How Three Coffee Champions Built their Careers in Specialty Coffee

People outside of the specialty coffee community have developed the curious assumption that working as a barista is a dead-end job. That it’s a way to earn a little cash between college classes or ‘real’ jobs. That it’s not possible to or earn a real living from working in coffee.

But this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth – there is a myriad of opportunities across the specialty coffee industry, from account manager to coffee consultant, from owning your own café to working bar shifts in one. And there’s a versatility and vitality in the coffee industry that encourages professionals to continuously learn new skills, try different positions and explore their passion within coffee.

To learn more about how to grow a career in coffee, we spoke with three of our Urnex Ambassadors – Mathieu Theis of Switzerland, Maciej Duszak of Poland and Merijn Gijsbers of The Netherlands – about how they got their start in coffee, their current positions, and how to thrive in the industry they love.

The Engineer turned Coffee Shop Owner

Mathieu Theis’s entry to specialty coffee has been, to say the least, unexpected. For 12 years before coffee, he was an engineer. And not the kind of engineering that leads easily into the science of brewing espressos and pour-overs – Mathieu managed the energy consumption of buildings and offices and worked for multinational conglomerates like Honeywell and Siemens. Not exactly a typical precursor for life as a barista competitor and coffee professional.

But Mathieu always had a taste for good food and drink. And one particularly day five years ago, his engineering career took a permanent left turn when he tasted an espresso in a specialty coffee shop that transformed his view on coffee. “At that moment, I fell in love with specialty coffee. I thought, how can coffee taste this delicious and complex?”

Two years ago, wholly bitten by the coffee bug, Mathieu opened a specialty coffee shop in Zurich called MAME with his partner in life and business, Emi Fukahori. Unsure if the café business would work for him, Mathieu kept his day job at Siemens while also running the shop. But after one year, the business proved that it could provide a steady living for Mathieu and Emi. Mathieu was then able to join MAME full time.

Now dedicating all his energy to his business, Mathieu focuses on providing the best possible experience to customers at the shop as well as wrestling the grinder and espresso machine when he’s dialing in a new coffee. Mathieu’s experience competing in coffee competitions (he has twice won the Barista Championship of Switzerland) has better prepared him for running his shop. He said preparing for competition has provided him a deep base of knowledge on coffee, and that the deadline and structure of competition has forced him to work and learn more consistently and efficiently.

Mathieu has a no-comprises philosophy in running the coffee program at MAME – he wants to serve only single origin coffees to showcase the diversity of flavors possible in coffee. This way, maybe Mathieu will inspire a customer to make the same leap into specialty coffee that he did.

From Attorneys’ Desk to Coffeedesk

Similarly to Mathieu, Maciej Duszak’s career in coffee stemmed from a completely different path – for Maciej, it was law. He first tried his hand at coffee while he was attending law school in 2010, landing a job working as a barista for a coffee chain first, and later at the first specialty coffee shop in Wrocław, Poland. But in 2013, Maciej regrettably found himself at an internship at an attorney’s office. But his stint in law didn’t last long. “After one month, I knew I had to get back to coffee.”

Getting back to coffee is exactly what he did. Since 2015, Maciej has been working as a Key Account Manager for Coffeedesk, a Polish online and brick-and-mortar distributor for all things coffee and tea. He said there’s never a boring day on the job and that working for a young and dynamic company encourages him to think outside the box. “That makes every day a new challenge. And after three years with Coffeedesk, I am only more fascinated with what I do.”

Around the time Maciej started working for Coffeedesk, he also participated in his first coffee competition – the Polish Brewers Cup. Since then, he has competed in five national Brewers Cup competitions, and won the championship in 2017. Maciej has received more attention in the coffee community in Poland as an active coffee competitor, and champion. But more importantly, he said competition has given him skills he would have never otherwise gained. “Competition has made me a better barista and person.”

At Coffeedesk, Maciej is responsible for handling some of the company’s biggest customers such as chain coffee shops and large roasteries. Maciej says working with the big players gives him the opportunity to bring specialty coffee to the masses – if he can help his customers understand the beauty of specialty coffee, hundreds of thousands of people around Europe will have the chance to taste delicious coffee they have never been exposed to before.

Maciej is also tasked with training external customers as well as fellow employees on any coffee topic, from brewing to machine cleaning and maintenance. But Maciej began teaching coffee well before his days at Coffeedesk. He created Poland’s first ever vlog about coffee, recording off-the-cuff videos covering a variety of topics, such as how to buy coffee or how to use an Aeropress, for ordinary coffee drinkers who were eager to learn more about the world of coffee. But even two years after his last upload, Maciej still receives comments and questions from people wanting to learn more from Poland’s original digital coffee guru.

The Flexibility of Freelance

Merijn Gijsbers’s work in coffee sums up to the textbook definition of an independent coffee professional. He runs his own company, Het Koffiegenootschap, is a freelance barista and consultant, and represents the plant-based food brand Alpro in addition to Urnex. And Merijn is not at all shy about how much he loves what he does. “I have the best job in the world!”

One reason Merijn is so passionate about his life as an independent coffee pro is because of the versatility of his work. He said he is constantly challenged by his different roles, from tackling coffee business challenges through his consultancy, to inspiring students in his barista school, to engaging consumers as a brand ambassador. These different roles also lead to different workstyles: when freelancing or working as a brand ambassador, Merijn gets a chance to travel to many parts of the Netherlands and Europe and meet people from all over the world. But as the owner of his own company, he can choose to log in hours at home and experiment in his home ‘lab.’

Merijn credits much of the opportunity in his career to winning a coffee competition. As the 2017 Barista Champion of the Netherlands, he said it’s easier to make partnerships with companies or individuals in the industry. He is also able to connect his students from Het Koffiegenootschap with other cafés or plantations for on-site training experiences. But for Merijn, coffee competitions have allowed him to grow personally as well as professionally, developing skills of his craft and gaining lifelong friendships in the community.

With so many tasks to juggle on a day-to-day basis of his work, Merijn said planning is one of the most challenging aspects of a freelancer and business owner. During his work away from home, he must ensure that travel plans for his team, his equipment and himself are airtight, especially in busy times when he travels from one job straight to another. This kind of packed schedule forces Merijn to delegate some of his work, something he said doesn’t come naturally to him. But he knows he can trust and rely on his great team of people, no matter where in the world he is.

One of Merijn’s favorite pieces of coffee advice is to be open to new ideas and to never stop learning. It’s advice that he has truly taken to heart for his career – he learned to speak Italian so he could better communicate with his colleagues at the export department of an Italian coffee roastery. With that kind of work ethic, we can’t wait to see what other skills Merijn adds to his repertoire.