30 Years On, a woman in coffee
It’s 2019 and I have now worked nearly 30 years in coffee. I am at long last the founder and owner of my own coffee business. I have been in charge of a coffee farm in the remote Highlands of Papua New Guinea where I also managed a roasting and exporting company. I travelled the world buying coffees for Peet’s, I guided National Geographic’s film crew through the coffee fields of Ethiopia and Colombia. I’ve had a long and varied coffee career, taking advantage of every opportunity to expand my knowledge, further my skills and experience as much as possible. And yet, it still comes as a surprise when I face gender discrimination.
Last week my partner and I dismantled a 33-year-old kitchen we’d purchased online to refurbish for my new roastery’s cupping lab. Armed with crowbars, hatchet, saws and a mountain of tools, we set to. Mid-morning, the homeowner invited us in for a coffee break and began asking about our plans: why we needed this kitchen, what we planned to do with it etc. Eyes widening with interest, he asked a whole series of questions. Where they concerned construction and 1 30 Years On, a woman in coffee 4 November 2019 refurbishment, my partner answered. Where it had to do with coffee, Didier directed the gentleman to me, saying “Shirin is the coffee in this equation, she’s the one to answer that.” Kindly though he was, the gentleman only looked at me briefly, then immediately turned back to Didier, as if in subconscious denial that I, a woman, could possibly be the business owner, the authority, or the one who knew the answers on coffee.
Don’t get me wrong, I am in awe of my partner’s abilities. I think it’s nothing short of miraculous, all the things he is capable of doing. I don’t know how to sand and spackle a wall. I don’t know how to wield a crowbar or saw through a granite counter. My mother did. But I don’t. She grew up in privation in WWII Germany. Where you had to know how to do everything. My dad was the poet, the dreamer, the aesthetic; my mum was the doer, the powerhouse who made it all happen. She got shit done. She is, I realise, the person who most influenced who I am today.
Still and all, coming back to kitchen dismantling day. I found myself astounded by the gentleman’s assumption that it had to be Didier who knew coffee; that he be the authority simply because he is a man. Maybe once upon a time in my career, this wouldn’t have struck me so much. But now, some 30 years on, it comes down as being just ludicrous.
It was 20 years ago in Singapore when I first found myself frustrated by the blatant discrimination of these assumptions. I was head of coffee, roaster and buyer for a 28-shop chain when I hired a mate of mine from Australia to come roast. He was a lovely bloke; a tall, amiable guy, very competent and a big help to me. But he was my employee, my hire, my direct report. And I lived the same frustration there, of facing implicit assumptions that he was boss, and I was just some little sidekick, an assistant perhaps. Inevitably, his authority was sought, his opinions solicited, the assumption made that he was The Man. It wasn’t his fault, mind, it just was that way. And I was young enough myself not to be too irritated. But now, some 30 years on….
There was that origin trip once, when we were a group of coffee professionals on a bus, headed out to a farm visit. A chap sat next to me and proceeded to soliloquise on his extensive coffee experience, all the marvellous things he’d achieved at origin. I wasn’t sure when he found to breathe, he was so enthralled with recounting his own achievements. I forget what topic it was that prompted me to interject mildly how yes, I had also found xyz issue on the 98-acre coffee farm that I managed in the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea. There was a moment of silence when my words broke through the waterfall of his monologue and his face went blank. Dumbstruck. Silent. I watched the virtual cogwheels turning as he struggled to compute the information he had just heard. In the event, it was clearly too much for him to compute since after that brief respite, he went right back to blathering on about his record of achievements. Sigh. It wasn’t yet 30 years then, but it was starting to irritate me.
My mum isn’t the only one to have inspired me over the years. There are others: women in coffee the world over who have been there in one form or another as I learned this path. Erna Knutsen was one such wonder. I was travelling to California on a trade mission to represent Papua New Guinea – because by then I was managing a coffee roasting company there that had achieved considerable export success. My colleagues at home told me to contact Erna, that she was the US importer of our finest estate coffee and would look after me. And indeed she did. Erna invited me to her cupping table whilst she evaluated a quality claim on a pricey auction lot Kenyan. This was the woman who coined the phrase specialty coffee, the grand dame of our industry who broke the glass ceiling and brazened her way to a place at the cupping table. She was awesome. And here, without knowing anything about me, she allowed me to cup alongside of her. I trembled at the honour.
