A Chat with Diana Johnston
Describe who Diana Johnston is.
Diana Johnston: As a person, I’d call myself eccentric, eclectic, and striving ever more to be a renaissance man - you know - like da Vinci or Michelangelo. Ever since I was really young, I liked the idea of studying many things to come up with new ideas. People think that all I do is coffee, but it’s not. I also create film and music; I’ve been doing so for some time. When DRWakefield realized I am a filmmaker, they offered me the opportunity to film at origin. So far, I have filmed in two origin countries, Indonesia and Brazil, as well as various talks hosted by DRWakefield, such as our Full Circle event. Sharing stories and experiences, via filming, allows me to bring my two passions together.
What does Barista Camp mean to you?
DJ: Barista Camp is a chance to get away from the noise and distractions of day-to-day life and focus on coffee and all that surrounds it. It allows a person to pursue technical skills and social skills, which are integral in career development and is a place for both intellectual and emotional development.
Tell us about your Barista Camp experience.
DJ: In a way it was a blur of information, relationships, laughs, and long-lasting memories. When I went to Greece, I didn’t know what to expect. There was no expectation other than, “this is going to be a really cool experience to meet a lot of people.” In the end it was a lot like when you go to university: you form close bonds with people who share your passion. I remember waiting for the bus to take us to the airport and everyone having that “we’re going to be best friends forever” feeling. The goodbyes were hard. Reflecting on it now, I still keep in touch with many of the people I met there and they are doing really cool things.
You attended Barista Camp Greece in 2014, describe the career journey you’ve been on through the last 5 years.
DJ: In 2014, I had just moved to London to work for Workshop Coffee and was looking to test my skills in the ‘Big Smoke.’ I had already been working in coffee for 10 years by that time, both in Scotland and California, in various roles from head barista to trainer to head of coffee, but knew that London was pretty much the HUB of the specialty industry and that I would need to go there if I wanted to keep building a career in the UK.
I remember sitting there at camp realizing I had this goal - to move through the supply chain and work in each part until I reach origin. I figured that from working in each area, I could better understand the whole industry. In a sense camp propelled my journey forward because, via the intermediate sensory and lectures I took part in, as well as the conversations I had with other professionals, I understood that the most logical next step in my journey was to begin working in a roastery where I would get closer to both roasting, quality control, and green. Not too long after Barista Camp, I shifted to Workshop Coffee’s roastery, and spent time contributing to the building of new QC systems with others on the production team as well as learning about the mundanities that come with production work. Overall it was great though, as it was where a lot of my QC skills that I currently use were honed. It was this position that later would become the test run for a lot of the systems I refined and implemented at DRWakefield.
After Workshop coffee I was offered an opportunity to work for Taylor Street Baristas as their Head of Training, where I wrote over sixteen different courses and trained over 100 people. That role was the one would that would allow me to give back all the knowledge I had acquired up till then, before moving onto the next stage- Green Coffee.
I now work as the Head of Quality for a green importer called DRWakefield, which is based here in London. My role is versatile and fascinating - and I have the privilege to work with an amazing team. I’ve now been in coffee for 15 years … and I’m still learning.
You are “all about sensory,” do you have any preferred brewing method to unlock the flavors in your coffee?
DJ: It’s the one I always use in the Brewers Cup competition - the clever dripper. On a sensory level, it’s the method that I find most like the initial cupping bowl experience I have with a coffee. I keep using it in competition because of that as well as the fact that it has great temperature stability, consistency, and control. I’ve done countless experiments and found it gives the most consistent and replicable results - which is important for both competition routines as well as café service. It has to do with the materials it’s made of, the immersion system, the fact you can use stirring as part of your extraction technique, and so much more but I could talk about that for hours.
During the 2016-2017 season in the UK, you competed in every single competition. How was your experience?
DJ: That was a crazy experience! I think it was around nine competitions in less than a year - I picked up a few non-SCA ones too. There were several times someone said to me: “Hey, I have a competition happening here, you should do this one as well … seeing as you’re doing them all.” I took up the challenge if they didn’t clash with another competition, but time management was key.
What made you decide to compete in every competition?
