Josh Is Currently Wholesale Manager at Coava Coffee Roasters
1. What’s your background in coffee?
For most of my life I was raised by my grandparents, two people who seemingly derived all their nutrition, sustenance, and energy from two sources: Cigarettes & Coffee. When I was two, my grandfather gave me my very own coffee mug: a 2-ounce mug-shaped shot glass that I would excitedly put equal ratios of coffee, milk, and sugar into and sit and drink coffee with my family.
As I got older and started to taste coffee made at local coffee shops (there were much less of them back then), I began to wonder why their coffee tasted much, much better than my grandparents. This started my descent from ‘coffee admirer’ to ‘barista’.
Baristas at their core are tinkerers: always changing tiny variables and techniques in the interest of yielding a better product.
My first idea was that my grandparents’ Mr. Coffee was far too dirty to ever produce good coffee. So at the age of 11, I used my allowance to purchase my own personal Mr. Coffee machine that never left my room. Empowered by my purchase, I ensured that I meticulously cleaned my machine and I constantly refined my parameters (Dose, ratio, grind, etc.) to try and achieve a better cup of coffee. After less-than-adequate results, I chose a different variable to attack: the coffee bean. This was before the Stumptown/Intelligentsia Third Wave revolution, so my options for an “upgrade” really meant buying whatever was in the bulk bins at Safeway. Again, I yielded limited results.
2. How did you come to coffee as a profession / industry?
I attended Franklin High School, just five blocks away from Stumptown’s inaugural location. Once I stepped into Stumptown and tasted their coffee, I couldn’t get enough. It was exactly what I was trying to achieve at home. I would repeatedly pester the baristas for any tidbit of coffee wisdom that they could impart to me. One barista named April was particularly patient with me and I am forever thankful for that. I can only imagine some doe-eyed green high-school boy on his lunch break incessantly hounding you for coffee facts while you are trying to work can get pretty annoying, and she always treated me very well.
From there, I sought out barista positions all over Portland, starting at a now-defunct space called Ramekin’s Cafe, Starbucks, Bipartisan Cafe, and Water Avenue Coffee. I then became a barista educator and lead trainer at the American Barista and Coffee School.
After 10+ years, I traded in my apron for a desk and started working in the wholesale department at Water Avenue Coffee. For more than three years, I wore many hats for the company. In early 2017, I accepted a position as the Wholesale Manager at Coava Coffee Roasters. That history is still being written.
3. How has the coffee scene changed in Portland since you started?
The coffee scene is unrecognizable when compared to its earlier years. The “Third Wave” coffee revolution was really pioneered by Stumptown and Intelligentsia. Before their rise in the late 90s – early 2000s, the quality of coffee as an agricultural product was wholly overlooked. Coffee quality was derived more by the combination of flavor syrups you added to a latte or by how “Strong” or “Weak” your drip coffee was.
Stumptown really brought to Portland’s attention that what we are buying is a processed fruit, and similar to wine grapes, not all are created equally. Cultivars have different characteristics, regions lend to different profiles, and farming/processing practices can have incredible effects on the flavor of coffee. Experienced chefs will always say you have to respect the ingredients, and the coffee seeds are our ingredients.
When Stumptown first sold to TSG Holding in Q2 2011, it began Stumptown’s slow descent from the pinnacle of Portland Coffee. By that time, competitors like Coava Coffee, Water Avenue Coffee, Nossa Familia and others had already popped up and began to share their own philosophies and broaden Portland’s views on what a good cup of coffee can taste like.
Portlanders are fiercely loyal to “Local” brands, but that ferocity truly shows itself only when they feel their loyalty has been betrayed. As Stumptown expanded to New York, Seattle, and LA, Portland coffee professionals questioned their intent. When 90% of the company was sold to TSG, we all held our breaths, hoping things wouldn’t change too drastically or too quickly. The nail in the coffin for Stumptown came when Peet’s Coffee, owned by JAB Holdings out of Luxembourg, purchased Stumptown completely.
Shortly thereafter, JAB would also purchase Intelligentsia, owning both of the companies responsible for kick-starting the Third Wave coffee movement. Tears from baristas all over the world were shed that day.
4. Is Portland leading global trends or merely keeping pace (or something else in relation to the rest of the country / world) when it comes to coffee?
Today, instead of one name commanding a majority of the specialty coffee market in Portland, we have a plethora of artisans and entrepreneurs creating delicious products. Each roaster has a unique mission and philosophy that they bring to the table. I think this is largely a good thing, and with so many high-quality options, I still believe that Portland is at the forefront in the industry. My critique on the coffee landscape as it is now is two-pronged:
● The story about “Sustainably sourcing coffee” through certs like ‘direct trade’ and ‘farm direct’ are more a marketing move rather than a true sourcing ideal. If you get the direct trade spiel, challenge that company to tell you specifics about what that ACTUALLY means for that specific farmer. This sourcing story is bought and sold, so if you hear these terms, take it with a grain of salt. Some out there are doing it right and making big strides, and some are piggy-backing on our hard work.
● Currently, coffee roasters are trying to differentiate themselves by finding “The NEXT big thing!”. You see this with products like deconstructed lattes, barrel-aged coffee, and rebranding lattes as “Flat Whites,” just to name a few. Rather than constantly trying to redefine ourselves, I feel it is imperative to REFINE our trade and to become better at what we love doing: sourcing, roasting, and brewing delicious coffee. There is a reason why so many people love our coffees. We put a lot of time and effort into experimenting and learning the nuances, but we know we can still do even better. Like I said before: we are tinkerers, always striving to achieve a Better product. Let’s not lose sight of this by chasing the next marketing opportunity or Unicorn Frappuccino.
5. If someone were interested in getting into a career in coffee, what would you suggest they do (for a great long-term option with potential), or how would you suggest they begin? Obstacles to be aware of? Great hidden benefits?
There is so much opportunity in coffee. Unlike wine, beer, and restaurants, coffee is a relatively young industry with advancements in understanding happening every single day.
My advice to anybody looking to break into this market is this: Find a few local cafes, apply, apply again, and when you get your opportunity, show that you are ready and willing to do a lot of hard work. When I consult for new business owners, one key piece of advice I give is to hire for personality, not coffee experience. Coffee techniques can be trained, but if somebody is not willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter if they’re the best barista this world has ever seen.
You will not last long in this industry if you are not willing to work hard and adapt. From the barista’s perspective, this means being receptive and ready to learn.
Every single roaster will have different training programs, criteria, recipes, etc. You have to be able to humble yourself and hear what the educators are saying. Roasters establish best practices based on the specific product that they make, know, and love. These practices often differ from competitors, but it is important that you remember that does not mean that either of them is wrong, just different and tailored to their brand.
6. Where do you see yourself in the coffee business in the future? Any big plans?
Right now, I’m in the midst of planning a wedding, honeymoon, being a father to a lovely 8-year old daughter, and saving for a down payment on a house before I get completely priced out of my hometown. So I certainly have no “big plans” in the near future. I’m just trying to keep everything steady until I meet some of my personal life goals.
After that, who knows? My partner and I both have a distinct love for Central and South American cultures, and if I had to project my future in the coffee industry, it would be for philanthropic purposes in these countries.
In the US, we often take the human aspect of coffee for granted. My professional goal would be to somehow give back and improve the lives of the people growing, picking, and working the coffee fields. Whether that came in the form of water purification and access, housing improvements, education improvements for the children living on the farms, or some other cause, I cannot say. But these people have given us so much and received so little credit, and I can’t wait for my chance to give back.