September 9, 2016

Interview With Andrea Allen: Where Are the Female Coffee Competitors?


Andrea Allen structures her life around three things: her business, her religion, and her family. If she were a man, would I have written that sentence differently? Almost definitely. Unconscious bias, both for and against women, is just one of the things that Andrea and I discussed as we travelled through Brazil, going from coffee farm to coffee farm, mill to mill, and cupping table to cupping table.

We were there as part of Ally Coffee’s Champions Origin Tour: Andrea, of course, was one of the coffee champions. First runner-up in the US Barista Championship 2016; co-owner of Onyx Coffee Lab, with its four cafés and roastery; and mum to River Gray, a black-coffee-loving toddler, she runs on passion and caffeine.

She’s competitive, racing the lanky Todd Goldsworthy to the bus because, well, why not? Her sense of humour can veer towards dry and deadpan, but while that’s often associated with cynicism and aloofness, she’s positive and friendly. She doesn’t always initiate deep conversations but she has plenty to say in them – and is quick to admit when she’s still looking for answers, too.

SEE ALSO: Interview With World Brewers Cup Champion Tetsu Kauya

Espírito Santo

Andrea Allen looks out at coffee farms in Espírito Santo.

Coffee Competitions as Branding

I asked her how she got into coffee; she tells me a story about drinking it to impress her dad, then driving to coffee shops for non-coffee drinks, and then finally working at a coffee shop at university before entering management. Eventually, she and her husband Jon decided to take over a branch when the company she worked for downsized.

Her path into competing was much more deliberate. “I’m naturally a really competitive person,” she tells me. “And my first competition was in 2014, when Jon and I were working to build a new brand. He really has the vision for this brand and so he was encouraging our business in a lot of ways to get involved in the specialty industry. Being a small company and also being from Arkansas, it’s really hard to get people to take you seriously. When we first started roasting, we couldn’t even get green samples from most importers because we were just so small.”

“So Jon encouraged me, he was like ‘hey, you should go compete, ‘cause I know you’re a good barista and I think you’d like it and also it’d be great if you did well because it’d help us give some credibility to what we’re doing.’ And that’s how I got started competing.”

Onyx Coffee Lab

Coffee competitions support Onyx Coffee Lab’s branding. Credit: Onyx Coffee Lab

A Love-Hate Relationship With Competing

I assume she must like it to compete; she tells me, “Well, it’s a love-hate thing. I love competing and I love the people aspect of it. There’s just like tons of competitors who are bringing all kinds of really fun ideas and information, and then there’s also this whole set of volunteers and judges that are just there of their own free will… And I like performing and I like doing well.”

But competing is demanding. “It’s a lot of stress, and a lot of time, and a lot of heart and energy goes into it,” she says. “And if you don’t do as well as you’d like, it really is hard. I was kind of hoping that this would be my last year, not because I thought I would win but just because it is so time-consuming. Really, the two months leading up to the US nationals, I spent 75% of my work time preparing for the competition and the other 25% of the time trying to do the other work I’m supposed to do.”

But for the past two years, her passion won out. And it looks like it might again: “And then I got 2nd which was awesome,” she says. “I didn’t really expect to get 2nd and then, once I did, I was like…” Her voice softens. “Wow, I would love to try again and try to get first.”

US Barista Champion Lem Butler

US Barista Champion Lem Butler (left) and Andrea (right) pull espressos on Fazenda Matilde.

Where Are the Women Champions?

Although Andrea does well in competitions, it’s rarer for women to score as highly as men. The World Barista Championship has never been won by a woman; neither has the World Brewers Cup. The US Barista Championship has better statistics, having been won by five women in the last fifteen years. But even though Andrea came second in the US this year, she was still the only woman in the six finalists.

Andrea believes that women and men are treated equally by the competition – but not as many women enter. “Some statistics that I’ve heard and seen to be true is that 25% of the US competitors are females. When you look across the board at people that work in coffee shops, I think it’s a little bit more even in terms of the ratio of women to men. I don’t have statistics to back that up but that seems to be pretty apparent to me.”

