay in a job.

Collecting a few months at various well renown cafes is significantly less valuable that having put some serious time in at a cafe someone may never have heard of. Yes, a cafe owner may look at that and see a reduced need for training, but if you’re looking to progress into a different role which will require time spent acquiring new skills then skipping around from place to place is potentially going to work against you.

This doesn’t mean you should be you shouldn’t be hungry to progress, keen to advance – that’s definitely a good quality.

Taste Everything

While we generally under-represent the diverse roles within the coffee sector, there are very few roles where being able to taste well isn’t an advantage. Learning to taste well, to taste critically and to build up a level of objectivity around certain aspects of coffee tasting, isn’t easy to do.

If you work at a cafe this means tasting more than the coffees you serve. It means tasting coffees from other suppliers, tasting coffees from other cafes. It means looking for any and every opportunity to taste with other coffee professionals, in an environment where honest discussion takes place. It means looking for opportunities to taste things that aren’t coffee in different environments. Beer, wine, cheese are the obvious contenders as there are often tutored tasting available and things like sweetness, acidity, complexity, aroma or mouthfeel are all key aspects in their taste make up as they are with coffee. If there are opportunities to taste other things then leap at it.

If there aren’t those opportunities where you are then make them. £20 goes a long way to buying a variety of things to taste within a theme – from chocolate to citrus fruits, olive oils to tomatoes. (Thanks to my team at Square Mile for the inspiration here).

Be Part of a Community

If I am honest, online communities are significantly less helpful for curious and passionate coffee people than they were five years ago. Social media has undeniably had an impact, but its return on invested energy is mild frivolity and a worrying acceptance of crass absolutism. I’d recommend looking for a real life, in the flesh type community to be involved in.

In some places this is easier than in others, I accept that. If your city has throwdowns, or open tastings, or coffee book clubs, or general coffee events then get involved. That doesn’t mean just turning up, it means putting in some time and effort. Passive participation can be enjoyable, but isn’t really going to help you move forward.

Networking is a horrible term, but it remains a practice that goes on in every industry. It doesn’t have to be the awkward “press the flesh” type thing though. Guilds, associations and the like are there to offer this function as a core reason for their very being. I’d recommend getting involved with them.

Don’t expect to be spoonfed knowledge

It is an employer’s role to provide necessary information to do a job well, unless they’ve hired requiring a certain qualification. However, it is not really an employer’s obligation to feed every curiosity you may have about coffee. This sounds negative, but in reality it is easier to learn collaboratively with an employee (supporting them in their learning, rather than doing all the heavy lifting) than it is to just have information be a one way street. Not every employer will work this way, and I suppose I should recommend finding employers who have a good track record with developing staff and supporting them in future endeavours is another piece of advice.

This isn’t exhaustive, not even slightly, but I hope it is useful. Obviously I’d recommend keeping an eye on job openings (never easier these days with sites like Coffee Jobs Board, NYC Coffee Jobs and Sprudge Jobs).

Disagreement, dissent or supplementation to these ideas is welcome.

Reponses

Peter Giuliano has written a great response to this, which I strongly recommend you read.