By: Brittany Leslie – Wholesale Account Manager and Educator, Kéan Coffee
If you have ever been to Kéan Coffee in Newport Beach, it is highly likely that you have seen Mike behind the bar. Mike has been with Kéan Coffee since we first opened our doors in December 2005. Over those years Mike has become highly seasoned in his skills as a professional barista and grown close with our community in Newport Beach. Mike shares with us some of his many stories of how he first started as a barista, what it was like to compete and train under the best in the industry, and how one becomes a latte art master.
What is your position and how long have you worked with Kéan Coffee?
I have been at Kéan Coffee since we opened 15 years ago in December of 2005. Since then, I have been a head barista, barista trainer, manager, and have pretty much done all you can do at our coffeehouse. I technically started 2 weeks before opening to get trained. Within my first year of working at Kéan Coffee, I knew that I could make coffee into a career.
How did you start working in coffee, and was it easy for you to pick up?
My first job at 14 years old was working at Humphrey Yogart at Triangle Square and we served Diedrich coffee, but it was mainly a yogurt place. My best story from there is that you knew the cappuccino was done when the milk was overflowing from the frothing pitcher and that’s how I was serving coffee in 1999. When I worked at Kéan Coffee 6 years later, all the coffee skills I had acquired became foreign to me. I was happy to be there and a quick learner, so it came pretty naturally. All of us struggled in the beginning—we didn’t serve lattes with good art for the first 6 months after opening. It was all blobs of foam. If you got a circle or even better a heart, it was definitely something to brag about. I would have liked to say “take a picture” but we didn’t have camera phones then. Danny and Sherri Johns, Coffee Specialist and Ultimate Barista Challenge founder were our trainers at opening, so we truly learned from some of the best in our industry. Not too long into my career, both myself and two other baristas trained over 50 baristas in Hawaii in everything we knew about coffee. At the time, I felt like I knew a lot but looking back 10 years later it’s crazy how much more there is to learn and know.
I’ve seen your Barista Camp certificate hanging up at the Newport Coffeehouse. What is Barista Camp?
Barista Camp is like a barista college. We took 4 classes a day, all coffee-oriented, from sciences of cupping and everything in-between, seed to cup. Basically, we covered everything that would normally be covered in a Professional Barista Level 1 and Level 2 certifications, all combined in the course of 3 days. There were about 25 different classes offered. Though it is pricey, you not only receive coffee certifications, but you also create long lasting relationships with people from all over the world with like-minded interests. It was super fun. The best thing I took away from the camp was the camaraderie between myself and the other attendees. I had competed in competitions 5 years before Barista Camp, so when I got there I felt as if I knew half of the baristas already just from competing or being in the community. There were some new kids, who thought they knew everything and needed to be humbled, and people there who had been in the industry so long you would think they would be burned out. But no, they were always smiling and just as passionate, joking about the good ole days when no one knew what a single origin espresso was.
Have you competed in coffee competitions, and is it stressful?
I did UBC, Ultimate Barista Challenge, and other barista competitions for 8 years straight. I competed in China and New York once each, and in San Diego and Los Angeles every year, competing against top baristas like Heather Perry from Klatch. The competitions were Latte Art, Best of Brew, Chemex, Frappe, and also a coffee cocktail with alcohol, though that was discontinued. I’ve also done Professional World Barista Champion, Southwest Regional Barista Champion in 2008 and 2009. In 2017, Hayley (who was also featured in Beyond the Beans) and I went to a Los Angeles latte art competition where I placed in the top 8 and won one of the cool cups. I try to go to as many coffee events as I can. You don’t realize that a serious coffee competition can take two to eight months to prepare for. Some people start thinking “okay what coffee am I going to serve next year, what cups am I going to serve into, what temperature, how many times am I going to work on my roast profile, what am I going to pair the coffee with”? People get so wildly creative. It is phenomenal what people come up with but also daunting when you realize how much time has gone into it before competition. I still get stressed out. If you and I were to throw down right now, my stomach would start churning (side note: Mike is infinitely better at latte art than me and has nothing to fear).
What is your best advice for someone starting in the coffee industry?
