Baseball Player, Chef, Doctor, or Specialty Coffee Professional?

By Mike Ebert, Alterra Coffee Roasters

Personally, I was going to be a rock star, but coffee got in the way. Back in the late 80’s, there were few people who set out to make coffee their career, including me. It just wasn’t thought of as a career choice. Yes, you could open a small coffee shop, but this desire probably came from a love of restaurants and cooking more than a pure love of coffee. Sure, people loved coffee back then, and yes, there were pockets of great coffee to be found, and companies started by the early luminaries of our industry. But for most folks, coffee as a career choice was not even a consideration.

Most of the people I know in coffee have a story similar to mine: specialty coffee found me. I was in the midst of a fairly lackadaisical attempt at attending a local college, and just needed a steady job to keep my parents off my back. That first job wasn’t even in “coffee”; it was as a carpenter’s apprentice. This was okay with me; I figured I might as well learn a trade while I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up. But within weeks, the only work I did was basic warehouse work at the owner’s side job, or shall I say hobby. He owned a small chain of coffee shops and had a warehouse that supplied them. Someone else roasted the coffee at the time, but we still blended and packaged it. At first, I loathed it—when I went home I stunk like coffee. I didn’t even drink the stuff (I was a tea drinker); but slowly, something began to sink into my blood. Now here I am, twenty-five plus years later, still working in coffee and unable to imagine any other life.

Early on, the journey was tough. The SCAA was just getting started and didn’t have the classes or certificate programs that current coffee professionals are able to take advantage of. The cupping form had not yet been conceived of and, for the most part, we couldn’t even agree on roast names. The NCA existed and put on an annual conference, but back then it was best if you practiced your golf or tennis game before attending.

I did search out and find a few educational offerings. Probat offered some roasting classes that included cupping, Agtron came along and offered a class that had more of a science slant, and I ate these all up. Not only was it educational, but I was also meeting people who had the same desire to learn that I possessed. There was a strong desire for something more; something universal in scope, not taught by someone whose ultimate goal was to sell you something (I mean no disrespect to those companies at all, it was just a fact of the times).

I began to volunteer at SCAA conferences, usually with the same group of people I met at the aforementioned educational opportunities. Some of us taught classes, some of us assisted in other ways, such as simple manual labor, sometimes we were asked to help with the next class, but most of the time it was all of the above.

Flash-forward to today—we have a Roasters Guild and Barista Guild, both with established certificate programs; each with many individuals already achieving levels of certification. We have lead instructor certification, so not only does one now have the resources available to learn about specialty coffee, you can learn to teach others about it also. The resources that are in place today are incredible, and they are increasing every day.

The most exciting thing I see in today’s specialty coffee world are young people coming in and actually having an established career path that they can now follow. There are also now educational, volunteer, and teaching opportunities available through the SCAA. These opportunities are offered at SCAA’s Exposition every year, but also exist regionally. I know for a fact that I would not be where I am today if not for my SCAA experience. I have to admit, I am a bit jealous of all the opportunities that exist today, I wish they were around twenty years ago. But ultimately, I am ecstatic that one can now actually pursue a career in specialty coffee, and have a clear path to follow.

In this issue of The Chronicle, we will explore careers in coffee and the realities of those professions, for better or worse. Most importantly, we’ll take a look at how you can carve your own path into a career in coffee.

I also want to get on my soapbox a bit and speak to those who feel they have nothing to gain from these opportunities at this stage of their career. After more than twenty-five years, I am still learning and still growing in my coffee career. I have discovered the importance of continuing to improve my skills, and the best path to do this is to continue to volunteer, teach classes, and – most recently for me – to create a whole new class. Never feel you have nothing more to learn, and even more importantly, nothing more to give. I can assure you, feeling like you have something to offer is a gift that keeps on giving.

Mike’s career in specialty coffee has encompassed his entire adult life and then some. Currently he works for Alterra Coffee, bringing Alterra all the way to Chicago. He’s had involvement with all aspects of specialty coffee: buying, cupping, roasting, marketing, sales and as a senior manager. He helped form the Roasters Guild, and served as the first Chair of their Executive Council for two years. He served on the SCAA Board of Directors for seven years, culminating as SCAA President in 2009/2010. He currently serves as Vice President on the Board of Coffee Kids.