Sep 28, 2021 • 47M

Sierra Yeo and the Mythical Career Ladder

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Ashley Rodriguez
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My guest today is Sierra Yeo, founder of the Kore Directive and the coffee specialist for Alpro, a U.K. company that makes plant-based products. I’ve known of Sierra for a long time, and talking to her revealed something that I didn’t think I could have overlooked—that there’s a lot of pain and anger fueling some of the most positive and uplifting people that you know.

Sierra talks about the eight years it took her to navigate her career. That’s an important number to remember as you listen: There’s discussion of her work with Alpro and the future of plant milk, but this conversation boils down to the sadness you sometimes forget you feel. The sadness I forget I feel.

Truth be told, I didn’t realize it until I listened back to this episode. There I was at my desk, transcribing, and I reached a point where I sat back and thought, “Whoa—these are two very vulnerable people.”

Every time I write something, or I post on Instagram, or even when I reflect on my own past experiences and issues with bosses, co-workers, customers … there’s always a moment where I doubt myself. I ask myself a question similar to the ones Sierra asks in this episode: “Is this real? Or am I imagining it? Did I take something the wrong way on purpose? Did my boss really do that thing that I now feel so angry about?”

These moments of doubt don’t always make it beyond my brain, but we really lean into that feeling in this episode. I hope listening to it validates the imperfect path we all take to find our voices and stand up for ourselves. Here’s Sierra.

Ashley: We're here. We're live.

Sierra: Woohoo!

Ashley: We did it. Sierra, could I have you introduce yourself by stating your full name and what you do?

Sierra: Yeah, sure. Hi, my name is Sierra Yeo. I am the coffee specialist for Alpro U.K., which is a plant-based products company, and we've been in the business for 40 years now, I think maybe going 41—so a long time!

In whatever time I have left, I am a cat mom first and foremost. I'm also the founder of the Kore Directive, which is a diversity, equity, and inclusivity organization in the coffee industry here in the U.K. I am also a freelance writer for coffee magazines all over the world and a Q grader as well.

Ashley: What a resume! I feel like if I had a job to offer you, I'd just give it to you right now.

Sierra: Please give me a job. I want to live in the States—I say this all the time. I have such an affinity for the States, for New York. I used to live there a little bit when I was younger—in the States, not in New York, but I love New York.

I visited a couple times and just thought, “Wow, the coffee scene there is incredible.” I keep in contact with a lot of friends from the States and the coffee world as well, and just think, “Oh man, in another life, in another life…”

Ashley: You still have time!

Sierra: There's time, I know. People mistake me for American anyway because I have this weird hybrid accent.

Ashley: Yeah, tell me a little bit about your background. Let's start specifically in coffee. How did you get involved in coffee, and what were some of your first memories of coffee?

Sierra: Oh my gosh. I mean, everyone has to pay the bills and I think that's kind of how it started.

I was at university. I was born in Singapore, but then I flew to the United Kingdom for university. I studied linguistics and I needed a part-time job to pay the rent. I think I started out in a dinky little deli-cafe-bar-type thing—you know, one of the sandwich counters and stuff.

I wasn't allowed on the machine because I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Then one day the barista needed a cover because she needed to go to the toilet. I was like, “All right, I guess I won't set the shop on fire.” I didn't. And then that was pretty much the start of my love affair with coffee.

I worked my way up into more specialty coffee shops. That was really when specialty started taking off anyway [in London]. I would probably say six or five years ago. And it's just been full steam ahead ever since.

So then I got moved up into managerial roles and so on and so forth. One really notable gig was when I managed an Internal Affairs cafe at Facebook, in the Facebook headquarters in London, in Oxford Circus. So that was super fun.

But then this gig at Alpro came up and I was like, “I'd love to stay behind the bar, but there's also more to discover.” I thought the plant-based world was a really interesting segue and a really interesting tangent to go into. That's how I am where I am at the moment, which I'm loving.

Ashley: That's a really amazing trajectory. I love that you mentioned the idea of having a challenge or doing something new—but at the same time, when I think about milk, especially in the coffee industry, sometimes I tell people that I touch coffee maybe 10% of the time. And I touch milk about 90% of the time.

It's funny how little I know about milk relative to coffee. I could spout facts and facts and facts about coffee, but sometimes when I'm talking about milk, I'm like, “Oh, my knowledge is actually incomplete.”