Try to take it all in at once. Find out how you learn: visually, audibly, or hands on. Everyone learns differently and you can’t compare yourself to others. It’s introspective while learning a new trade. It’s normal to get anxious but nothing is better than accomplishing a new task.
How does one become a latte art master?
The best way to get better at latte art is honestly practice. Try out new techniques and find out what your strengths are and work on the pours you are weaker at. For the last few years, I have been pouring left-handed (I’m right-handed) when competing against someone who hasn’t been pouring for over a year. Most of the time I still beat them, just because I have practiced pouring with my left hand so much it now knows the motion. My left hand can now pour tulips, rosettas, hearts. I’ve definitely lost some of my skills since the pandemic started as we haven’t poured into ceramic cups during this take-out period. For the first few years of working at Kéan Coffee, I thought I invented new pours! Then Martin Diedrich brought in this Japanese latte art book where I found out not only were my pours not the first of their kind, but there were so many new ones to practice. I have created some immaculate designs, some impromptu and some inspired by my heroes, such as Jibbi Little and Nicely Abel.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Recently, it has been motorcycles. In the last 2 years I have owned 4 motorcycles and am working on a few right now. Old motorcycles, old cars, they’re my favorite. I like doing maintenance, but I am working on an engine right now. It’s very meticulous and not quite fun for me, but it’s so accomplishing to finish and fun to learn. I am working on an old 1957 Dodge pickup truck at my grandparents’ house too for the past two months. Working on the engine, working on the hoses, and bringing it back from 60 years of not running.
What is your dream motorcycle?
My dream motorcycle is a big, custom, Bagger Harley. Something I could go touring with forever. I love every motorcycle I see—I look at a new bike and wonder “how does that one ride?”, “what does that one cruise like?”, “how’s the seat height?”. I haven’t been on many sport bikes as I’m terrified of going over 100 mph. Once you get over 120mph you have no idea what’s going to come at you, but some people do that!
What’s a motorcycle trip like? What is your dream motorcycle trip?
I have done a couple with Ted, our Newport Beach coffeehouse roaster, and Mason, one of my co-workers. We’ve gone out to Fallbrook, which isn’t far, but we take another route that is around 350 miles and 8 hours of riding straight. It is exhausting but every minute is super fun on the bike. Anytime I’m on the bike I’m a little nervous because it is scary that anything could happen to you. But it’s freeing at the same time and you almost feel more in control of your life. Being out on the open road, taking curves, getting the speed, and feeling the weather is like being in a convertible times three. I imagine my dream motorcycle trip would be Sturgis, but it depends. I would do any trip but another ride that comes to mind is the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man is a 1000-mile off-road racetrack. I would go on a cross-country trip right now if I had the time.
Anything else you want to share about your journey?
It has definitely been a lot of fun working for Martin. Anything coffee related is exciting to me. It’s been especially fun working at Kéan Coffee Newport for so long that I’ve seen kids start dating in high school and 10 years later they’ll come in and be married with children. One couple I know is expecting their first and another couple I know has 3 kids even though they’re younger than me! It’s super cute. Another one of our regular couples first started coming in their son was four and they were pregnant with their daughter. Now I’ve seen the daughter grow up and their son actually just applied to Kéan now that he’s a young adult! It’s so crazy to watch time fly and everyone grow. I’ve enjoyed being a staple in this community.
In doing this interview, I loved Mike’s philosophy that working hard towards an end goal brings a sense of accomplishment that makes the struggle worth it. This is such an important skill for anyone to be successful in any career and life in general. Perfectly steaming milk and pouring a circle, pulling the perfect shot and presenting it to a panel of judges with the perfect pairing are not easy tasks. A professional barista never stops honing their skills. There is always much more to learn and practice, but continuing to diligently grow in skill and experience and being committed to humbly never stop growing is an accomplishment in itself. But beyond Mike’s barista skills is his love of people. It is obvious from watching how our coffeehouse regulars greet him that Mike is a wonderful part of many people’s daily lives. Thank you, Mike, for sharing your coffee journey with us and being an important part of Kéan Coffee and the Newport Beach community.
Interview conducted and written by Brittany Leslie, January 14th, 2021.