It’s an issue she’s contemplated a lot. And her conclusion? “I think, at the end of the day, that men tend to be more willing to put themselves out there in a competition setting than women are. And I think women are potentially equally competitive, but maybe in a slightly different way.”

Andrea Allen making coffee

Andrea Allen brews a Pacamara for us to drink with breakfast.

Competing: A Risky Business for Women?

I push Andrea for more of an explanation. “I guess, just to take what I see from my own cafés, I see women in my café wanting to be the best in the café and doing really well within that structure, and being quite competitive in there, but not necessarily wanting to go out and prove to the whole world that they’re the best.”

“I had a conversation in a forum called The Coffee Woman and we talked about taking risks,” she continues. “I think that for a woman it just feels more risky, because I think that the sense of failure that might come out of that is more connected to their heart. Whereas men, I think that they certainly don’t want to fail or not do well, but that maybe doing so prompts them to come back stronger or do better. I think that women just don’t look at the competition world and think ‘I want to get in that and prove myself to the coffee community.’”

Who Are You Representing: Your Coffee, Yourself, or Your Gender?

I suggest that there are two things going on culturally – that not only are women not as encouraged to be publicly competitive as men, but also that women can end up representing all women. It can add pressure that, if there were perhaps just one more woman in the finals, might not exist.

“I definitely feel like that plays into it a little bit,” Andrea says. “Like I know that last year at US no women made the finals and there was kind of this idea floating around the competition, where people were trying to get upset about it and people wanted me to weigh in… I do think there’s a token woman situation that can happen.”

For Andrea, she didn’t make the 2015 finals because she went 35 seconds over her time. She knows that’s why she didn’t move on. Is it fair to ask her to give an opinion about why all the other women didn’t get in? At the same time, when there were only two women to sixteen men in the semi-finals, can it be as simple as “a woman didn’t make the finals because Andrea went 35 seconds over time”?

Andrea Allen making coffee

Andrea holds her daughter, River, while brewing coffee at work. Credit: Andrea Allen

Female Participation Starts in the Café

We move onto how more women can be encouraged to compete. Andrea thinks that although people do want to see more female champions, there’s a structural disadvantage for both women and minorities – one that starts in the café. “For competitors, depending on where they work, they need to be higher up in management or something so they can have the resources available to them that they need to do really well.”

Although she doesn’t see a great gender disparity between male and female baristas, she does for managers. “Honestly, I think [being higher up in the company] tends to be more likely for men than women – and that tends to be statistically relevant for all industries.”

She gives herself as an example. “For me, I’m lucky because I’m the co-owner of our business. If it makes sense, then I can devote a lot of my work time to preparing and I can delegate things to other people during that season. I definitely know that for me, if the choice was that I would put River [her daughter] to bed and then go back to practise, it wouldn’t be worth it for me to sacrifice time with Jon or even sleep – which would then affect my performance as a family member.”

But she knows that, for many non-managers, it’s a decision they’re forced to make. “The competition is evolving in the way that it’s demanding more and more of the competitors,” she says. “I think that’s a negative for women and also a negative for people that have not been in the industry for that long.”

“I think that just the more women who get more opportunities in cafés to move up and do well, then they can have the resources, and also maybe the time and the confidence, to compete.”

Andrea with her team and her trophy

Andrea with her team and her trophy. Credit: Andrea Allen

A Family Business

It isn’t just her position that enables Andrea to compete; it’s also her family structure. Some might say that discussing a female competitor’s family is regressive. Yet when many competitions don’t allow children in the venue, perhaps not talking about female – and male – competitors’ families is more regressive. Andrea wasn’t the only one on the trip who has had to navigate finding babysitters in strange cities.

