Careers in Coffee: Logging Time

By Thomas Hodges, Director of Coffee, Lamill Coffee

I will begin and conclude this brief article with my own coffee-roasting axiom: “There is no substitute for time behind the iron.”

In fact, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book Outlier even talks about the “ten thousand-hour rule”, stating that it takes ten thousand hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery of a skill or craft. Research has shown that thoughtful practice does indeed lead to perfection. Traditionally, a master taught artisan crafts to his/her apprentice. It was understood that it would take years to master the craft, but that, once learned, the rewards were great enough to justify the sacrifice and drudgery associated with (for example) gathering the firewood, stoking the kilns, sweeping the shavings, or scouring the toilets and floors. The apprentice knew that opportunity was in store by persevering through repetitive monotony. Today, since we are not manufacturers anymore and have little opportunity to make things, the master and apprentice relationship is seldom seen in action. We should probably begin to rethink how we recruit, train, and then retain skilled artisan craftspeople. Young people are discouraged from practicing crafts as a career choice because today formalized education has a much higher perceived value. It astonishes me to know how many career coffee roasters majored in the arts. Many of us who are established in the business took that path and ended up unemployed with no real outlet for creativity. There is not much of a career path for the artisan today, although the relatively recent advent of trade guilds, (RG, BGA) through the SCAA has helped young artisans in our industry get ahead.

The current generation of passionate young individuals who view themselves as being destined to roast coffee share a pressing need to become the most proficient they can in the shortest amount of time. These self-appointed coffee prodigies demand immediate results and become frustrated when things don’t happen according to their own unrealistic goals. The thinking is that with every tidbit of information available to them within a few keystrokes, one could only imagine that a quick study of roasting science, profiles, and technique, combined with some tweaked out  “popcorn popper” action in the basement would surely lead to mastery of this craft. After all, it’s not rocket science. It’s just coffee. Well, think again. This very attitude will most likely produce frustration and eventually disinterest, and then we’ve lost these enterprising souls, who I have nicknamed “leapfrogs”. How do we identify individuals that might be willing to log the necessary “time behind the iron” to truly master this craft?

I have a feeling that trying to spot characteristics or traits in people such as passion, drive, persistence, self-discipline, and determination might lead us astray. It is in the person’s very approach to his/her work that is most likely the key. This approach is how you go about getting better, be it self-guided or mentored. This approach has to be habitual, intentional, and even obsessive, highly disciplined and methodical. One must be able to make one practice purposefully and deliberately and remain engaged while doing so, even when it’s difficult or inconvenient. Finding a passionate, obsessively caring person who has discipline and is habitual in the way they go about their work and deeply cares about it is a sound start to weed out the leapfrogs. I’ve also noticed that caring people seem to find comfort or inner peace through their work, which becomes obvious after working with them. Say we have come across the most caring and passionate individual on the planet. Voila! We now have a roasting candidate. How do we then mentor them along so that they can eventually log their ten thousand hours? It depends on the individual, but there are things mentors can do to help them along their way. A thoughtful mentor can assign goals to an apprentice just beyond his/her skill level, but within reach given a certain amount of continued practice. Doing this is helpful to get to the next level. These are difficult goals, by the way. Visualize a steep staircase with no end in sight. Each step takes one to another level, and the frequency with which an individual steps upward is based on their abilities and aptitudes. A mentor knows where these steps end and helps pace the apprentice. Applying this to roasting coffee, the mentor gives bits of information to take in, such as how ambient air temperature, humidity, density, and moisture content of the bean affects the way the beans take on roast. They might talk about thermodynamics one day, or have the apprentice attempt to explain how air circulates through the roaster another day. The apprentice begins to trust the instruments, and then is told not to. With every tidbit of knowledge they are taking another step, and another. The mentor gives the apprentice recipes to improve so they don’t stagnate along the journey. One day they may find themselves “blindfolded” at the roaster, forced to determine by smell-specific temperatures during the roast cycle all within ten degrees. This is the path, how practice is enhanced and the approach works over time. This is how one does “time behind the iron” and makes it count.

Mastery doesn’t imply perfection, but the pursuit thereof. By purusing perfection, we learn about ourselves. Any of us can achieve mediocrity, it is not until we actually pay the price of mastery through diligence and sacrifice over a long period of time that we can begin to feel fulfilled. Coffee roasting is basically a solitary profession. You spend most of your time literally logging time. You stand for many hours engaging all your senses. Yes, stand—not sit.  You are not engaged when you sit. You sacrifice, sweat, freeze, and ache. You even learn advanced bladder control. You become one with the sixty kilo bag; you lift, drag, maneuver, untie, weigh, measure, and dump. The rewards come the next morning, when you cup your individual roasts. You begin to learn how your approach affects the character of the cup. Every cup has a story, and there is something to be learned from each story.

Mastery is not without sacrifice or without pain, and it does not happen quickly. It is a difficult journey, but the elusive moment when everything comes together perfectly, effortlessly, and even mystically at times is the moment that makes it all worthwhile, and then replicating that experience becomes mastery in action. The price our industry pays for us not having the patience to master our crafts, whether it be roasting, running a successful coffee shop or repairing an espresso machine, is in the dilution of skill and then accompanied by an acceptance of that. This is serious and has consequences.

All craftspeople can benefit from this methodology because focus and practice matters to becoming better at what we do and when combined with patience even more so. I was fortunate enough to have roasting intervention early on from a mentor who logged his hours in Bologna as a youth. The inspiration I derived from his coffee passion, along with the sheer amazement of his uncanny ability to seemingly and consistently make magic happen, was what I needed. This inspiration allowed me to continue the journey in a more self-directed manner while understanding the need to practice. I was fortunate to have opportunities to participate in roasting start-up businesses, established businesses and eventually ownership which led to self-discovery, fulfillment, and of course, more practice.

I am a coffee roaster and this is what I was meant to do and I have found that here is no substitute for time behind the iron.

Let me leave you with the following thoughts: Before you enter the roasting sanctuary, clear your mind. Take in deep breaths of fresh air and look to the heavens. Be happy that you are alive on this earth and are about to face the iron. The iron is your friend! Today you will learn something new, you will perfect a technique, you will purposefully challenge yourself, you will roast with focus and concentration, and you will find beauty in tomorrow’s cups as a result. Don’t allow distractions. Become aware that as you roast, you develop your internal clock. This internal clock talks to the little person inside of your head that tells you that you need to act now before you become too tardy or too fast or even negligent. Embrace repetition as you would a good friend. Above all, be patient. All craftspeople can benefit from this methodology because focus and practice matters to becoming better at what we do, and when combined with patience, even more so.

Thomas Hodges is the Director of Coffee at Lamill Coffee. He strives to remain a humble student of the craft in awe and to see life through a child’s eyes. Having first “discovered” espresso in Naples, Italy, in the early seventies, he developed an undying passion for coffee that eventually led him to roast and cup in all four corners of the United States, and then land on the doorstep of Lamill Coffee, where he continues to roast and mentor those that wish to spend significant time “behind the iron” in sacrifice. When not mentoring, you can find him at origin in quest of the green bean.