Being pregnant is considered, by many, to be a time of joy and a time to celebrate. But for the women on the front lines of the coffee industry, making and tasting coffee amidst that pregnancy glow can make for some brutal challenges. From changing taste buds to extra-sensitivity to smells, the work that goes into making a great brew can be not just difficult but also risky for pregnant coffee professionals.
In 2014, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released an article which cites a meta-study by the European Journal of Epidemiology suggesting that women who consumed even 100 milligrams of caffeine a day had a 14 percent higher risk of miscarriage and a 19 percent higher risk of stillbirth, while current World Health Organization guidelines suggest pregnant women restrict caffeine intake to less than 300mg per day. The implications are eye-opening, yet many coffee professionals helping to make and produce coffee throughout North America have worked through the potential risks, finding ways to keep making great tasting coffee.
Throughout pregnancy, senses kick into overdrive, with hormones dictating the way certain items taste or smell. The changes can happen, intensifying almost overnight, with certain foods or specific beverages becoming either smellier or tastier. “Changes in hormones, like estrogen, during the first trimester can cause the sudden change in sensitivity to odors and flavors. It may also be [because] your blood volume increases in pregnancy so anything moving from your blood to your brain and olfactory centers hits it harder and faster,” explains Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian who writes on the site Abbey’s Kitchen. With smell making up half of what helps us taste, it’s no wonder that baristas, trainers, and coffee roasters may face unique challenges day-in and day-out.
Beyond a woman’s own recreational coffee consumption, professional tasks like cupping, tasting, or dialing in different coffees can all pose added challenges during pregnancy. “My sense of smell was stronger so I could pick up on tasting notes easier,” explains Breanne Kerzee, a cafe manager with Intelligentsia Coffee in New York. But sometimes the increased sensory perception can be a little too much. “I really hated the taste of espresso [while pregnant], which typically was a drink I would crave,” said Kerzee. “It became very difficult for me to be 100 percent happy with my espresso dials and I’d normally get another barista to check it.”
“Coffee became a smell that actually made me feel sick, so working became a little challenging,” shares Andrea Allen, co-owner of Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas. Throughout her pregnancy, Allen had to ask others for help—from moving equipment to double-checking the quality control of her shots.
While pregnant with her second child, Jen Apodaca, Director of Roasting at Royal Coffee in Oakland, says she started to taste menthol in many of the coffees she cupped—a flavor note she had to train herself to ignore. “During my second trimester, I took the Q grader course, which proved to be challenging,” says Apodaca. “It was difficult to identify the outlying cup in triangulations when all of the cups finished with acid reflux. I was also more sensitive to flavors and I had to really concentrate to find my reliable sensory memory cues. I felt like Professor X in Cerebro.”
For many pregnant coffee professionals, finding workarounds to make their professional lives manageable is paramount. The myriad physiological and physical changes that a woman’s body undergoes during the months of pregnancy can affect everything from the subtleties of tasting and dialing in to practical occupational issues like increased bathroom breaks, more frequent meals and hydration, and a need to limit time on one’s feet.
Laila Ghambari, former Director of Coffee at Cherry Street Coffee House and now Director of Education & Training for Stumptown Coffee, found herself training and coaching folks to take part in a barista competition during her pregnancy. While she says she wasn’t very strict about the various dietary restrictions that pregnant women face, she did find that it affected how she could work. “The main concern I had throughout my pregnancy was having too much caffeine,” Ghambari says. “During competition, it was very easy to get over-caffeinated, so I had to watch myself. I would notice I was getting lightheaded due to too much caffeine and becoming dehydrated.”
Ultimately, the biggest challenges for those working in the industry come from the physical changes that can happen to one’s body during pregnancy. Changes in one’s blood chemistry can cause fluids to shift, which can trigger edema, the cause of swelling throughout pregnancy. For many baristas, working an eight- to 10-hour shift can be written off as a typical workday. But research has shown that being on your feet for long periods may reduce a baby’s growth rate and increase the chances of preterm delivery.
“Before I was pregnant, I would work until the work was done, but I had to stop doing that, I was tired,” says Allen. “To be honest, I just pushed through and rested when I needed to,” she says. Allen credits her staff (and husband) with being supportive and helpful, stepping in when Allen couldn’t complete tasks she typically felt up to and providing her the comfort and space to take care of her ever-changing body.
Apodaca experienced a variety of physical changes that impacted her daily work. “Besides feeling absolutely awful with morning sickness and acid reflux, my feet were swollen and I easily knocked things over with my belly,” she says. “Reducing how much I could lift was also a nightmare. I had to make more time to sit and rest between tasks.”
Working in coffee while pregnant is difficult but not impossible, but the post-partum period is no picnic either. As American professionals in any trade know, the United States is one of only two countries in the world—the other being Papua New Guinea—that doesn’t grant paid leave to new mothers. In the United States, The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires most companies to allow their employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave time after the birth of their child. However, this time off is still not guaranteed, as the FMLA also includes specific exceptions to release a business from the obligation of allowing unpaid time off, including size of the company, the time of employment, or level of wages. For a small coffee shop, accommodating such a long period of time off, and being able to return an employee to her prior position, may be a logistical and financial hardship that dissuades the company from protecting the employee.
“We did not have a maternity leave policy so it was something we just had to figure out,” explains Ghambari of her parental time off. During her employment at Cherry Street Coffee House, the business was accommodating and encouraging providing her with two months maternity leave—but Ghambari also had the benefit of working in a company run by her family, like Onyx’s Allen. (Ali Ghambari, Laila’s father, opened the first Cherry Street in the late 90.) Though there can be a flip side to being one of the bosses as well—the combination of desire and necessity to return to work right away.
“I went back to work with River in a sling after one day of being home. I did it because I was bored and I wasn’t doing much,” says Allen. “I kept my workload light and didn’t really come back full force until she was around four months old.”
Apodaca relates, “With Borden, my first, I was off for six weeks and could not afford to be away from work. It was the holiday rush and I would work six days a week. I remember roasting on Sundays to get a head start on the week. I have wonderful memories of roasting coffee in the snow, with a babe at my breast,” she says.
But for others, the return to the working world may not be as picturesque. As well, more women are leaving the service industry to find jobs that are more flexible and accommodating to them, both before and after giving birth. So what can be done? The biggest question that owners can ask themselves is how can they and how will they support their female staff who are making the choices to become pregnant. From being flexible and supportive through pregnancy to following up with paid time off, benefits, and child care funding, women need support in more ways than one.
“Having a newborn at home was much harder than being pregnant, at least for me,” says Allen. Finding the time to sleep, pump, get a newborn out to daycare, and then head to work and do a good job can all be exhausting. More cafes should work alongside their pregnant baristas, trainers, and roasters to find solutions for the future. Those new babies are the next generation of coffee, after all.
Amanda Scriver (@amascriver) is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. Read more Amanda Scriver on Sprudge.