Last year I featured women in the world who were killin' it at their craft. There was some much needed love for women in coffee. The best way to celebrate women and their social, economical and political achievements is to highlight an industry that touches all of those in a profound way from beginning to end. Specialty coffee has progressed the transparency and challenged many of the practices in the coffee industry in the last 20 years and continues to do so. So I'm delighted to have the privilege to highlight a few people in our community.
I am stoked to be sharing a lady I have much respect for. We met as judges at last year's Canadian Barista Competitions last year and I continue to get to know the enigma that is Laura; likely because she is off chasing tasty coffees in far-away lands. Have you ever had any questions for a green buyer? If you dream about going to origin and seeing what it's like on the ground this Q&A gives you great insight.
Tell us something we don’t know about you.
I’ve been vegan since November… so far so good (and super tasty). I’ve started training aerial silks; think Cirque du Soleil. There's so much grip strength involved! Don’t worry, I’m not quitting my day job any time soon.
How long have you been working in coffee? How did you first stumble into it?
It’s been 11 years in coffee, quietly working away as a barista through university in Ottawa, then as a cafe manager.
The bulk of my career before working with 49th [Parallel] was at a small yet mighty cafe chain in Ottawa, as a barista trainer. It’s something I’m still quite proud of looking back on it; nearly 300 people with a common understanding of calibrating/ weighing shots, organization and teamwork. No system is perfect, but the team I worked with there was wonderful and many are still there holding it down today.
How did you get to do what you’re currently doing? - and would you suggest it? :P
That is a question I get asked quite a bit, and I still struggle with it to be honest. How’d I get here? The distilled answer is 1. Having an open mind, 2.Being in the right place at the right time, and recognizing learning opportunities, however small.
I did feel a sense of responsibility as a barista trainer to continually learn our supply chains to the best of my ability, and get to know people who I admired as cuppers, buyers, roasters etc. Getting the chance to get certified as a Q Grader back in 2011 helped me apply to things like COE (Cup of excellence) juries. From there I was feeling fairly confident in my spreadsheet skills (trust me - it’s required), cupping ability, and ability to work with people from many walks of life. Each little step prepared me for the next.
Would I suggest working to become a green buyer?
Depending on who you are? Sure! It’s an interesting skill set, but at the crux of it from what I’ve experienced you should have the following qualities (but keep in mind this list isn’t exhaustive):
- Confidence in your abilities
- LOVE coffee. you have to love it.
- open ears and an open mind
- organization skills
- A sound ethical compass
- In love with logistics and putting together things like annual projections, and deviation from the mean and other Excel magic
Having the experience of seeing coffee origins, how important do you think it is for baristas to see coffee origins? Is there a point?
It’s not lost on me that I’m extremely fortunate to be gone about half the year to one coffee growing country or another. There’s a sense of relevance that is not possible to have unless you have seen things as they are for yourself. Even going once will give you a sense of understanding that would be impossible to get reading or watching someone elses experience. Yes everyone should go if they have the ability.
*my first trip to origin was as an observer for COE Guatemala in 2012. I had an epic bake sale of Macarons to pay for my flight. Where there’s a will there’s a way, no?
I’m often very intimidated about talking coffee growing regions with you (because of my ignorance), Laura. What are the ways you learned about these places and their characteristics? - How do we get more informed?
Once you get to know me, you’ll hopefully see I’m an open book, a complete nerd and will talk (maybe too much!). When it comes to things relating to coffee. One great way to start down the rabbit hole yourself is to look backwards through the supply chain, perhaps to Guatemala’s Anacafé website where it details all growing regions; they even came out with an iPad app and its very well done actually. It’s called The Green Book.
Technoserve’s www.coffeetransparency.comis an interesting source for Ethiopia. They recently wrapped up a huge multi year push in western Ethiopia and helped establish many specialty focused cooperatives - all are still going strong today, and in fact we work with quite a few of them (and have since 2011). This source is a touch out of date, but it still gives a sense of the projects that went on and what the cooperatives focused on.
Coffee is deeply political and has the possibility to mitigate or exacerbate social issues in the countries we buy coffee from, do you have a stories from your work travels that support this?
Like it or not, coffee is a commodity and there is huge volume and trade surrounding it. If you look at specialty coffee, we are a micro fraction of the global landscape (although the needle is moving ever so slightly). Less than 5 years ago, when the ‘C’ market price was hitting 3USD/lb, you would hear stories of truck drivers with full loads of coffee being murdered and the coffee stolen in Guatemala. In 2013, with the devolution of power in what is arguably Kenya’s greatest region for quality (Nyeri), trade came to an absolute halt in January, when harvest was in full swing. Many contracts went to arbitration because the coffee wasn’t legally allowed to be moved to the final destination under that swift and heavy handed change. It was unclear to me for a couple months after those events if I would find (and buy) from the coops I was used to working with. A lot of coffee went unsold as specialty that year. It was a very sad and confusing situation for all, but things have calmed down some.
It’s no question that these events (and trust me, there’s loads more in each country I buy from) seem much larger than me as a buyer for a roasting company in Vancouver. One thing that has potential to provide change for farmers, pickers, and those working in coffee could be more tangible involvement from in-country coffee organizations. These organizations have the power to work with their respective governments on things like child labour, living wages, and even implementing changes in how we trade coffee to identify a more sustainable base price. These things are huge, complicated, but they are always worth talking about.