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With the Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) just around the corner, a buzz is building through the laneways and roasteries of Melbourne that’s indicative of the kind hype that builds around Christmas. To help get into the vibe, I sat down with Lucy Ward, Procurement Strategist at St Ali to have a candid chat about her journey thus far in coffee, what it means to be a woman in coffee, and what it is exactly that makes the perfect coffee.
Lucy’s the kind of coffee powerhouse who starts every working day with a cupping at St ALi’s warehouse in Port Melbourne. And it’s the perfect backdrop for our interview, the aroma of beans floating through the vacant spaces that fill the air; the occasional intrusion of factory sounds that eventually fade into the distance. For some, this is the less glamorous side to coffee – the imposing monotonous colours of multi-faceted vats that sort and store the beans as they trundle through winding steel pipes and into imposing roasting machines; the cold-hard inanimate, lifeless structures that decipher the codes to the inherent flavours that lie within coveted green beans. For others like Lucy (and perhaps the entire cohort of specialty coffee fanatics), this is like a second home.
In charge of basically everything ‘quality’ focussed at St Ali, Lucy’s role involves a good deal of quality control. From checking the green beans through various stages as they come in, to monitoring the flavours and outcomes of coffees being brewed across their flagship cafes and customers, Lucy’s expertise and talent shapes what you know about what a St Ali coffee tastes like; its coffee profile. It’s an incredible position of power and influence, and it’s clear that the right person is in the job.
But there is this reality that lingers just beneath the surface of the industry that women rarely get the recognition they deserve in coffee. In Lucy’s opinion, it’s a rather complex reality. And of course it is. ‘When you think about women in coffee, there is this assumption that there’s an under-representation of women. But, I think when you look at it in the context of Australia, relative to many other industries here, the state of play in coffee isn’t abnormal.’ That’s not to say that there isn’t a gender gap in coffee, it’s just that it’s not unique to coffee. Women are disadvantaged and underrepresented across almost all industries, especially in the corporate context, and coffee is no different, she proffers. Yes, the higher you go up, the more men sit in senior and executive roles. It’s a problem, of course, and finding a solution is no easy task. The task of yours truly at least, is to shed as much light on it as possible so that those much more talented and capable can inspire the necessary changes.
The gender gap is particularly apparent when you look at coffee competitions. Not once has a woman been awarded the World Barista Championship, and women are underrepresented generally across these stages both domestically and internationally. Is it because of a lack of opportunity or is it derived from a lack of drive? It’s certainly a lot of things, but it’s also because women feel less of the need to be validated on a public level, Lucy explains. It’s because they’re not as inclined to need some external judging system define whether or not they are great. And when you look at things on more of an operational level, the representation of women is comfortably stronger. There are plenty of really amazing women in coffee, amazing baristas, and amazing roasters, and they’re being given increasingly more opportunities every day. Things are a little different at origin, though, where the disparity is explicitly undeniable. According to womenincoffee.org, 70% of the world’s poor are women. They are mired in poverty, discrimination, and abuse that spans financial strangleholds to grave sexual offences. It’s something that Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said in 2017 was indelibly tied to the gender gap here in Australia.
There’s a long way to go, and focussing on female-led farms at origin is one of the many impactful ways Lucy endeavours to forge a greater balance in the future of coffee. Women are particularly great at what they do, but the interesting thing is that their profiles are just not as pronounced. It will take time, but the industry is slowly getting there. Which is comforting to hear from someone like Lucy who has experienced and lived the industry first-hand.
It hasn’t always been about coffee for Lucy, though. Growing up in Queensland and raised by a family of farmers, Lucy’s natural habitat is one focussed on nature and the outdoors. Having started her educational career pursuing something in the arts up in Brisbane, she moved to Melbourne out of a desire to immerse herself deeper in the creative arts. What she found instead was something more fulfilling. It wasn’t long before she discovered coffee, and coffee effectively discovered her. Ever since then, her journey with coffee has continued to take her to new altitudes (pun intended), new places, and new flavours.
I had a mentor very early on, which really helped, Lucy affirms. And it’s important that budding coffee afficionados who are looking to break into the fantastic world of specialty coffee find one, too. It’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in the industry and really learn as much as you can from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Coffee’s the kind of hobby that fast turns into an obsession. From being able to differentiate between the subtle tones of an Ethiopian to a Brazilian, to identifying the nuances in coffee beans grown on one side of the mountain compared to another, coffee can get a little overwhelming. And while Q grading certainly helps with developing that skill on a clinical level, what’s important is that you continue to try as many different coffees as possible, and cupping at every chance you can get, Lucy affirms. There’s so much to discover with coffee, so much flavour, so much nuance, so much detail.
So what makes a perfect coffee in Lucy’s opinion? It’s balance, Lucy says with conviction. It’s really as simple as that. And a lot of what Lucy talks about when it comes to coffee seems to come back to that simple thesis: balance. The perfect balance of acidity and depth. The kind of flavour and texture that urges you to drink cup after cup throughout the day. The meticulous attention to every minutiae of detail from crop to cup. The entire journey.
Listening to Lucy talk about coffee is entrancing. There’s a passion in her eyes and a familiarity with the subject matter that feels incredibly intimate. Passion is not something you can fake, and when it comes to coffee, Lucy’s right there with the best of them; inspiring, bold, and empowering.
Photos courtesy of Lucy Ward.