A Chat with Susie Kealy
Who is Susie Kealy?
Susie Kealy: I thought about the question, “how would you describe me?” In terms of being in the coffee industry, I’ve worked in it for seven years, which feels pretty insane. I started off a barista at 3FE in Dublin and then have now moved to Berlin. I’ve been in quite a few places all over the world working in coffee. I worked as a barista, trainer, head barista, and now I do digital marketing in coffee. I do freelance writing for different coffee magazines and some of my own online stuff. I guess, I’m very on the social side of coffee because some people would consider themselves to be on the tech side, I’m on the organization side. I’m very, very much on the social side.
That’s what barista camp has done for me - I’ve met a lot of friends through events. I can say that I have a friend in most countries who work in coffee because of the way we do connect through these things. I really enjoy the networking and social aspect of it. My interests are also the social humanities part of it. I would always be that person on the bar who would never shut up, talking to customers which is a good and a bad thing.
What does Barista Camp mean to you?
SK: For me, I’ve been to Barista Camp twice. The first time was in 2015, through connections with other people that recommended that I attend Barista Camp, they said it was great. Because I was in Ireland there was a lot of training I couldn’t get, so I went and did the Sensory Intermediate Course. I also attended Barista Camp in Portugal 2018. It was a great way to connect with people, to meet people you would never meet in a million years as well. It’s likely going to that first Barista Camp was what started me going to more international events and volunteering. For me, Barista Camp is a great way to meet other people and further your education – it puts you in an environment that’s focused mainly on learning and connecting.
What classes did you take at Barista Camp?
SK: In Italy 2015, I did Sensory Intermediate and Portugal 2018 I did Brewers Intermediate. That was a great one because you weren’t just socializing with your class, you ended up socializing with everyone because of the events and talks that they put on. There was also free time for people to meet and talk.
So going back to your journey through the coffee industry, you were based in Dublin and moved to Berlin to work as a barista?
SK: I originally started working in coffee in 3FE in Dublin, way way back now. I worked for 3FE for about a year, and worked for a couple of other specialty coffee shops in the area. A lot of people who were trying to introduce specialty coffee within their stores, I was also going to a lot of events. And then I decided that Dublin felt too small in every sense of the word – it’s a small city and a small but close knit coffee community. At the time, I was thinking of moving to London and joining the community there or moving to Berlin. I ended up having interviews in both places and decided to move to Berlin. I started off as a barista for The Barn Roastery and worked for them for two and a half years.
Was it a difficult decision to move countries?
SK: Yes and no, I knew that it was going to be great move for my career and honestly, I think I needed a change of scene because I was starting to dislike coffee a little bit. I wanted to be thrown into something that was completely new – a coffee community where people were doing things differently. I moved to Berlin and met a lot of new people, learned a lot of new skills and learned a tiny bit of German as well. It was a complete different culture, it definitely took me about six months to get used to it but now I’ve been here for almost four years, I don’t regret moving. At the time I wasn’t really thinking about it, I just wanted to move.
Was it a bit of a coffee culture shock moving to Berlin?
SK: Kind of, coffee in Dublin is small so everyone knows each other and we have our own way of doing it. In Dublin, a lot of people were into either local roasteries or roasteries that were just across the water in England. We had a lot of Square Mile, 3FE. and Bailies. We were also into our big funky flavors at 3FE. Coming to Berlin, everyone was more into filter coffee - lots of different ways of approaching filter and espresso. There was a pretty big coffee community here and it’s still growing all the time. I get emails and messages from people I know all the time saying “Hey I got this barista from this country coming over, can you help them out and show them Berlin, help them get settled in and get a job.” In that way I network and help other people get jobs and connect them with cafes, which I really enjoy. It is a much bigger pond, Berlin, in terms of coffee but there’s a lot more challenges, changes, and approaches towards coffee and the community.
You started off as a barista/trainer, moved to digital marketing. What influenced your decision to make that move?
SK: I have a degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies, I was interested in writing, journalistic research, philosophy, and topics like that. Honestly, as a barista you can stay as a barista for so many years; some people do it for their whole lives, some do it for two seasons. At that point, I was in the industry for six years and I just wanted a change. We might all say that your experience makes you better but you do get sick of a routine even if that routine is great. I wanted to combine my passion for coffee with my passion for writing and social media. A job at Acaia came up last year which I chased - I had already been writing for magazines like Standart and Sprudge. It was a great decision to do so.
Were you writing freelance for coffee before moving to digital marketing?
SK: Yes, I wrote a little bit for Standart, the Aeropress Annual, Sprudge, and some of my own writing on my blog, which at this point has died unfortunately. When I was working for The Barn, I was also contributing to their blog and some of the items that needed to be written.
Writing is in your blood and coffee is a passion that works together.
SK: It was a beautiful marriage of things that ended up coming together in a perfect job. When the job at Acaia came up, I was more than delighted to chase it and take it. I still go back and make coffee every so often, help my friends out at cafes. I enjoy making coffee, I just don’t want to be doing it all the time. There’s still a lot of satisfaction in making people coffee and working on a busy bar.
Do you have any advice for baristas who feel like they’ve stagnated in their career and are looking for a chance of pace?
SK: I would wonder if they’ve stagnated in one job or one company because I know a lot of companies are encouraging their baristas to stay as long as possible but I think the best way of not stagnated is to constantly be learning and evolving. If someone is stagnating, it’s because they are not moving forward or changing anything. You could get a job that’s the same routine every day but you could not be satisfied. If someone is stagnating it could mean they need a change of scene, change of company or even getting more involved in different things on the side. Like having other interests that involve coffee or are completely different. I’ve met people who work in the coffee industry and their whole lives are coffee which I couldn’t do because I’d be sick of it within a few weeks. For me if someone is stagnating in their job, they really need to have other passions as well – you can’t put all your energy into one thing or else you’re going to kill it. I would say to try and reach out to change things, broaden your interests, don’t make coffee your only focus. It also makes for better conversation for people who aren’t in coffee!