DJ: Up until 2017 I had been predominately competing in the UKBC, with a dabble in UKCIGS, but never taking home the trophy. I decided that I really needed to learn about the psychology behind competition – how to stay calm in stressful situations. I thought if I competed in every competition, because they are all so different, my brain would learn how to tailor and build something that would sustain and fit at least one of them.
It's like anything, when you learn one subject and only that subject, it’s hard to be innovative. If you learn a lot of other subjects, usually when you’re learning the other subjects, you think of the ideas for the subjects you’re not studying at that moment. That was the idea – it’s that renaissance concept again - learn many things in order to innovate. Through that experience, I learned how to not dwell. I learned momentum; how to get up, dust myself off, and keep dancing no matter how hard I fell. I found more success in that year than I had before; I placed third in Coffee in Good Spirits, placed top six in barista and brewers finals, and in the roasting competition placed in the top half. That year was a lot about looking inwards, building up resistance, and learning how to not let it bring you down too much. You have to realize every single mess up is a learning experience for next year’s betterment. The next year I competed in the UK Brewers Cup, I placed third – there’s definitely something there. I do sometimes wonder if I should do it again! It’s definitely crazy, it’s not for everyone.
What’s your favorite aspect of competing?
DJ: Storytelling. I realized very early on that I love to use competition as a way to connect back to the person who produced the coffee - give them a voice and celebrate their success. This was my favorite part about being a barista, because as a barista I was able to engage with customers and show them that there is more to a cup of coffee than meets the eye. That every cup of coffee is composed of a series of fingerprints - all those people who made it possible from origin to barista.
Will you be competing during the 2020-2021 season?
DJ: Yes! I’ve just won the UK Roasting Championship, but I think it still counts as the 2019 season. I am also applying to do Coffee Masters, Los Angeles, in November and would like to do UKBrC again. Maybe CIGS as well, if it doesn’t clash with the Brewers Cup. In addition, I started judging and coaching the barista competitions last year and plan to continue with that as I want to contribute back to the competitor.
Was there anything that you learned about yourself that surprised you?
DJ: Yes! I seem to do a lot better under more pressure. When I’m forced into a place where I just have to find a solution, I do a lot better than when I have too much time to think about it. It sounds like an excuse to procrastinate, doesn’t it? It’s not. I notice that if I’m writing an academic paper and I have too much time, I’ll end up with a whole mess of ideas - like four possible concepts but struggle to pick one. If I have no time, I’ll literally streamline into exactly what that piece needs to be.
I also realized that I have love for both logic and science as well as creativity and innovation in equal measures. My mind doesn’t really want to be right brained or left brained - it would rather just play tennis across the two hemispheres. Might explain why when I have too much time to complete a task it’s sort of all over the place at first.
And I guess the last thing is that I have a bit of an obsession with renewing the old rather than choosing the new. If I see a broken table by the side of the road and I can see it could be fixed, I’d rather take it home and make it into something new than leave it there to be forgotten and chucked into a landfill. I don’t like the idea of a world where everything is single use and not made to last.
How did you navigate finding a career in coffee?
DJ: Every year I assessed myself in relation to my role and asked myself if the role fits and if I am happy. I set measurable goals and assessed whether I was achieving the goals I set the year before. I analyzed whether I feel I am both learning from and contributing to the company. Building career means moving forward- becoming better at what you did yesterday and learning something new for tomorrow. Building career is also about finding a company that holds similar values to you - one you can contribute to and grow with long term. You may be really good at your job but feel unhappy because your core beliefs don’t match theirs. Don’t be afraid to move to another company if needed. For me, that’s something that was important in my career success; I was never afraid to step away from a job. And when starting a new job, I tried to understand what that company does, what its goals are and how it operates. I like to get my head around what a company does and believes. From there I can understand how I can contribute and if I fit. After the two-year mark if I felt like there’s strong incompatibility I did not hesitant to leave.
I also spent quite a lot of my free-time networking and participating in various coffee events. I went to festivals and spoke to people, attended cuppings and improved my palate, read books and skill-shared with other coffee professionals. Competition was a huge contributor to my success as it allowed me to learn more about coffee, hone my skills, innovate, and put myself on the radar. The competition scene is pretty great for meeting people, and some of those people may be the ones who hire you or recommend you in the future.