We're definitely gonna talk a lot more about milk and plant-based milk specifically. But I was wondering if you could set the scene a little bit for coffee in London, because I think when you said that the specialty coffee scene boomed five or six years ago, that might be surprising for people to hear.

Sierra: In London the scene really peaked, or really started around 10, 15 years ago.

So you had your little independent cafes opened up by—a notable example is Prufrock, which is in Chancery Lane in London. I used to work there for maybe six to eight months, and that was opened by Gwilym Davies and Jeremy Challender, both of whom have a lot of accolades to their name. I think Gwilym was a world champion at one point.

You have people who were interested in the scene—a very small niche scene, but people were interested and it's a far cry from where we are today, where you couldn't round another corner in London without stumbling on a new gem, and I think that's just so wonderful because I think coffee is super accessible. It's an accessible luxury. And I'm not just talking specialty, but commercial as well.

It's such an affordable luxury that I think people find it very hard to step away from that. For example, during the pandemic, we saw that people weren't able to give up their coffee shops and were really mourning the loss of their local cafes.

Ashley: Absolutely.

Sierra: I definitely think that when I think of the scene in London, that's what I think of—it’s very saturated, it's very vibrant. People are constantly innovating and coming up with new concepts, new ideas, new places, new ways to showcase coffee. And I just think that's amazing. That's kind of what my world is like: being able to visit all these cafés is part of my role; as part of my day-to-day it’s just such a joy.

I do think that more and more people don't have to seek the route that these guys in the past had to where it was like, “Oh, if you're only super passionate about it, if you've competed to a certain level, then you're allowed to open a coffee shop.” I think now people are taking it upon themselves to say how, “Oh my gosh, I actually really liked this product. I'm very passionate about it.”

There's tons of resources available online, in person, different courses, different programs that you can get certified on. And then saying, “Oh, I want to take my passion to the next level and basically expand the scene.” That's kind of how I think the London scene specifically has bloomed, but also in other pockets in the United Kingdom—like Manchester is one of my favorite coffee cities ever. I lived and worked there for a little bit, so it's always got a special place in my heart, but Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Brighton … all of these places have very happening coffee scenes and they're doing such a great job as well.

Ashley: That's really cool. I love the idea that the growth of specialty coffee isn't about saturation, but it's more about accessibility and people saying, “This is a thing I really like, I want to enter it.”

I think it's easy to be negative when things get really popular. I think it's easy to be like, “Well, this was cool once.” And I think that the coffee industry especially has been guilty of that in the past—I think you've even mentioned it. Yeah, I'm sure.

But it's really interesting to see you reflect on it as a good thing. It's good that more people are able to enter the industry. It's good that more people are able to see their passion reflected in other coffee shops. It's good that there's not just one way to enter the field that you can say, “Hey, I didn't have to win a barista competition to open up my shop.”

Sierra: But that was one of the biggest myths. And I think that's why I'm so passionate about my work with the Kore. That was one of the myths that I found so often debunked in my time as a barista. Because I think I hit a point in my career where I was struggling to get anywhere. And I was like, “Well, I know I'm good at what I do as a barista. I don't really have any desire to be a manager because I'm terrible at it. But I could probably move into a roastery, but I also don't really want to roast.”

There seemed to be like, at least at the time for me, there seemed to be this mythical career ladder where you would go from front-of-house to barista to senior barista to head barista to manager to getting your foot in the door of a roastery, you'd be a production assistant, and then you work your way up to roasting…

I was like, “Who do I know physically who has done that?” And the answer was a whopping zilch—I didn't really know anyone who had fit that mold. A lot of the people that I look up to today who have astounding careers in coffee didn't work that way and they didn't work their way up that way.

That was one of the things that I found so key to debunk with my work with the Kore. A lot of the small business owners that we have as part of our community, a lot of the smaller roasters that we have as part of our community, all kind of started out just liking the product and being like, “Okay, well I'm not in this certified cool club. How do I make my way in this world?”

That was and is the community that we provide, we say, “Well, come and join us. We don't really know what we're doing either. We'll figure it out.”

Ashley: So I know you've talked a little bit about the Kore Directive and some of the reasoning behind why it was founded and what the organization does. But I was wondering if we could step back a little bit and talk about when the organization was founded, its principles—if you could give that the elevator pitch.

Sierra: Oh my gosh. It's funny cause this elevator pitch changes all the time.

Ashley: I’m ready for it. I'm ready for it to be different even when I release this episode later.

