ARTICLE BY: Thandoluhle Mnyandu
A few moments of curiosity and intrigue, followed by a deep dive into a bottomless rabbit hole and lastly the passion for education. These are the answers to the question I so often get asked: Why a career in coffee?
In slightly unorthodox fashion, my initial attraction to coffee was not through the beverage itself, but rather the business of coffee. The chain of production, ‘crop to cup’, is what fascinated me the most about coffee. This fascination came about through a random internet article which I have no idea how and why I stumbled across.
This short read would prove to change everything that I had planned for life after high school. I spent the night clicking on algorithm generated links regarding the businesses, the people , the culture, and their collective impact on what I discovered was called “specialty coffee”.
There are varying understandings of this term, but the definition I align with the most at this point in my career is the one of Nomad Coffee Club in the US: specialty coffee focuses on quality, consistency, roasting, brewing methods and transparent green coffee sourcing. Essentially, we are dealing with the entire coffee chain in a more intricate and intimate manner.
With innovative ideas and intentionality front of mind, I believed my contribution could influence this chain, this is where I want to make an impact. Working for a business that sources green coffee ethically and fairly, investing in further educating/training café baristas within my immediate reach. In a country with a vast social disparity due to unemployment and lack of skills training, I could see my goal clearly.
In that moment, these were the aspirations that kept me motivated. I certainly believed, and still believe, that achieving this would have a positive impact on the people and the cultural influences of specialty coffee. I knew that I wanted to know more, I wanted knowledge but lacked a place to look to for it.
I had little to no reference point for this industry I had discovered. Though, with the curiosity still burning, I searched and asked around until I was pointed to a local café and roastery. Now, reflecting on this point in my journey, this is a major problem. There is a barrier to information that scales an almost-impossible height. Where do you go as the new guy in an ocean of industry secrets? It’s this overwhelming failure that I find purpose in.
During this first visit, I organised to volunteer for both the roastery and bar teams for 2 weeks of the school holidays after my exams. Without any specific roles, I found myself batching green coffee for the roaster, washing dishes, clearing tables and taking orders-all in an effort to be as close to the action as possible. Without any intention, I learnt how to make coffee. From volunteer, to an informally trained barista.
The passion for education was evident in me and the people that worked in the business. My teachers pointed out my eagerness to challenge and thought to seek detailed explanations of what I was being told. Again, looking back, this is the attitude one needs to have: the drive to look beyond surface level. Constantly learning and never being satisfied was the motto of this phase of my journey.
Without plans to follow the traditional route of university studies, I continued the search for a barista role in specialty coffee, which I successfully got at a speciality café in Kloof, Durban. This was the point in my coffee career where I invested more time and resources into gaining knowledge about coffee preparation and the chain of speciality coffee as I had initially set out to do.
Creating a community through meeting people with the same interests and passion for speciality coffee was extremely important. This was the next step in my self-prescribed education. Through this network, the opportunity to work for Bluebird Coffee Roastery came about. An institution. A hub of knowledge and expertise. A place of studied approach to high-end of specialty coffee.
I keep my job description in a liquid state. I simply study for a living and I’m involved everywhere that I’m allowed to be. I am gathering relevant information, with the goal of passing it on to those with eager ears. As I learn in this industry, I have discovered a lot being done wrong; unjust practices, misinformation and unsustainable ethoses that run so deep it’s hard to identify them. Too many times, people are not put first.
I see myself working towards creating a platform where certain voices are better heard. Where information and opportunity are more accessible to all people. I feel strongly that in the South African context, we are at a point of serious shift. There is drive to not only improve quality of coffee, but life in coffee. I’m more eager than ever to be part of this industry.
There’s work to be done and immense fun to be had. If there is to be an ultimate goal, it would be for my work and the business I work for to become a reference point, inspiration and source of accessible information for aspiring coffee professionals.