The Hype Queen of OZ: Michelle Johnson of Barista Hustle

Michelle Johnson

Whether it’s reinventing something as ubiquitous as a milk pitcher or shipping some of the most expensive coffees anywhere in the world, there’s few companies more hyped than Barista Hustle. And at the center of the hustle is the hype queen herself, Michelle Johnson. We’ve been following Johnson’s career since meeting her at the 2015 US Barista Championship, and we’ve been impressed by the diversity and depth of her accomplishments. We recently caught up with her to learn what exactly happens behind the scenes at Barista Hustle and if the coffee really is better down under. 

You’ve worn a lot of hats in the coffee industry. Barista. Competitor. Writer. Speaker. Marketer. I’m sure I’m missing something. What’s that journey been like?

Jesus, when you lay it all out, it really is a lot! It surprises me how much I’ve done in such a short amount of time. I’ve been in coffee for just over six years, but the bulk of my professional growth into these other avenues has happened in the last two or three. Oftentimes, I stop and question how I even got here! That imposter syndrome is real and there are periods of time where those feelings are magnified, for sure. Reflecting on how far I’ve come and everything I’ve learned by having such a diverse skillset as a result of my journey is proof to myself I can do even more.

Between the newsletter, forums, coffee subscriptions, and products, there’s a lot going on at Barista Hustle. What’s your role in all of that?

 I pretty much manage and direct the marketing and communications of everything. It looks different depending on what it is, though.
I’m the head admin of our Facebook group, so I curate discussions posts and decide the rules of moderation (with the support of Matt, Michael, and our team of moderators) and put them to action.
I run our social media channels, outline the newsletter, help write copy for our products and projects, work with our guest roasters to create fun, informative content to accompany the coffee subscription, and am the in-house photographer/videographer. The Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) is coming up in March, so I’ll be organizing short workshops we’ll do at our booth, the products and materials we’ll need, and keep on top of communicating it all to the people!
Michelle Johnson

 You recently moved to Melbourne, Australia. What’s that transition been like? Was it hard to get a visa? Do you say things like “‘chinos” now?

I’ve honestly had a really smooth transition into Melbourne life. I have to thank my colleague, Michael and his wife, Dechen, for that! Obviously, there are smaller things like how everyone drives/walks on the left that I’m still getting used to, but for the most part, it’s been a productive transition. My visa wasn’t hard to get (I’m here on the working/holiday visa), but it took awhile to gather all my important documents and other items necessary to apply for it. And yes, “chinos” has fully infiltrated my vocabulary, but I only order like that at St. Ali. I call it a capp everywhere else!

Around the world Aussie coffee culture is often revered or vilified. What’s been your experience with Aussie coffee culture so far? Is there anything you wish you could export to the States?

Okay, I’ve been really wanting to talk about this!!
Most of my coffee culture experiences here have been really pleasant and the worst coffee I’ve had so far is still better than about 80% of the coffee I drank in the United States, but that’s just me. I have a few guesses to why this is.
Water. Everywhere in Melbourne, the water is ideal to drink and brew coffee with straight from the tap. It’s some pretty tasty water. Arizona’s water quality is pretty bad forcing you to use filtered water, so it’s a major step up. Where I used to have to make my own brewing water for coffee at home, I don’t have to anymore. Hell, one of the suggested water recipes on Barista Hustle is Melbourne water.
Specialty coffee is everywhere. You will never have to go more than half a kilometer to find a good, specialty coffee shop. I heard there were somewhere around 1200+ specialty cafes in Melbourne. I believe it. A huge difference between here and the US is that specialty coffee isn’t viewed as this niche market that only a few enjoy. Everyone has at least some basic knowledge of what specialty is and the culture is completely normalized.
At the same time, the community of coffee pros seem to operate differently than those in the US. In the US, everyone seems to know each other, they’re constantly connected, and I feel like you’re more likely to find folks who eat/sleep/breathe coffee and that’s their entire life (perhaps because specialty coffee is niche in the US). That’s totally cool! Here, most of the baristas I’ve met so far are passionate about coffee, yes, but leave it at work until they come back. And I think since there are so many shops, and the city’s so large, there are too many people to try and stay connected with. This is not a matter of whether that’s good or bad. It’s just different. It’s been very interesting to observe so far. Ask me again in a year!
If I could export anything from here to the US, it would be the dairy. Australian milk is sweeter, richer, and more wholesome. Milk drinks here are so delicious. It gets me in the feels.

Your article “The Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black in Specialty Coffee” was eye-opening for a lot of white coffee professionals, including myself. It’s been a year and a half since you wrote that article. Do you think anything has changed?

Yes and no.
We’ve come far in how we handle conversations surrounding race since we’re talking about them much more, but not so far that the balances have tipped in representation. Black people in coffee are still experiencing injustices, a lack of support, don’t hold many positions above barista, and experience an unfair amount of pressure to do much more to get half as far as our white counterparts in the industry.
I also see a lot of white people speaking for Black folks and other people of color instead of just passing the mic along. When we try to lead our own conversations, we’re still being talked over or silenced. I was really stoked to see the people of color-centered event happen in New York led by Ezra Baker, and I follow the work Kristina Hollie is doing with the Boston Intersectional Coffee Collective. I think we all need to do more to support these types of groups and events as much as we support those that center other marginalized identities. Then take it a step further and get more into the nitty gritty of intersectionality while we’re at it.

You’ve already accomplished so much, but do you have any dreams you’re still chasing?

Oh hell yeah! One dream is actually about to come true, so I’ll leave that one out until it’s announced.
I’ve never been attracted to the idea of running a coffee shop because I’m not passionate about cafe management (although I have managerial experience). What I’m passionate about is lifting up other people and providing them with the tools to do their own thing by consulting and investing financially. I’ve been quietly researching and laying the groundwork to get into investing so I can put resources into concepts I really believe in, but not be a part of the everyday operations. Hey, I know what I want and what I’m good at.
The ultimate dream, though, would be to drop off the map for a decade and buy a coffee farm to live and work on. That dream’s still in development, but I’ll get there.

If you could only drink one coffee for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A St. Ali chino. That’s where I’ve found my true coffee happiness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.