The Journey to Becoming a Coffee Expert

In every coffee professional’s ‘story’ there is at least one defining moment where coffee takes hold and becomes this fabulous mystery that they need to embed themselves in. For some, it’s one moment, and for others, it’s many. Even more so, many baristas from my generation fell into coffee coming from vast and varied backgrounds and career aspirations. This is my story…

From web design to coffee

I grew up in Newcastle, and for the last few years of my schooling, I excelled in computers and art. I aspired to be a graphic designer, and so my first work experience was in an advertising agency, which soon, at the age of sixteen, became a full time job that I left school for. I found myself in a high paced industry with little knowledge and not a lot of training. After a year of being lost I was ‘asked to leave’ and left wondering what I should do. I went back to school and found a slightly different path, which was web design. When I finished my studies in web design, I spent a while searching for work in the industry, trying my hand at some freelance work and looking for casual work in general. It was here that I stumbled into coffee, and my first job in hospitality. My first job in coffee was a week on a coffee cart, and at the end of that week I was told I wouldn’t cut it. Coffee started to catch me with my second opportunity; working in a café on Darby Street in Newcastle, a popular area for cafes. With no training, I was able to work this coffee thing out myself, and soon became the go-to for coffee in the café. This wasn’t a full time coffee role as there were a lot of other things to do – waiting tables, cleaning, cakes, milkshakes… It was a café role, but I really loved it and it got me. After six months there, I noticed a job opportunity in a franchise café that I’d heard of only a few times up until this point; Gloria Jean’s Coffees. A new store was opening up in the Newcastle Mall, and they were looking for a team.

I was given a full time role, and it was here that I finally received my first lot of training from a group of great trainers; this was the first defining moment in my coffee career. For the flack that franchise outlets often get, I will always defend them. The Gloria Jean’s Coffees training program was great. They taught variables, adjusting the grinder (something a lot of coffee brands don’t teach to this day), different milk stretching and pouring onto scales for consistency. I was able to learn about single origin coffees, and soon, coffee made a lot of sense. This really launched my love for coffee and for being a barista; I loved making brews for people every day, getting to know each one of my customers, and building some credibility for being a great barista. I had the opportunity to further my skill with more training at head office – coffee became the only thing I wanted to do. One of the things I loved most was teaching new baristas as they came and went from the shop, and I found I had a natural talent for doing this. I spent four really good years working with a great boss and a great team.

Progressing to competitive coffee

It was whilst working at this GJC that I competed in the 2005 Gloria Jean’s Coffees National Barista Championship and became a top six finalist, which was the the second defining moment in my career. I learnt a lot about myself as a barista, competing and having feedback from judges – something I will cover in more detail later in this blog. This also gave me a great opportunity to meet a whole bunch of people from the office,  and I guess this is where I planted the seed for when an opportunity arose in head office… and it did!

In the middle of 2007, I joined the Gloria Jean’s Coffees head office as a trainer, and I learned a lot about being a trainer. Making coffee and training the odd barista here and there is good… analysing everything you do behind the machine (because ultimately that is what new baristas will mimic) is another thing altogether. Every potential bad habit was eradicated, every word I spoke succinct. I needed to make things simple for all walks – master franchise partners, franchise partners and baristas of all language backgrounds. I remember being involved in a commercial shoot, and I did one process slightly different on film than I did in normal practice. For months following I would hear people say, “But on the commercial you did this!” That, for me, was a moment where I knew I needed to have reasons for everything I did and taught, and be as consistent as possible. The job at GJC took me from being a barista, to being a coffee professional, building reputation and rapport with an industry of people just like me.

Inspired to learn about origin, growing and process

The next big moment for me happened somewhere between 2007 and 2010. I’m not entirely sure of the exact moment, but I can tell you everything about what it did to me. Up until that point, I loved coffee, and I had learnt a lot about its nuances. I had cupped with the QA team and had tasted the differences in coffee. One morning at a well-known café in Marrickville called Coffee Alchemy, I was served an Ethiopian natural processed coffee from a micro lot called Nekisse. I had never tasted a coffee like it; it was so overwhelming with blueberries, and was syrupy sweet. Never had I tasted a coffee so distinct, so easy to define. This is the definitive moment for me that launched me into a need to learn about origin, growing and process, and its effects on coffee. Nekisse showed me that coffee didn’t just have to taste like coffee; as strange as that sounds!

Through a stint with Grinders as a National Training Manager and onto a role with Ona Coffee, I stayed in the hunt for knowledge. I competed in various barista championships, and in 2008 I came third in the Australian Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA) New South Wales Barista Championship, also coming second in 2009. I took some time to judge after that, and in 2012 I moved back into competition. I won the 2012 Danes Australasian Grand Baristas Championship, and placed second in another ASCA NSW Barista Championship. Accolades aside, what competing does for you is unquantifiable. You put yourself in this environment where you need to perfect coffee, accept critique, understand subjective differences, interpret rules and practice like crazy, and that’s not even the 15 minutes you are competing. In that 15 minutes, you have to hold your nerves together, convey everything possible about the coffee you want the judges to know, move with purpose and make minimal mistakes. It’s this whole process though, that gives you an immense amount of information about you as a barista. If anyone ever asks me, I will tell them being involved in ASCA and competing and judging over the years has been the most rewarding thing I could ever have done for my career. It also let me meet a lot of people and I guess that was the beginning of my latest defining moment in coffee; joining the Seven Miles team.

Sharing coffee knowledge at Seven Miles

It wasn’t long ago now I found myself starting a role here, and in the short time since then, I have learned so much. I have had the chance to roast, spend time with the Quality Assurance team, cup, select coffees, train high level classes and go on an origin trip; and that’s just in a year and a half. Furthermore, with the support from Seven Miles, I am given the opportunity to take time out to learn more; this gives me the opportunity to train more of what I learn, bringing me back to a passion I had when I started – sharing knowledge. We have some exciting times coming up at Seven Miles Coffee Roasters. More industry forums, cuppings, coffee pro classes and, of course, using the awesome space we have to spend time training with the industry of coffee professionals around us.

If you told me in the beginning where I would be today I would have laughed. How could I have had so many amazing coffee experiences as a web designer?

Paul Asquith
With 15 years already spent committed to coffee, Paul's passion is for digesting the endless possibilities and knowledge surrounding coffee flavour development. After winning the Australasian Grand Barista Championship in 2012, Paul knows just how good coffee can be and the important role everyone plays, from grower to Barista, in developing and nurturing flavour. Captivated by coffee’s agronomy, Paul is excited to be part of a generation passionate about improving practices on farms and seeing growers produce outstanding coffee. Paul holds a pivotal role within our team. Working side by side with our cupping panel, roasters and trainers, Paul’s focus is on refining our coffee program to ensure it honours the remarkable flavour diversity coffee has to offer and supports best practice at each and every stage.