Do you feel conversations with coffee people tend to revolve around coffee?
SK: This is the thing, you can have a conversation about coffee but the most interesting coffee people have lots of different interests as well. The reason why they are passionate about coffee is because when they want to talk about coffee they can but they’re not talking about it all the time. We talk about coffee because coffee people are usually quite social people and we can have a conversation about anything.
On the note of conversations with coffee people, were there any conversations at Barista Camp that stuck with you?
SK: There’s some really positive things that have come out from attending to Barista Camps stemming from conversations there. Working as a barista, you’re constantly socializing with people, probably saying a hundred-thousand words a day which is a completely different environment to working remotely and freelancing where you suddenly are not talking all the time, you’re looking at walls and computer screens instead of a rolling line of people and a busy bar. At the last Barista camp, I talked with other people who were freelancers and we created a small temporary support network where if we had questions, we could ask each other or if we wanted someone to review something. We gave each other our contacts. That’s something that happened at Barista Camp that we were able to discuss and since then we have helped each other and given feedback to one another. Other things that happen is that you learn skills and see how other people in other countries are approaching coffee which have been some great conversations, you get into big discussions during class. It’s been so interesting to learn how people view, analyze, and tackle issues and problems in coffee.
Did you make any lifelong friends?
SK: Oh yeah, for sure! You’re already putting a bunch of people into a place that have a lot in common, probably around the same personality and social approach. I made friends at camp in 2015 that I still keep in touch with over social media. It’s great because the people I met in 2015, we were all maybe baristas, trainers and roasters, and now to see what they’ve done in their careers – they might have left coffee, but they are still approaching it in a passionate way. Now I attend events around the world, meet them, and see what they’re doing and they’re all either in coffee or a similar type of industry, but they’ve all climbed and are doing very well now. Going to Barista Camp was a show of passion, they kept climbing and now they’re doing great. It’s been this thing where on social media I’ve seen people do better and better, and getting stronger, changing, and find their passions.
Speaking of progression, is there anyone you met at camp who you feel played a role in your career progression?
SK: Probably! I have to think about it. You meet so many people. I’d said from 2015 camp, I’ve met a lot of people who were volunteers and ASTs at that point. The team from the Barista Guild and SCA – Kim, Hannah and Isa, I’ve kept in touch with them over the years and they encouraged me to volunteer at events which I’ve done. And then other people who were volunteering and attending, since the camp – I volunteered as head volunteer at World of Coffee events, running the espresso bar in Dublin, running the filter bar in Budapest, and photography in Amsterdam. If it wasn’t for making those connections earlier on I wouldn’t have ended up volunteering. Having connections with the SCA and World Coffee Events has been so integral to my career.
It’s great to see your writing, especially the items you wrote for World of Coffee Berlin.
SK: I’ve known the editor Jenn Rugolo for ages, from way back in my 3FE days, because she also used to work there. Those are the connections that keep coming back, you make lifelong friends. It’s where you can connect, find jobs. I wrote the volunteer spotlights for Berlin and Boston and I really enjoyed them.
Attending events, taking part, and learning, you end up being a big part of the community; the more you feed into it, the more it feeds back to you.
How did you feel about World of Coffee coming to your home city of Berlin?
SK: It came to my hometown town twice! It’s been in Dublin when I had just moved to Berlin, it was almost like a homecoming – it was great! Coming to Berlin this year, everyone was very excited and stressed. It was like “it’s your time to play host” – people were getting in touch to ask about where to go and where to eat, what transport do I get on? That part of the role I really enjoyed and those are the times where I feel in my element, when I can show people around and give people recommendations and what I love about this city and how it functions.
I always try not to throw people at jobs just because they’re there, but more because they’re a good fit. It all seems to have worked out because most of my friends have jobs that they’re really happy with, I think! It’s nice to be the networking person and the person who helps to connect people.
Thinking about your overall experience at camp, what is your fondest memory?
SK: For Italy, it was definitely the social aspect of it. There were those terrifying moments in the exams but I thought it was great. It was the last day of our exams and we wanted to enjoy ourselves and ended up running into the sea. For Portugal, there was a lot of sitting sitting together and connecting. There was one point where everyone was sitting and introducing themselves, exchanging social media handles, what would happen from seeing these interactions starting is that you’d see these people at other events and meeting up again, becoming very good friends and providing support for each other. You can see that I come from the social aspect, for me I love seeing these strong connections within the industry and people being able to rely on each other.
I’ve heard people say that not enough people are interested in coffee education and learning – they all just want to be there to chat, some people are like that! The thing with coffee, if you want to get people interested in learning about coffee, you first need a small interest within themselves and surround them with passionate people to teach them. If you can communicate why you’re passionate about something, you’ll find it a lot easier to educate people as well. At Barista Camp you’re surrounded by people who are passionate as well so it’s quite infectious and people get more involved and serious about learning and achieving. All the trainers there do want you to succeed.
Do you feel supported as a coffee professional by the trainers?
SK: Absolutely! A lot of the people who were at Barista Camp came from small cities and communities. It was almost like a recharge for them, being with other people who were just as interested in coffee as they are. Having this recharge, you feel that much more involved and driven to make coffee better and communicate it to people at home.
Susie will be heading to Barista Camp, join her in Anavissos, Greece from September 10-13, 2019. For more information visit the website here.