Sierra: I think partially it's also down to my personal growth. The way it started out was I was super salty. [Laughs] I was super salty after—

Ashley: That’s how Boss Barista was founded, so don’t worry.

Sierra: I feel like it was good that you and I channeled our anger into something positive. I honestly do say to so many people that the Kore saved my life, but it basically started when I left a really toxic place of work and had experienced all sorts of things from managerial bullying to racist incidents to just a really toxic work culture.

People were burning out left, right, center. People were leaving—all the classic [signs], I'm sure you know this, Ashley—so all of that stuff, and then I just felt gaslit to high heaven because I was like, “Surely I can't be the only person finding this an issue.” At the end of the day I was saying to myself, “You need to take the step for yourself and step away from this job. It doesn't matter that you need to pay the bills. You need to find a way to pay the bills in a different way. It just needs to be done.”

So that happened. I sank into a major depressive episode for something like six months after that because I was so angry. I'm sure you felt that way, but I felt so angry and disillusioned and disenchanted and thought, “There's gotta be more than this.” I don't want to give up a whole career in coffee just because this has happened, but by God I was close.

In time, I started to talk to some more people and explain my situation. I was in between jobs at the time and started talking to more women and saying, “This is what I've experienced.”

They were like, “Oh, okay, well that's not new. I've experienced that too.”

And I was like, “…Okay.”

So after the first two women I spoke to, I was like, maybe that's a coincidence. Maybe after like the sixth or seventh woman I spoke to, I was like, “This is a thing, it's a thing.” That was the impetus for it.

I wanted to create something, anything—a space, an organization, I dunno? A web server, a blog—whatever. I wanted to create a space where we can collectively acknowledge that this is not fair to women specifically. Then that broadened after our first—I think we did a launch party in November of 2018. It was a soft launch. We wanted to see if anyone was interested in feminism and then holy crap, 60 people turned up and I was like, “Whoa, okay, this has got traction. This has got legs.”

Then we did our official launch launch party in January of 2019. That was also equally well-attended.

From that point on, I think people started being sold on the idea that we were around. We were around to stay. Gradually we worked our way into magazines, I tried to tap in as many of my connections as possible to spread the word. We started running events and that was how we had started out: running events based around accessibility, equity, inclusivity, and to try and get as many people as possible attending that were not—and I use this a touch ironically—but not “the norm.”

We wanted to get as many women, as many people of color, as many marginalized folks down to our events as possible. I think the general vibe that I've had from each of our events is if you have any questions, ask. There are no stupid questions.

So we've run the gamut of events from a grinder maintenance workshop, an espresso machine maintenance workshop for women. We've run a, “Bring Your Own Regular” cupping. So every barista that attended had to bring two of their regular customers to learn more about coffee. That was really cute.

We ran an alternative flavor wheel cupping where I think I chopped up something like 67 different fruits that weren't Eurocentric. I got to taste fruits from my home. People were like, “Whoa, I've never tasted jackfruit that wasn't in a vegan steak.” And I'm like, “Yeah, jackfruit’s a fruit!” So that was brilliant.

I think the general theme that runs through what we do is to make coffee as welcoming as possible.

Ashley: When you're talking about these events where—just going back to the flavor wheel, because in general for coffee, there's this flavor wheel … I guess I'm describing a flavor wheel by describing it as a flavor wheel, which is ridiculous, but there's a whole sector of different flavors that you can taste in coffee. It’s a reference point that a lot of coffee tasters, Q graders like you, are used to to describe coffee, but it is very Eurocentric.

There are a lot of fruits that are not represented on the flavor wheel. So even just opening up the door for people to say like, “Hey, this is a tool that we use. However, it's very Eurocentric, let's expand that outward and see what happens,” is really interesting. I'm also really struck just because—and I share this with you—by how many things are started in anger.

It's both a little bit funny and not because it's something you can reflect on and say, “Oh yeah, that's right. I was really angry when I started this thing,” but it's something when you go back on, you say, “Well, why was I angry? And how many people also feel the same anger that I do?”

Like you were hinting at, there's so much gaslighting that goes with these feelings of anger and disenchantment of like, “Am I the only person who feels this way? Do other people feel this way? I can't connect with other people to know if they feel this way because it's very taboo to talk about these things at work.” So I appreciate the fact that you were able to take some of that anger and almost—not necessarily push past it, because that anger is very valid and a lot of people feel it—but able to find a way to express it outwardly so that other people could identify with it, which is so hard because we are not set up to acknowledge unfairness with others because we never really get the chance to talk about it at work. Does that make sense?

