By: Brittany Leslie – Wholesale Account Manager and Educator, Kean Coffee
This week I sat down with one of our wholesale Roastery team, Thamer Bajjali. Thamer found his passion for coffee after his first sip of a doppio cappuccino at our Newport Beach coffeehouse. From coffeehouse guest to wholesale delivery driver to now roaster, he has come a long way in his coffee journey. Read more about how he became a roaster and how his coffee knowledge has developed with time.
What is your position and how long have you worked with Kean Coffee?
I am one of our wholesale roasters and Roastery manager and I’ve worked at Kéan Coffee since December of 2015.
Have you always liked coffee?
I started drinking coffee when I was attending college. I would spend a lot of time at Starbucks reading after class. I would get Frappuccinos and “macchiatos”: anything with a lot of sugar and milk. It wasn’t until 2010 that coffee became part of my daily ritual. That’s when I got together with my wife, and she is a daily coffee drinker. It has been a love affair ever since. I started drinking specialty coffee in 2013-2014. I moved to Costa Mesa around that time and went to the Newport Beach coffeehouse for the first time and continued to drink specialty coffee from then on out. I didn’t know anything about specialty coffee, I just knew Kean Coffee was special. What I noticed right away, is that when I ordered a cappuccino it wouldn’t be scalding hot or burnt. I could take it from the bar and enjoy a sip. There was harmony between the milk and the espresso. What really drove in my new passion was attending Night at the Roastery back in April of 2015, which was a regular event hosted at Kéan Coffee Roastery before the pandemic. My wife got us tickets and we came to the Roastery and watched a cool barista demo, got to hear from Martin and Karen Diedrich about coffee, watched Jerry [our Tustin coffeehouse roaster] roast, and then we did a triangulation [cupping 3 different coffees]. One of those coffees was an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Natural and it blew my mind! It tasted like blueberries- it was so fruit forward and full of berry notes, that I couldn’t believe it was not flavored coffee. Much better than the Dunkin Donuts artificial “strawberry” flavored coffee I had earlier. Martin’s passion for coffee was contagious, so I definitely became more of a coffee fan after that night.
What is your roaster journey? Did you start out as a roaster and if not, how did you end up on this path?
I didn’t expect to work in coffee at all! It was a great coincidence. I am a wedding photographer. With wedding photography, you have busy and slower seasons. I realized I had the time for a morning job and decided to look for something else to spend my time on. One day Kean Coffee posted on Facebook that they were looking for a driver and that it was going to be a morning, part time position. Perfect! The Roastery was right down the street from where I lived. I emailed Karen photos I took at Night at the Roastery and asked about the position, hoping my photos would have an influence on the decision to bring me in for an interview—and it did! It was a connection. She invited me to the Roastery to meet her and the former Roastery manager. It went super well, and I got hired the same day. I was so excited and willing to learn about coffee. I drove the wholesale van for a few months and then all of a sudden, a roaster position opened up. I was asked if I had any interest in roasting and was super surprised as I had seen this just as a part time driver opportunity. I had an interview with almost all the roasters on our team and we mainly talked about coffee the entire time and my passion for cooking. I love to cook. I got the job and trained with both Ted and Jerry, the coffeehouse roasters. I would have stress dreams about the flame going out in the roaster, the air flow not changing, or accidentally spilling green beans into freshly roasted coffee. They really put me through the ringer, and I learned how to roast completely manually. I realized after training that I would be very capable of working full production. I started roasting August or September of 2016 here at the Roastery.
What is the most challenging part of being a roaster? Do you have a favorite single origin?
Cupping. I am constantly having to work on my palate. It hasn’t come naturally to me to perceive aromas and to be able to pinpoint certain flavor profiles. I have to actively work on it every time I do a cupping. I am definitely more perceptive of the nuances of the cup: the mouthfeel, the aroma, the acidity. There are so many different variables to coffee. Even though the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe was my first love in specialty coffee, my favorite origin is a Guatemala from Huehuetenango. I can drink that coffee every day, anytime. It’s rich, chocolate, earthy and is very well balanced and not too acidic.
I know you’re a big fan of listening to audiobooks while working at the roaster. What are you listening to now? Who is your favorite reader?
I love historical fiction and I love Ken Follett. I just finished the prequel to The Pillars of the Earth series: The Evening and the Morning. It takes place in this hamlet on a riverbank, which ends up becoming this huge town in his future books. I think it starts in 997 CE. There’s an evil bishop, a hero craftsman, and an upper-class love interest. Finishing that book piqued my interest in another series called When Christ and His Saints Slept. It takes place around 1135 CE when Henry I died and his daughter Maude was the predecessor, but no one wanted to be ruled by her, though she was shrewd and capable. Her cousin Stephen went for the throne when the king died, creating a time of chaos and war, hence the name referring to a period when it seemed God seemingly abandoned everyone. So, The Pillars of the Earth takes place around the same time as this novel. While Christ and His Saints Slept is more about the politics of the period and The Pillars of the Earth is about the Craftsman building the Kingsbridge Cathedral and the archbishops vie for power. I studied Crusade history in college and was inspired also by two Crusade history books and am excited for those to come in. My favorite narrator is by far, John Lee. I first heard him as a narrator for the 4th Game of Thrones book and I was a little hurt that he had taken Roy Detrice’s (the narrator for the first 3 Games of Thrones books) role, but then Ken Follett used him for The Pillars of the Earth, and I’ve loved him ever since.
How is it being a dad to a 3-year-old? Does he like coffee? What’s your favorite part of being a parent?
It’s awesome. He is my life’s purpose. There is nothing more important to me than being his father. I am proud and blessed to have him in my life. He doesn’t like coffee— “No Dada, coffee is for grownups.” My mother-in-law from Guatemala actually has stories of being given coffee and milk as a baby. My favorite part of being a dad is watching Eli develop day by day: I love talking to him, teaching him, and moments of us just playing together – even the tantrums. It’s great because I get to be there for him and guide him through those tantrums.
Photography is a passion of yours. Do you have a website? What kind of camera do you use and what are your favorite type of images to capture?
My website is www.petracalling.com. I just switched over to the Canon mirrorless system. I have been using Canon’s EOS R first mirrorless camera and every time I use it, I fall in love even more. I love technology and for some time the Canon R5 was the peak of Canon’s technology. The sensor is phenomenal, the lenses are amazing (the L series). Nikon is really nice as well, but for me the images that come from a Canon lens are second to none. That’s primarily why I shoot with Canon. For video, Sony has the market on lockdown when it comes to their mirrorless cameras used for video production. However, my main focus is photo. I’m a wedding photographer, so wedding images are my favorite—generally candid photos but I also like posed. I am also a lighting nerd. Learning to light a subject has been very important to me. I learned from my buddy, who passed away last April, and he graduated from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara with a master’s in photography. He learned on film and taught me nuances in photography. I try to concentrate on giving my subjects the best experience during a shoot, which entails using natural lighting and not a bunch of equipment specially to capture those candid moments. My ultimate goal is to give my photo clients the best experience possible.
“I am excited to roast coffee, listen to audiobooks, capture weddings, and hang out with my family. I am a simple man.” – Thamer Bajjali
That is if one interprets “simple” to mean a well rounded renaissance man! Thank you Thamer, for roasting great coffee for our wholesale accounts and being such a great leader to our Roastery team, as well as being our amazing Roastery staff portrait photographer in residence! Maybe Thamer will inspire a future roaster at one of our future Night at the Roastery events? We will be very excited to host those events again in the future, when we are able to resume inviting folks into our Roastery once more.
Interview conducted and written by Brittany Leslie, April 6th, 2021.