Back in January, Sprudge announced our reader-selected winners for the 8th Annual Sprudgie Awards, honoring the best and brightest in global coffee. We were thrilled with our reader's selections this seasons, especially for the all-important final award of the evening, the award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.
Past Outstanding Achievement awardees have been global organizers (Third Wave Wichteln founders Markus Reuter, André Krüger, and Thorsten Keller), industry leaders gone too soon (Jim Karr), trendsetting entrepreneurs (Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski of G&B Coffee / Go Get Em Tiger), event visionaries (Gerra Harrigan, for her work with the Mid-Atlantic Northeast Coffee Conference), competition mavens (Marcus Boni for his work in the 2011 US Barista Championship cycle), and influential green coffee buyers (Aleco Chigounis, Stephen Vick). But never before has the award been given to a working barista.
That changed in 2016 when Michelle Johnson—a Phoenix coffee professional, competition barista, publisher and speaker—was selected by our readers for this distinguished honor. Johnson's work as the author of The Chocolate Barista has resulted in some of the most thoughtful coffee writing of 2016—an honor for which she was also nominated—especially for essays like Clearing Eggshells and A Word on Inclusion and Representation. These works, along with her ongoing work as a coffee professional and her daily content via Instagram and Twitter, resulted in a body of work we felt most certainly deserved recognition in the 2016 Sprudgies. Happily, our readers agreed.
We caught up with Michelle a few months on from receiving this award, to check in on what she's got planned next for the Chocolate Barista, and to reflect on the challenges and opportunities she faces on her own path through a life in coffee. Sprudge co-founder Zachary Carlsen spoke with Michelle Johnson digitally from Phoenix.
Hey, Michelle! Thanks for talking with me. You're the first working barista to win a Sprudgie Award for the Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence—what does this mean to you?
That's so crazy to think about, and I hope I'm not the last! Since baristas haven't received this award before, I always thought it was unattainable. It goes to show the impact baristas can have on the industry as a whole. Baristas are just as important to the grand scheme of coffee as other roles along the supply chain. We are an extremely valuable part of the overall coffee market and what we do for our guests and each other should be recognized!
You are also a competition level barista, and we've covered your routines several times over the last few seasons. What do you like about competing?
Oh, competition. I love to hate and hate to love competition (laughs). But I enjoy it because it forces me to improve my technical skill every time and each year, I try to focus on one thing to improve upon. I made huge progress in my palette development and discerning tasting notes with this last competition, so that was a personal win for me. Other than that, competition is a great excuse to see a ton of people I don't get to see that often, make new friends, and turn all the way up at the parties!
In your routine in Austin you said, “If there’s something that has the power to make a positive change around the world, it’s coffee.” Can you expand on that?
The coffee industry is really young in comparison to tea, beer, and wine–specialty coffee is younger than them all. What sets coffee apart, though, is its accessibility. It doesn't matter if you're getting coffee from a high-end coffee shop or McDonald's, it's accessible at varying price points, giving it an innumerable amount of reach.
We are already creating and improving systems to make coffee sustainable for the people cultivating it, but what I wanted to focus on in my routine is the retail side of it. The barista's ability to promote positivity is truly endless. It could be in the interactions they have with customers. It can come from coffee community efforts to promote wellness and self-care or even connecting with outside communities for everyone's benefit. (i.e. volunteering, serving coffee at a rally, etc.) There's no right or wrong way to do it, but this industry, along all parts of the supply chain, has that ability to do some really amazing work and set an example. So, let's do it!
How did your website The Chocolate Barista get started?
I've had the idea for The Chocolate Barista since late 2014, right around my first time competing at the Big Western Regional Barista Competition in Palm Springs. I was in college at the time so the focus was going to be about juggling school, my passion for my career in coffee, and working to bring together the Phoenix coffee community. I put the idea off for a year, dropped out of college in that time, and decided to shift the focus towards lifestyle blogging but as a barista. I still wanted to focus on what was going on in here in Phoenix and plan to shed more light on our growing community! My good friends, Kristine Morgan and Alex Leiphart really helped put a fire under me to finally get going with their work on the website video (a new one is coming out soon) and overall branding, respectively.
I always had it in mind to bring up my experiences as a Black woman in the industry, and I'll be honest and share that I wasn't prepared to make that a focus. The overwhelming support I received after the Black Cup of Excellence post and over time, seeing how these conversations have affected the industry and helped Black and brown people within it gain voice helped me realize the importance of it all. I mean, this is my life! Of course it's important, but everyone tiptoes around the race conversation and I got tired of it. So, here I am raising hell (laughs).
How do you plan on expanding The Chocolate Barista as a platform?
I have so much that I want to do, it's ridiculous. I have major issues with project managing myself and jumping the gun on my ideas, but I'm learning! Something that's really important to me is making sure my walk matches my talk. I want to do something! I have some really cool events in the works that are local to Phoenix and beyond. I'm in the preliminary stages of exploring product development that's inclusive and also for the cause. I'm also looking into non-profit work that isn't necessarily by The Chocolate Barista as a brand, but will help empower and inspire career advancement for people of color in the coffee industry. I'm only one woman, but I want to do it all!
You have started speaking at events like Tamper Tantrum. What have your talks been about and how has the response been?
So far, Tamper Tantrum NYC has been the only event where I've spoken and it was life-changing. That talk was about laying the groundwork for diversity to grow and flourish within the coffee industry. I touched on changes we could make to our hiring practices, implicit biases we have towards people that may affect hiring and customer service, coffee's role in gentrification, and tokenization. It was a sobering talk, for sure, but the response to it has been extremely positive. I've had multiple people tell me they've used that talk to guide them as they open up or make changes at their own shops. That's been really rewarding.
Will you be speaking at any more engagements in 2017?
I don't have any planned yet, but I want to do more! Hit me up!
Who is your coffee hero?
Lem Butler. The first time I remember meeting Lem was years ago when I was at a Counter Culture course back in DC. I didn't say anything to him but I just remember thinking about how cool he was. His visibility in the coffee industry has been inspiring to me and paved a way for me to do coffee the way I want to do it. I saw him again in Kansas City last year and I was starstruck. But we got to talk a little bit about being Black in coffee and it was refreshing to have a short conversation about it with him. He's so tight.
If you could make coffee for anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
Barry Jenkins. Because he already gets it! We all saw that Four Barrel video he made and the photo of him, his Chemex, and Baratza grinder. I'd LOVE to nerd out about home brewing with him. Maybe he'll cast me as a barista in his next film.
Thank you, Michelle.
Top photos by Zaida Dedolph.