Why Build a Career in Coffee?

By Timothy J. Castle, President, Castle & Co.

Are you thinking of making your way in the coffee business? If so, why? Can you answer that question?

If you can’t, maybe stop reading until you can.

What do you want the coffee business to give to you? If you’re still reading this, you may already have an idea of what you can give to the coffee business, but let’s be honest, what do you want back in exchange? If you can’t be up front – at least with yourself – in answering that, you’ll be wandering around this wonderful, fascinating, exciting, rewarding industry for a good three to five decades and you might not, likely will not, get that one thing that you actually (in the back of your mind) wanted from it.

That’s the weird thing about this coffee business, well, one of the weird things about it, you can spend your whole life working with coffee, and before you know it, you’ll spend those aforementioned decades in this business without really stopping to catch your breath. Maybe it’s because the folks are so interesting – the reader and the writer, to name two – and that delicious, magical complex drink we’re working with is so enjoyable and interesting as well. Or maybe your family was in the business – sometimes for a generation, sometimes for several – or maybe you fell into it from contact with a friend or from the Peace Corps, or some other exposure to coffee.

Building a career in this industry is a little different than simply living out one’s life in this business. This is not to say that consciously setting out to structure an arc of accomplishment over the span of a few decades is easy. In fact, it is especially difficult in an industry that is changing as quickly as ours; but there are more tools to do this today than there were thirty years ago, and certainly a lot more resources. This is especially the case for someone eyeing a career more closely aligned with the sensory evaluation of coffee.

Outside training and education can help a lot in gaining extra traction in a coffee career, because so many of us have stumbled into it from other disciplines, or no discipline at all. Now, non-coffee credentials and education won’t prove to be a magic bullet in terms of advancing yourself. The coffee business can prove to be very ‘guild-like’, not in the specific sense of the guilds that have recently been established within it (most notably the Roasters Guild and the the Barista Guild), but in terms of an industry-wide culture which values an almost mono-manic dedication to “coffee first”. Not that we lead unbalanced lives—the people I’ve met in the coffee business are some of the more well-rounded, well-educated people I know, but there is a sort of generally accepted understanding that once someone has discovered one can work with coffee they would be foolish to do anything else.

From the get–go it’s important to understand what makes a career in coffee different than a career in other industries. Two that have already been touched upon are that it’s a fast-changing and quickly evolving industry, and our business is extremely product-dependent and, on top of that coffee, too, is always changing—from crop to crop and cup to cup. In addition, it’s a people business to a fault. Relationships trump practically everything else, except, perhaps for the taste of coffee. Finally, up until recently, there has been very little formal training available for coffee “professionals” and, in fact, many individuals have pontificated that there really is no such thing. Now, with certifications offered by the SCAA and classes offered in preparation for qualification exams, there is a level of basic training that can be obtained. Remember, it is nothing more than basic training. Taking a course or getting a certificate, means that you have a head start with regards to beginning a lifetime of experience, observation, and lessons in humility.

The mention of humility brings up a few more cautionary notes for the would-be “coffee professional”. (Yes, the experience is personal). Make sure that sooner-rather-than-later, no matter what niche of the coffee industry in which you decide to settle down, that you get some solid business training (accounting, the basics of financial statements and marketing) and from there, a good couple years of experience. The coffee industry is a business, sure, we’ve got passion out the kazoo; to have both passion and skills will make you a rare and valued bird, indeed. Also, NEWS FLASH — business travel on behalf of the coffee industry is enjoyable, but hard work, if it’s done right, so don’t get into the business because you want to see the world. Do something else that pays better and then travel later.

Each of these unique aspects of our industry makes it highly idiosyncratic and a tad unpredictable. It may be assumed that these characteristics will not change, or perhaps, except for the advancement of training and a generally more formalized educational track, things will continue as they have. Through it all, however, a strong “grounding” in product knowledge and experience at the cupping table can help keep you focused, no matter what career trajectory you envision. Further, understanding the transit that coffee makes from seed to cup will help you put your goals in context and become better able to evaluate whether the entire organism of the coffee industry will accept or reject what you are trying to bring to it. You may believe, for example, that if you’re able to sell a certain type of coffee to folks that drink it, that the coffee farmers will support it, but if you don’t truly understand the workings of the supply chain, you may find that you’re trying to sell something that growers would just as soon not produce.

The previously mentioned “personal” element of this business points to another thing that distinguishes our industry: While there are many people in coffee that have done very well financially, it is not a business that is notable for making people rich. Most of the people working in coffee do it because they really love it; a smart, lucky few have become wealthy and an even smaller cohort have made fortunes. While discussing “Building a Career in the Coffee Industry” then, perhaps the most important question is, what do you want from it? Because most folks, when discussing why they got into this business, will not tell you (as they will in many other industries) that they saw a financial opportunity or innovation that they knew would make them rich. But a few have, and most of the ones that set that as their goal have usually achieved it.

And while I am on the “personal” subject, it touches me to reflect that when I was first starting out in the coffee business how helpful my prospective customers were in guiding and advising me but, ironically, it was my prospective competitors who were even more helpful…that over-used phrase (these days), “reaching out”, is a very worthwhile endeavor as you try to find your way through a career in coffee and it’s often the folks from whom you’d least likely expect help that you will get the most.