Sierra: Oh my God. Perfect sense. It's almost cathartic to hear you say it, and one thing that I think we both feel, correct me if I'm wrong, but it's such a painful part of our personal histories to talk about.

I still think back to times when I was working at this place or even previous places—it wasn't just localized to a single coffee shop—and these are deeply painful, deeply personal histories. I just remember thinking, and I don't know if you've ever felt that way, but just thinking, “Am I attention-seeking for wanting to make this a bigger deal than it is?”

A lot of that is conditioning as a cisgender woman, a lot of it is conditioning to not be loud, to not make a fuss and so on and so forth that we've been exposed to since we were kids.

So definitely stepping up and starting the Kore is kind of like my big fuck you to the whole system. It’s my big fuck you not just to the patriarchy, but to white professionalism in general, because you can absolutely be professional and also be fucking angry. They're not mutually exclusive.

I think that that's been a big part of my personal work ethos. I won't speak for the whole of the Kore, but for Sierra that's definitely an energy that I bring to my work. Even now, if I'm not happy, I express myself. People have to make those TikToks where you have to decode professional language on emails. And I'm just like, “No way. I’ll use as many exclamation marks as I want to.” I tell people when I'm not happy about something, or I tell you when I am happy about something.

There’s this myth that we’re contributing to, I feel, that this disempowers people of color, especially when we don't end up speaking the language of white professionalism. So I absolutely go into all of my spaces of work as honest as possible, as tactical as possible when I need to be, and then if I do need to state the truth, I don't shy away from that.

I think that's the kind of energy that I'd love to see more of, if that makes sense. Because sometimes you do feel like a bit of a weirdo when you're expressing yourself. I think that was the one big takeaway, not just from the Kore and just being empowered by creating this organization, but also for myself and saying, “Okay, there are things that I will not stand by. And one of those things is not being honest. Not being honest to my employers, not being honest to myself.” It’s a two-way street, I suppose.

Ashley: Right. It's difficult though, because I feel like … I don't know. I feel like as I've gotten older—and I've hit like a weird part of my career. Right now I'm doing only freelance work and I'm still trying to contemplate if I can ever work for somebody else ever again because I feel like so much of what you've said does resonate with me.

There are things that I feel like I will not do anymore. I try not to do anymore. And yet I still fall into these traps of repeating some mistakes. I have this podcast, I write about these things, but if I'm still struggling with them, then what does that mean for other people? I think that there's a good lesson in what you've said: of being an example and saying fuck you to white professionalism. And I'm going to do the best that I can to do that.

But at the same time, that is hard work. It often can be met with resistance or [you’re treated] like you're the problem. One of the reasons I left my last job was that my boss would continuously tell me that I was the only person who had problems with things. And I was like, “What is this? Am I the problem? Am I the only one?”

I don't know, but like I said, there's so much gaslighting that's involved in trying to change the rhetoric around how work works essentially. It's really, really difficult. And I think it's not linear either—I just wanted to make sure that we emphasize that, because I think it's really easy to listen to this podcast or listen to you talk and be like, wow, this sounds really easy and it's not.

For me—for Ashley—it's one step forward, two steps back. Or sometimes it's two steps forward, one step back, or eight steps forward, 20 steps back. It takes a lot. And I think it's okay for that imperfection to exist, too. I feel like I need to acknowledge it.

Sierra: I definitely want to caveat what I've said because I'm just like, “Oh my gosh, that's like oozing privilege.” And I definitely do want to…

Ashley: It's not, I want to be clear on that. It's just that I think—everything's contextual. I think it's easy to listen to this and be like, “Cool, she's got it all figured out,” but that's not what you're saying at all, but I think it's easy to take that. You know what I mean?

Sierra: Yeah. I think to contextualize a little bit more—and I will be completely honest: The job that I currently have is the first job where I felt safe enough to dissent. I read this on a thread somewhere or something, on Instagram, on Twitter, but basically it was talking about diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

It said that diversity is an easy tick, like a tick box exercise. You could amass any number of people in the room that come from diverse backgrounds of any sort and call that diversity. But if that's as far as [you go], that’s shallow marketing.

Inclusivity is being able to have any of these people dissent safely. That really stuck with me where I said, “Oh shit, that's what I'm feeling in my current job.” So I can be different and I can be honest and that might not be everyone's vibe, but it doesn't mean that I am in a place where I am in fear of losing my job for it. Does that make sense?

