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?

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