Which leads to another source of amazement: how much more we have to learn about what we do, and how we get from the fabled “seed to cup.” What is the best way to grow coffee? (no one knows); to process it? (same story); to ship it? (we’re working on that); to roast it? (let’s not start on that one). We do know a lot more about storage and shelf life than we did thirty to forty years ago. We are also more in agreement when we taste coffee, thanks to the cupping classes, the “Q” Grader program, and the frequent formalized cuppings in which many buyers and sellers of green coffee now regularly participate. We even have a word for it: we’re more “calibrated”.

The case must be made, then for anyone who thinks they might be working in the coffee business for more than a year or two, to develop a solid background in “sensory analysis”, or, more specifically, “cupping”, or, more simply, “tasting coffee”, is crucial. Having some clue what coffee can taste like, what it “should” taste like, and what it “shouldn’t” taste like is critical and something that everyone on the team should have some familiarity with. A well-defined personal point of view is necessary to keep oneself on terra firma, even if your personal preferences are not aligned with those of your company, your “team”, and/or your customers.

So, make sure you can cup and that you are calibrated with other cuppers. But also know what you like, what you don’t, and why. The cupping classes that lead to the “Q” grade certification are a great start, but there is no replacement for experience and for constantly keeping your cupping skills “refreshed”, no matter what role you play in the industry. The taste of coffee is the engine that keeps our industry flourishing, and it is the medium in which we will all sink or swim. That doesn’t mean everyone will like the same thing, but knowing what we like and what we don’t, and being able to define that verbally and in writing to the people with whom we work, will help us all keep our own careers and our industry on track.

Career coffee executives hired in from a headhunter often spend an afternoon in the cupping lab and figure they’ve “got it” and hike on over to the executive suite and stay there for the rest of their stint at the company, often to ill effect. It is a good idea to know what it takes to achieve and maintain a certain level of quality – a certain cup profile for each offering, whether it be a blend or single origin, and what it takes to achieve consistency in each – both in terms of time and relative expense. Since the necessary resources that must be applied to each change over time, it is also a good idea to check in regularly with what’s going on in the cupping room. It’s a good bet, anecdotally at least, that coffee companies with a top to bottom understanding of the product they’re selling are more likely to succeed and prevail than ones that don’t, regardless of the quality niche in which they choose to compete.

Knowing how to cup coffee is important, and being calibrated with your peers is, as well, but more important is being calibrated with the folks that drink your coffee. This is a little harder because your customers are not going to provide you with their cupping sheets and discuss each of your coffees with you for ten or fifteen minutes. They’re either going to drink it and buy it again, or they’re not. Most important is to know why the coffee drinkers that bought your coffee again did so. They are already your customers, and keeping a customer is always a little easier (but no slam dunk—this pun also not intended, but readily adopted) than winning one over. Regardless of what specialization you pursue in this complex industry, it’s important to understand what it is about your product that people like.

That’s a key element: understanding coffee drinkers* can’t be done without the help of other folks who can add insight in terms of pricing, perception and branding. It is striking, then, that the “people-y-ness” of our industry is often a culture that does not extend far beyond the group of folks that work very specifically with coffee. The “others” (the non-coffee focused people) feel out of the loop and tend to pursue their own disciplines (notably marketing and finance) very independently of what is going on in the coffee department. This is unfortunate, because our industry could benefit a great deal from more exchange of expertise and experience between the “coffee folks” and, most pointedly, from those in finance and marketing. There is often an adversarial relationship between these functions and the people that perform them, but a lot could be gained from facilitating their working seamlessly together. In fact, a career could be built upon that alone. This is not to say, from, it must be noted, a picky coffee person, that marketing and finance folks might be well-advised to make the time to consider that coffee – and all the other things humans choose to consume – are more than commodities and/or bar-coded “buy-ables.”

It has often been observed that it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of people to assemble a pound of beans and bring them to market and to get them made into a pot of coffee, just as it takes hundreds of beans to make that pot of coffee. There isn’t much opportunity for heroics (a little bit, now and then) but much more opportunity for working together.

Now, in case the reader is about to accuse the writer of not answering the question, here it is:

1) Stay grounded in the taste of coffee, and appreciate that cup you have in the morning. Understand, completely, how it got there.

2) Have a focused goal, but be prepared to change it, as it may become irrelevant.

3) Recognize that we’re all on the same team and value the “input” from your competitors as much as you do from your co-workers.

4) Learn to value the resources that everyone on your team can bring to bear upon solving problems and meeting challenges.

5) Have another cup of coffee and remind yourself, this is why you’re doing what you’re doing. Make sure you still want to be doing it. Not that you shouldn’t, but it’s a question that needs to be asked with every sip.

* A good friend, years ago, asked me not to call coffee drinkers “consumers,” and I agreed.

For 30+ years, Tim Castle has sold green coffee and has been writing about coffee and tea. Castle co-authored The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and wrote The Perfect Cup, (Perseus Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle received the SCAA’s Distinguished Author Award and was the Association’s president in 1991. Presently, he is launching a blog: www.CoffeeCurmudgeon.com. (Even though he has been told that no one reads blogs anymore.)