Later that afternoon, I experienced the true flamboyance of this trailblazing woman. She’d booked us a table at San Francisco’s Boulevard Restaurant…a place so fancy to my Papua New Guinean bush eyes, I couldn’t help but be impressed. And 3 4 November 2019 there she was, sporting a leopard skin pant suit, through her cat eye spectacles calling the handsome young server “darling” and drinking some mighty strong cocktails over lunch. Her self-confidence allowed her a flamboyance I could only dream of.
Today’s earthly embodiment of the virtue of grace though would have to be the inimitable Sunalini Menon, an extraordinary woman who I consider to be both a mentor, and one of the world’s greatest coffee cuppers. I first witnessed her quiet self-assurance and profound knowledge of coffee at work in Singapore, when I had just moved from Papua New Guinea. A couple of gentlemen were trying to flog me coffee from Yunnan, China, which was only coming on as an origin. “As good as a Costa Rican hard bean,” they blustered loudly. Sunalini happened to be cupping with and coaching me that afternoon, but they clearly didn’t know her and assumed she was just another woman who could be hoodwinked and bullied.
As we started to cup their samples, Sunalini gently probed them with questions on the varieties they had planted. Was it a first or second-generation cross as the Catimor cup was clearly coming through? Perhaps the parenting might have been from xyz stock as that taste was in the finish, didn’t they think? And where had the progenitor plant material come from as it tasted more along the lines of lmn than xyz, didn’t they think?
With every softly spoken question, her deference combined with the indisputable empirical knowledge of what she was cupping put the gentlemen further on the back foot. I watched their posture literally move from forward leaning, imposing, nearly bullying to quiet, defensive, and ultimately defeated. The lids came down over their eyes, their body language shut down, they were silenced. It was a prize-winning performance, the likes of which I have not since seen. Never once did Sunalini raise her voice or humiliate. Instead, with soft-spoken words underpinned by the certainty of her palate and her knowledge, she whipped them. Always immaculately clad in the bright and decorative costumes of her native India, Sunalini’s personal and professional elegance are an inspiring beacon to other women in coffee. 4 The inimitable, exceptional, Mrs. Sunalini Menon.
Let me end by drawing a parallel that might help the reader hear my point of view. I have a dear friend, Phyllis, an African American coffee professional. Some years ago I reflected on the fact that while I could sympathise with her fight, and certainly try to empathise with the discrimination an African American experiences, still I could never fully feel it. Why? Quite simply, because I’ve never lived it myself, I haven’t walked in those shoes. It hasn’t been my experience in life and as much as I sympathise, I cannot live that experience the way Phyllis has.
By the same token, although I’m certain that my many male colleagues and friends in coffee all sympathise, you cannot know in full what I feel, because you’ve never lived it. You’ve never experienced through this lens. Through the lens whereby, after some 30 years in the industry, a man would still turn his back on a woman and direct his questions at a fellow man with arguably nil experience in coffee.
If I look at the cumulative lessons I’ve learned from the women I admire, what it boils down to is this:
1. Know and love your subject matter, because nobody can question that kind of integrity and you will live with its certitude.
2. Believe in yourself and don’t listen to the noise of others. You know your worth; the monkey chatter of others should wash over you and not stick.
3. Don’t be afraid to have your style. From Erna, to Sunalini and every other icon in the world of women in coffee, with the knowledge they have, style is an adornment, a cloak that embellishes their individuality and worth.
Note: these reflections are simply that and no more. And I dedicate them equally to the man I love, as to all my many coffee sisters. And most particularly to my mum, the woman who could do everything.
I also want to thank all my male colleagues for the huge support they give to women in coffee. The world is indeed changing and there are a number of men out there – you know who you are – who I look up to every bit as much as I do to the likes of Erna or Sunalini. 6