Ashley: That totally makes sense. And that's a really good point. I'm glad that you pointed that out, because I think you're absolutely right. It's easy to be like, “We're a diverse place—look at our staff,” but if no one actually feels safe enough to dissent, then it doesn't mean anything.

It's checking a box, it's saying, “Look at this! Cool! We did it, and we're done,” versus “This is an evolution. This is a process.” It involves listening to a lot of people and admitting that you're not right sometimes, and that's okay.

Sierra: The one thing as well, this is kind of a shout-out to Sierra from the past, and I suppose Ashley from the past as well, where I had to go through so many jobs where that doesn't happen and I absolutely do acknowledge that there are jobs in which people cannot dissent safely even today, even still.

Dissenting isn't necessarily as straightforward as we would like it to be. And certainly not as equitable as we'd like it to be, but I do honestly think—and I'm going to round this bit off with an anecdote that I had that I really wanted to share at our trade show [London Coffee Festival] but I didn't. So I'm going to share it here.

I was meant to be hosting a panel called “Seats at the Table,” and this was a diversity, equity, and inclusivity talk specifically for the coffee industry. What I didn't manage to mention at the time was that early this year when the Atlanta shootings [had happened] and there was a case against a couple of missing women in the country, in the United Kingdom where their bodies had turned up, I think, a couple of weeks later…

So there was just a really intense week during International Women's Day in early March. And what happened during that time was that I got racially harassed. Again, it's not new. It happened a lot when COVID first started, obviously being of Southeast Asian descent, I kind of knew that was going to happen. I got racially harassed in March and just broke down on the street and was like, “Oh my God, this is terrible.”

I went home—and this [happened] on a sales call. This was during work hours. So I went home and I shared it with a couple of close colleagues. And that was really the bridge where I thought, “Oh my gosh, I feel safe enough to share this with colleagues and not have them be like, ‘Are you sure you weren’t just making stuff up or imagining things or whatever? Are you sure was as bad as you said?’” There was none of that.

People were like, “Oh my God, this is terrible. I'm really sorry this has happened to you.” And then gradually we escalated that through the business and what truly gave me closure was the business coming back and saying, “All right, we hear you, let's implement a protocol to make sure that yourself and your team, your field sales team, are safe moving forward and for you to be able to report any sort of these instances if they do happen again.”

It was such a little, but also big thing, because I spoke about this with my team who have also had a couple of people that also had harassment incidences. And we said, “Wow, this is the first time we've been in a company that a) believes us and b) is doing something about it.”

I was just kind of processing that for about a week after and thinking, “This took eight years. This took a career of eight years for me to find a company where I finally felt safe enough to be like, ‘Wow, they're listening. And they hear me.’”

I suppose my point is, especially for listening to the podcast, to say please don't give up hope. I know that there are a lot of structural difficulties when it comes to, for example, HR. I think a lot of smaller coffee company companies can't afford HR or haven't even considered HR, et cetera, but it is possible to have a career in coffee and not feel like you're burning a candle at both ends. So yeah, that was my point and a really wholesome point to end on, you know?

Ashley: I think it's important for people to listen to stories like this for proof, almost, for both reasons: for the reason that you just ended on—that there is hope and there is a light hopefully at the end of the tunnel and things can get better, but at the same time for people who maybe enter their careers and never have to think about these things, who don't even have to think about the fundamentals. They're like, “Oh, I know that I will be safe at work. I know that I will be listened to at work. I know that my complaints will be handled or at least my basic safety will never be challenged.”

For you to come on the other end and say, “It took me eight years to find a place where I could even just establish that baseline.” And thinking critically about where are people at in their careers. Sometimes I even think about my own career. I'm like, not old. I'm 34. But sometimes I'm like, “Well, shoot, I wish I could be further along, but this happened and this happened and this happened…” and I have to remind myself that I had to establish a lot of safety and feeling listened to at work to even feel like I could advance or get anywhere.

That comes back to that anger issue too. It makes me really angry. It makes me really angry that I couldn't just establish a career and establish a safety net for myself. But that's neither here nor there. I mean, it is here and there, but it's a little bit off point.

Before we start to wrap things up, I want to ask you a little bit about your work at Alpro. As baristas, we touch milks so much more often than we do probably coffee in a way because we steam so much milk. We make so many milk-based beverages.

I'd say at my very last barista shift I probably steamed more plant milk than I did cow milk.