Now I’m in a job at DRWakefield and I’m incredibly happy – I’m in the happiest position and place that I have been in a long time. I’ve gelled incredibly well with the business; the ideals, ethics, thought processes that are happening in this business and the support that I experience is incredible. All those years of making those difficult decisions to change or to step down to learn a new skill made it worth it. Moving forward in career is not always moving up - keep that in mind. One of the most important things for someone to understand is that career progression in the coffee industry takes self-motivation, patience, commitment, and focus.
What advice would you give a barista who wants to explore careers?
DJ: Sit down and ask yourself questions like, “what are my current skills?” “What do I like about my job now?” “What do I enjoy learning?” and “where do I want to go?” It’s also worth asking your colleagues their thoughts about your skills and weaknesses - sort of like a 360 degree review. Once you have your list of skillsets and interests, you can start to think about which sectors within the industry may be of interest. Does that list seem to point toward one or two pathways?
Maybe you really love the education side of the business and enjoy teaching so a role in training would be suitable. Maybe you are more interested in origin and the raw product so a career in green coffee is suitable. Maybe you studied marketing and have been working as a barista through your degree, so going into a marketing role for a coffee company is what you’re after. Maybe you like selling and representing a company so working for either a roastery or a green company in coffee sales is what you’re after. Maybe you’re not sure yet, but you know you want to deepen your knowledge in a certain subject.
Be sure to talk to people that work in those parts of the industry as they’ll be able to tell you about the roles. Often there are roles out there that you didn’t even realize existed. Be sure to compare what you think you know about the role to what they tell you, as you may have a been thinking the role is something very different than it is. It’s pretty easy to romanticize something when you don’t know much about it - I’ve seen a lot of baristas do that with roasting and then go on to realize they don’t like it all that much. And keep in mind that once you start exploring careers you may find that it’s going to take several steps to get there - set achievable and measurable goals to help build a pathway.
Can you recall a conversation from camp that’s stuck with you, that may have had influenced where the next five years took you?
DJ: I remember sitting on the beach and having a conversation about psychedelic rock of the 1970’s with someone who worked in innovation and product development for a machine company. We were discussing the contrasts between the music produced in USA vs Europe and about how innovative the genre was. Listening to the tracks with them, I couldn’t help but to think about the amount of skill that was required to compose that music, and the necessary creativity, and how much technical skill it took to create such a sensory experience via music. Oddly enough, this conversation allowed me to connect coffee to something bigger, something I was passionate about - sensory and innovation. It was here that I really began to understand that I wanted to work in a place where I could combine my desire to innovate with passion for coffee and my interest in sensory.
What’s your fondest memory of camp?
DJ: On one hand, I have memories of light-hearted spontaneous fun. On the other hand, I have memories of crazy deep conversations that started out about coffee, shifted to psychology, and then ended up in physics for example. But I guess the memory that seems to stick the most was one that started deep and ended up light. We were all outside, walking down to the beach while having a small debate around whether we agreed or disagreed with the lecture we just had on principles in roasting. I saw the beach and I thought it would be a great idea to run into the water. I started to run to the water and everyone else seemed to think it was a really good idea as well, so there we were - swimming around and laughing!
If you could give one piece of advice to Diana Johnston, who attended Barista Camp Greece 2014, what would it be?
DJ: That’s a good question! I would say, and this is advice I would give anyone, try to spend as much time with people who aren’t from your own country. You have the opportunity at camp to meet people from all over the world. It’s really easy to go into the groups of people you know. Try to go into groups of people that you don’t know! Share the knowledge about the industry. A lot of time as baristas we don’t think enough about the business side. When you are in a conversation with someone from outside your bubble, ask them what their industry is like. What is selling? What is booming? What isn’t working? What is training like? What are the opportunities like? This will help you get a great scope of the whole industry. Get out there, meet people outside of your circle, engage in conversations and don’t be afraid to talk about the business and industry side.
Barista Camp is heading to Anavissos, Greece from September 10-13, 2019. For more information visit the website here.