People of Specialty Coffee: An Interview with Steven Lee


When did you start working in coffee? Was there a moment when you knew that you’d like to make a career out of it?

I started working in the specialty coffee industry in 1996, after graduating from University with a degree in Painting & Drawing and a minor in World Comparative Literature with an emphasis on Folktales and Mythology. In a way, you could say that I was destined to work in coffee…or you could say that—at the time—I had no other usable job skills and a coffee job came around, inadvertently saving my life. I really disliked working in the graphic design field, and the coffee job I landed had medical, dental, and vision care for only 21 hours a week (leaving me with more time to play music). I liked the people I was working with, so it seemed like the natural thing to do.

At this job, I really fell in love with learning about coffee; where it came from, processing, preparation—each of these things held new meaning and significance to me. Over time, my curiosity was rewarded with a job in the training department—it was there that I really felt like I could make a career out of coffee. Working in the training department really fast-tracked my learning, satiated some of my curiosity, and gave me access to the people and resources that would help me to realize that working in coffee was something that I loved and was a part of me, not just a job or what I do.

What was your first experience with SCAA and/or the Roasters Guild? How did this experience impact you?

My first SCAA Expo was in 2007 in Long Beach, California. I remember bringing some of the folks I was training to become trainers to the event to watch the U.S. Barista Championship. This first event was
a bit overwhelming—there was so much information and activity to absorb and process. Truth be told, the experience was a bit intimidating for me at the time.

Over the next couple of years, SCAA became a resource for me as I learned to navigate the educational system and get acquainted with some of the folks involved. When I switched jobs and needed to sample roast, Executive Director Ric Rhinehart and the SCAA staff welcomed me into their offices in Long Beach and let me roast on their equipment. At some point, they even loaned me a roaster to take back to the warehouse so I could get my work done.

The first experience I had with the Roasters Guild was at the Retreat in 2008. I remember feeling relatively new and insecure at the time, but the openness and outpouring of ideas that came out of that weekend remain with me to this day. This experience, and several others like it, really helped cement my decision to become more involved in the SCAA and RG educational programs and volunteering.

With these experiences, I was gifted a sense of community and sense of purpose, and this made me want to give back to that community.


When did you become involved in training and education within your company?

I had been involved with training people in our cafes less formally for a while, but in 2001 I had the opportunity to train staff to work in the San Francisco airport. Through that, I joined the training department and was able to help with content creation, as well as conducting actual trainings, and learn more about the education and training process. At the time, I was mostly training barista skills and basic information on coffee and tea and tasting.

Over the years, I have kept up with my own education, as well as training others. When I switched over to roasting, I developed a training program and curriculum for onboarding new roasters. There were two that went through that program, and they are both still in coffee!

How did this translate into your involvement with training others in the industry through SCAA?

Understanding how to build lesson plans, keeping the pace of a classroom going, holding peoples attention—all of the things that you need to instruct classes for SCAA—helped
me to identify how I would like to best utilize my volunteer time for SCAA. So, when the opportunity came to take the Instructor Development Program (IDP), I grabbed it and began volunteering in classrooms at SCAA Expo and RG Retreat.

What have you learned about teaching people how to roast and/or prepare specialty coffee during your time being involved with SCAA?

I think that the most important thing that I have learned, and what I try to teach after all
of these years, is that there is no single way to teach. Every student is different and each of them comes with their own individual experiences. I always try to learn a little bit more about each student, what they are interested in, what their favorite book is, what music they like…anything that I can use to make the material relatable to them and make the trainings more relevant and personal. In a way, that personal interaction and hands-on aspect of teaching is why I prefer to act as a Station Instructor at Expo and Retreat, rather than a Lead Instructor. The station instructors
get the actual hands on time in a smaller focused group of students and can really make that connection and make those “light bulb moments” happen.

The IDP really helps with the nuts and bolts of adult education, such as how to

prepare a classroom, how to manage time, and how to stay focused and come back around to answering questions in an appropriate manner. I would recommend this for anyone interested in getting more involved in delivering SCAA education, but also to those looking to improve their training programs and procedures within their company.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced when it comes to training or educating people about specialty coffee?

The biggest challenge to educating the public about specialty coffee is overcoming preconceptions about specialty coffee. People tend to think that there is one “best” coffee out there or “best” method of brewing—but the reality is that it all comes down to personal taste.

Educating roasters or coffee professionals about specialty coffee is a bit easier. Everyone wants to be there and everyone is there to learn.

That helps. One challenge that has surfaced, from my perspective, is the lack of experiential learning, with a large focus on the theoretical. This quote sums up my thoughts on this:

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?” —Buddah

What advice would you give to people looking to implement a training program for their company?

Starting a training program can be difficult. Like the arts and music programs in many schools, it is usually the first department to experience cuts when the budget is getting done. It is, however an integral role in how a company is perceived and in maintaining quality across multiple fronts. Better-educated employees feel more empowered and make better-informed decisions; they have more clear expectations and goals and are generally happier at their jobs. If you can tie training back to profitability or sales, a company can see the benefits of having a training program. If you can tie training a skill or a behavior back to how it makes the job easier or faster or better, then the benefit is seen and the trainee is invested in the process. It may be slow going, and it may be a long road, but it is well worth it. Good luck!

10436217_10202410805807838_4741143190612182092_nSteven Lee began his coffee career in 1996 as a barista at Peet’s Coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area. A er spending a number of years in the Training & Education Department of Peet’s, he moved on to help open the Roasting and QC Department at Intelligentsia Coffee’s Los Angeles Roasting Works, where he developed his love for the craft of roasting. Since then he has worked on a number of consultancy projects, and has served as a judge for international coffee competitions. Steven is currently a Certificate Holding Lead Instructor for the SCAA, which allows him the opportunity to teach, help others, and have meaningful conversations about coffee; something he actually enjoys. Steven currently holds the position of Director of Coffee Quality and Education at Groundwork Coffee in Los Angeles where he spends his days cupping coffee, writing educational programs, and figuring out better ways to make coffee brown.