Most of the interviews we’ve done here at The Coffee Compass focus on the baristas and roasters who make your coffee. But there’s a whole group of farmers, importers, educators, and consultants that are behind the scenes, improving the quality of your morning cup. Today we interview Marlee Benefield, cofounder of Gather Coffee, a coffee consulting company that offers Q Grader courses, roasting classes, and a variety of other services.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started in specialty coffee?
After traveling to, and living in, some coffee-centric countries (Indonesia, Turkey, Uganda), I started to see coffee in a whole new way. Not just as a beverage, but as a plant, as a livelihood, as a catalyst for relationships, and as a profession. When I returned home from living in Turkey, I began working for Equator Coffee. It was mostly just a clerical position, but they were open to any employee joining the cupping table and learning more about coffee. It was my first experience with true specialty coffee and I was hooked. Several months later I was hired by Willem Boot to work at Boot Coffee. Working there was an invaluable opportunity and I learned more about roasting, cupping, importing coffee, sales, teaching and consulting than I ever imagined I would.
You’ve consulted with some very large and reputable coffee roasters. What are some of the challenges of consulting?
That’s a great question. For me, the most difficult consulting clients aren’t the ones who have complex and somewhat demanding requirements. The hardest projects for me are the ones where the client doesn’t have a clear vision of what they’d like to learn or accomplish. If we can work together to create a proposal detailing a clear vision of their needs and desires, then I can close out that project knowing they are happy and we’ve accomplished our goals. But if the client is not exactly sure what they want, it’s way more difficult to deliver. I’ve learned to over communicate on the front end to help individuals and companies come to a clear a precise goal before moving forward.
Coffee roasting isn’t exactly a major in college. If someone wanted to learn how to become a coffee roaster, what would you recommend?
I think there are a growing number of ways that people are pursuing a career as a coffee roaster. It’s really exciting to meet people who have been home roasting on a popcorn popper, then be able to help them open a successful wholesale roastery or retail location. That’s one of the best parts of working in this industry. If someone wanted to become a coffee roaster, I would tell them to take an online course or a hands-on roasting course – these are available through private companies, as well as the SCA. Another great way to learn, without spending any money, is to get a job at a coffee roasting company. Even if you have to start by sealing bags in a warehouse, most companies love to promote from within, especially if they see your curiosity and passion. Those with a little more capital could always purchase a roaster then hire a consultant to help with green coffee purchasing, product development and roast profile creation.
The company you co-founded, Gather Coffee, has taken you all over the world. What’s one place you always look forward to visiting?
It’s true. We are so honored to be able to meet some of the best and brightest in the next generation of specialty coffee professionals around the world. The place I always look forward to visiting is Istanbul – hands down. I’ve been visiting there since 1999 and it’s been amazing to see the transformation from no specialty coffee at all, to the explosion that is happening there today. Plus, the people we’ve met there are so amazing and kind. Domestically, I’m not sure I could answer that question! All the cities and labs are so unique. Some of our favorites are Portland, Charleston and Honolulu – we’re headed there next month!
You’ve done so much in the coffee industry. What’s one goal you still want to accomplish?
I’m so inspired by some of our friends and colleagues who are using coffee truly impact lives. Like my friend Doug at 1951 Coffee who trains refugees in customer service and barista skills. Or our buddy Max who works with Mission Roast to teach coffee roasting skills to inmates and those recently released from prison. One of our friends, Mokhtar, is working closely with Yemeni coffee farmers to import some of the best coffees in the world and provide them a sustainable wage – and in war wrecked country, that can be hard to come by. I would love to start a company that helps to change the trajectory of people’s lives. I hope to one day direct all that I have learned and all of my passion for quality coffee into a project that would come alongside an underserved population of people and really support their dreams.