By: Brittany Leslie – Wholesale Account Manager and Educator, Kean Coffee
From Barista, to Production Member, to Roaster. Michael never expected that his curiosity towards specialty coffee as a young teenager would end up setting him on the path of building a coffee career. Through 8 years of hard work and demonstrating his skills as a barista and Roastery team member, Michael continues to gain more coffee experience and knowledge that makes him a valuable member of our Kéan Coffee family. He shares his Kéan Coffee story with us and dives into his passions outside of the coffee realm.
Can you give us a quick introduction to who you are? How long have you been working with Kéan Coffee?
I was born here in Costa Mesa/Newport Beach with two wonderful, musically inclined parents and one older brother who suddenly had to share the Nintendo with me. I went to school down the street from where Kean is now, and I started working there as a cashier in 2012.
Growing up, did you have any relationship with coffee? What was your favorite drink as a kid and now as an adult?
My parents were always avid coffee drinkers, but I wasn’t allowed to have any as a kid. At around age 13, I started to sneak away with the last cold cup left in the bottom of the pot and a bunch of creamer, and by the time I was in high school, I didn’t have to be stealthy about it anymore. Every Wednesday morning between Marching Band and 1st Period I would walk to Kean and get a Caramel Mocha Shake. My tastes have changed over the last 15 years though, and now I prefer to taste all the complex variety that black coffee has to offer.
Barista, Roastery Production Member, & Roaster! You are one of the most versatile people on our team. What were your greatest challenges in becoming a senior barista and what did you enjoy most?
The biggest challenge was definitely being thrown into the shot-pulling position and trying to adapt to the pace of the baristas who had been doing it for years. If you can’t keep up, you become the bottleneck for the whole drink-making process, but the stress of it made developing that ability to do everything behind the bar quickly and precisely all the more rewarding. It was so gratifying when the whole team was working like a well-oiled machine during a huge rush, and still managed to make time to develop personal relationships with the guests on the other side of the bar.
How was the learning process for becoming a roaster? Do you think your time as a barista helps you in any way or is a completely different skill set?
Learning to become a roaster was a similar mix of stress and accomplishment. Ted [our Newport Beach coffeehouse roaster] and Jerry [our Tustin coffeehouse roaster] did an amazing job explaining all the mechanical intricacies of the roaster and how to operate it, and after some practice, they let me fend for myself as they watched from a distance. Working behind the bar taught me to always think two steps ahead, which was instrumental in the roasting process. I gained a whole new sense of appreciation for their ability to find the best flavors each coffee has to offer and masterfully use the roaster as a means to bring those characteristics to the surface.
If you could choose to do a coffee origin trip, where would you most like to visit?
I love being immersed in other cultures, so it’s hard to choose where I would want to go. My favorite coffees are always from Ethiopia, however, so I think that would be the place.
Have you traveled to another country before?
5 years ago, I went to France to study the language and culture through the OCC study abroad program. I stayed in Paris for a month, with weekend excursions to various parts of France, and one up to Belgium. My favorite memory was spending my 24th birthday walking through Monet’s garden in the rain, then sitting by the Seine drinking wine and watching the sun set with newly made friends.
Tell us about your passions outside of coffee.
Outside of working I spend most of my time playing games with my friends. I grew up playing videogames with my older brother and most of my closest friends. That’s how we stay connected now that some of us have moved to our separate places—we play online games together.
While I spend most my time gaming, I would say my passion for music has greatly impacted my life. Both my parents were super musical when I was growing up and most recently, I have been playing drums in their band, which is mainly rock n roll and blues, but I have a strong foundation in jazz. I also produce stuff on my own– a lot of electronic music. It’s nice to produce electronic music because I am not as melodically limited as I am when playing drums. I can play any basically instrument with electronic music! My friend and I like to make tracks and send them back and forth with each other to keep building on those. Actually, Jaydon [another Kéan roaster] and I will be jamming soon, so keep an ear out for our next hit!
Let’s combine those two passions with this question: What is your favorite videogame soundtrack?
My favorite videogame soundtrack that has stuck with me over the years is Diablo II videogame soundtrack. This soundtrack is actually what made me passionate about learning music at 11 years old. There was one specific song with a flute in it. I heard it and immediately wanted to learn how to play the flute and that song. Obviously, I don’t play the flute now, but that is what got me to join the band in elementary school.
Listen to the song, Toru, here:
Reflecting on your coffee journey, what role does coffee have in your life now?
With all I’ve learned, I am hoping to ultimately make a career out of coffee. It is a dream of mine to eventually become a head roaster at some point in my life. Having the knowledge and ability to master this craft is such a unique opportunity and skill. It says a lot to say I’ve learned from those who have learned their skills from Martin Diedrich himself because that means a lot in the coffee community. I haven’t experienced the whole realm that is “coffee”, but I have come so far in my learning from once holding Starbucks in San Francisco as my standard of specialty coffee to now roasting for Kéan. There is so much dedication and hard work that goes into specialty coffee—you can do it forever. Coffee is something that people can easily take for granted, but know so much time, experience, and hard work goes into a good cup.
Thank you, Michael, for reminding us how special coffee is: from being a treat between classes, a remedy for sleepiness, a livelihood for a farmer and coffee cherry picker, and an art for barista and roaster. May we all find a renewed appreciation for the seed to cup journey the next time we have a cup of coffee.
Interview conducted and written by Brittany Leslie, August 21st, 2020