And it’s impossible to separate Andrea’s work from her personal life – in 2014, she entered into regionals to promote her business even though her morning sickness meant she couldn’t drink coffee at the time.

And at the 2015 US competition, a year in which she was able to take her daughter in, she tells me, “I was in the bathroom breastfeeding River 30 minutes before going on. I went to the bathroom, not because I was asked to or had to, but because [once I had started breastfeeding] there was this thing happening where people kept asking me who I was there washing dishes for! – Myself!” She remembers thinking, “I have to build breastfeeding into my prep schedule, because otherwise I might leak milk onto my shirt during the competition, or my baby might be hungry and cry when she sees me competing… and Jon would need to take her out.”

“It’s not that I think the industry has to offer a place for women to breastfeed at competitions,” she says. But she does wonder if there’s a connection to the lower numbers of women competing.

For Andrea, keeping her work life and her personal life overlapping rather than symbiotic is crucial. “We need to be a family outside our work,” she adds. “I think our work is our life and in ways that is challenging, but it’s also really fun. We’re not perfect but we try hard. We really want to show to our staff, this is our family, and also to our daughter that we’re not perfect at work or at home but we are working to do well.”

aeropress brew

Coffee and River: neither are ever completely out of the picture for Andrea. Credit: Onyx Coffee Lab

One Goal Achieved

When discussing her routine, Andrea explains to me that her goal is to not make her coffee exclusive. She talks about how some of the winning coffees “are like $200/lb, and there’s only a tiny but that you can buy. It’s literally the nicest coffee you can find.”

But while she loves those coffees, she tells me, “My hope is that if I continue in competitions, and if my baristas continue after me, we really try to use coffees that are accessible, both with the price and with the quantity.”

She explains that last year, after the competition, she only had 20 retail bags left to sell – and that she underpriced them because she didn’t like to sell coffee that was so expensive. “But the coffee I used this year is very available to people, and there’s actually like quite a few cafés that use it… we have a lot of it in our green facility and were probably going to have for six months.”

Onyx’s coffee

A selection of Onyx’s coffee. Credit: Onyx Coffee Lab

Panamanian vs Brazilian: Coffee Varietals

This year, she competed with a Pacamara and a Geisha from Las Margaritas, Colombia. We moved the discussion round to Brazilian coffees, which we’d been drinking throughout the trip. She tells me that before this trip, she thought Brazilian coffees were just “the stereotype”, of something that “can be nice coffees but also don’t necessarily have the fun, exotic flavour profiles that a lot of people are really into right now” – but that she now sees this changing.

One of the things that she was happy to see on our tour was the use of African raised beds – and she was surprised at how quickly they had been adopted. “Douglas [of Ally Coffee] said that a year ago these farms weren’t doing that. For them to have a short turnaround like that, to change what they’re doing – I don’t think it’s normal or common.”

“Those farmers are generational farmers; they’ve been doing it their way for forever. To introduce techniques that take more work with a questionable payoff is not a super popular thing… and there’s a lot of things that go into it besides just using raised beds. To see people doing that and also actively taking the instruction that Ally and others in the area have been giving them, it’s been a little surprising but also really cool.”

“My hope is that over the next couple of seasons, the folks that are employing selective picking and sorting and also the raised beds will continue to produce nicer, cleaner cups,” she says, adding that she’s excited to taste some of the coffees from the farms we’ve been visiting.

Andrea inspects coffee at Tres Barras,

Andrea inspects coffee at Tres Barras, all of which is picked and dried by Sandrinho and his mother.

Passionate and driven, I won’t be surprised if Andrea does well in future competitions. It would be good if, next year, I don’t have to ask her to “represent all women” by discussing their absence. But for that, we’ll need to see more women in the competition – and, if Andrea is right, more women as coffee shop managers.

With thanks to Andrea Allen of Onyx Coffee LabAlly Coffee, and the producers who hosted us in Espírito Santo, Caparaó, and around Fazenda Primavera.

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