A leap of faith: The journey from barista to coffee roaster
The leap from barista to roaster is a journey taken by many within the coffee industry. Matt Haw explores the career paths of three roasters – Darren Kelly, Ben Symes, and James O’Leary – to find out how and why they made the leap.
For some, the idea of becoming a coffee roaster is irresistible.
The opportunity to taste and work with a variety of interesting coffees on a day-to-day basis, while developing a deeper knowledge of the supply chain and closer relationships with producers can seem like a dream come true.
However, a well-trodden path to becoming a roaster is difficult to find. Where some fall into the profession by accident, others set their hearts on it from the start, learning to roast, source, and market coffee from the very onset of their working lives.
That said, one of the most common routes to becoming a roaster involves starting out as a barista – and working “backwards” along the supply chain. Here are the experiences of three successful baristas-turned-roasters.
Room to grow
Darren Kelly has been head of coffee at restaurant and hospitality company KSG since 2019. Having worked in Dublin as a barista for three-and-a-half years, he first made the leap into roasting in 2013 under the tutelage of Cloud Picker Coffee – something he puts down to “chance and good timing”.
“My roasting career was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time,” Darren recalls. “When I was at Science Gallery, I would work my barista shift from 7.30am to 2pm, and then commute to the Cloud Picker roastery to help out with packing coffee and preparing orders for delivery.
“It was considered a small company at the time, so the experience and opportunities to grow were incredible. I gradually inherited more and more responsibilities, before becoming a full-time roaster and, eventually, head roaster and QC manager.”
This is a familiar path for many baristas-turned-roasters – including Tim Wendelboe’s wholesale manager, Ben Symes.
Previously the company’s head roaster, Ben originally moved from Australia to Norway in the mid-2000s to work as an English teacher. On the side, he worked at a local café and admits that he loved that so much more than the teaching.
It was while working at Oslo-based speciality coffee shop Fuglen alongside head barista, Martine, that he started to pay more attention to the roasting side of the supply chain.
“Martine was kind of my guru,” Ben says. “Together, we started contacting some of the roasteries and going up to cuppings, asking questions, and learning more about the product we were serving.”
Ben’s chance came when Fuglen expanded its operations, opening a café and roastery in Tokyo. He was then sent on a crash-course apprenticeship at Kaffa in Oslo and was trained in how to roast coffee. “It was really exciting, there was a long period where I got to dig deep into roasting and coffee production.”
Demystifying the industry
While working as a barista puts people within proximity of roasting and therefore increases the likelihood of falling into it, one of the biggest draws is the curiosity around the profession.
James O’Leary, who today works as the head roaster at Cloud Picker Coffee, says he remembers a very real “sense of mystery” when it came to roasting.
When he finally started working in a roastery, he initially enjoyed the long hours packing and sticking labels on bags – before moving into the actual roasting side of things. “It took me a few months to get comfortable with roasting and connecting what I was seeing in the curves to what I was tasting in the cups.
“But analysing lots of roasts and having the freedom to experiment allowed me to quickly develop a feel for the equipment.”
Ben had a similar experience. “I thought it seemed like quite a glamorous job,” he says. “But you soon realise this is not the case. Working in a start-up means you’re doing everything yourself, mostly fulfilling orders and packing. Roasting and quality control probably only takes up 15% of your working week.”
Although he misses his regular customers in the café, he says that, ten years ago, becoming a roaster felt like the only way to progress further in the coffee industry.
Key skills for baristas
Embarking on a career as a roaster can seem daunting. Like cooking, it treads the line between science and art, while requiring considerable time and concentration to improve.
Many roasters will spend years honing their craft, and, such is its complexity, most will readily admit that you can never learn it all.
That said, a number of the skills you learn as a barista are not only transferrable to roasting, but essential. In particular, the ability to taste the subtle differences between coffees and the factors that influence them can help elevate their position.
“I had to learn an incredible amount of new skills which I carry with me today not just in my profession but in everyday life,” Darren says.
“The main skill you need as a roaster is cupping and tasting. To me, this is the most important skill which you can’t learn online. You learn by doing.”
Similarly, Ben advises any barista who wants to take the step to become a roaster to take the opportunity to cup as much as possible.
“Roasting is such a complicated process,” he explains. “The key thing is to train your palette, cup coffees that are under-roasted or over-developed or showing signs of defects. Learn how to taste the coffees and work backwards from there.”