Sierra: No way!

Ashley: Probably at least 50/50 at this point. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the things that are on your mind in terms of plant milk and really thinking about sustainability, not just as an environmental concern, but as a social concern.

Sierra: Absolutely. I think it's so interesting because so many of these social justice movements kind of happened in the last year or so, and people are really opening up their eyes to the fact that our planet is in dire straits and we definitely need to start doing something about it. In fact, we should have been doing something yesterday.

With regards to plant-based products it's definitely something that I didn't envision myself doing, but then when I did, I was like, “Oh wow, there's a demand for it.” And it’s growing exponentially at that. It's just almost like, why haven't we considered it sooner?

I talked to a lot of people in my line of work who have switched over to what we at Alpro call “a flexitarian diet.” So you're basically favoring more plant-based stuff, you won't rule out meat necessarily, but when you do consider meat it's more ethically sourced—you're just a little bit more conscious about how you’re consuming it, but then mostly it's plant-based.

Obviously we cater to people with vegetarian diets and vegan diets as well. And that's kind of where the big driver is where people, I think, in lockdown weren't able to get their hands on dairy and then thought, “You know what? Now’s as good a time as any to start experimenting with my diet.” And then a lot of them didn't switch back from plant-based after that, which I think is amazing.

I think a lot of discussions are happening which will likely propel plant-based more into the coffee spotlight. I think, with regards to ingredients, that's just so interesting because I think soya has always been around. It’s been around for the longest time. Back in the day, I don't know if you remember this from when you used to drink soya, Ashley, if you ever did, but back in the day it was just curdle heaven.

We didn't know what stabilizes were. We didn't know what acidity regulators were. We didn't know what hydrocolloids were. Soya, and most plant-based milks in general at the time—I would probably say 10, 15 years ago—were not engineered to work with coffee. And if they were, it was just an afterthought. So people would just be like, “Do you have anything that isn’t milk? Oh, okay, cool, I'll take soya.” It's a little bit different now.

But then deforestation was a big topic. And with Alpro, we source 60% of our soya locally in Europe—Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany—and then we source the other 40% of the soya from Canada by boat. So we definitely don't touch any deforestation areas, particularly in the Amazon. So that's really good.

Next up we have almonds. Almonds are a little bit of an interesting one. I don't know if you've had similar discussions, obviously, because California is such a big producer of almonds. But for Alpro, we source our almonds from the Mediterranean with natural rainfall. So we try not to irrigate artificially. We also try to protect the ecosystem, particularly the bee ecosystem surrounding these almond groves, which I think is brilliant.

With almond, it's a little bit more interesting because there's so many different flavor profiles. I think some people prefer a more marzipan flavor profile, or some people prefer completely unsweetened and so on and so forth.

That actually brings me to a very interesting segue. A lot of people don't realize, I think, there's always this standard where a plant-based milk has to aspire to dairy's performance level. I don't know if that's a) possible—we haven't found the technology to do that yet, or someone would have already done it. But also b) I don't know if that's necessarily something we want to aim for, because they're just completely different products, they're completely different occasions with their own flavor profiles.

As coffee professionals, as sensory professionals, I don't know if it's a helpful paradigm to hold ourselves to—to try to limit plant-based products by saying that they should resemble dairy. I think that there's aspects that could resemble dairy. I think for example, mouthfeel and creaminess are two quite important things that we look out for, neutrality, and so on and so forth.

The way that I approach it in my work at Alpro is more of like a bartender or mixology point of view, where it's like, “Okay, these are all different ingredients that taste completely different from each other. How about we figure out how to pair them with coffees to best complement whatever's happening in the cup?” Surely that makes more sense as opposed to saying, “Oh, let's rank these ingredients in order of how neutral they taste,” because that doesn't make any sense to me.

Ashley: It seems really interesting that we haven't approached plant-based milks in that way. I've fallen down the rabbit hole with plant-based milks a little bit, and milk proteins are so unique and they only exist in milk and they perform the way that they do because they’re milk. So the fact that we are trying to mimic this thing seems technologically, maybe impossible—maybe later it will be possible.

In a way the coffee industry sort of shot itself in the foot when it comes to plant-based milks, because we did offer it as an alternative.

Sierra: Exactly.

Ashley: “You can't have dairy, we have this other thing,” versus “We have these two things that are both really excellent. They taste different, and this is how they taste different.”

And I wonder, as plant-based milks become more popular, do you think that will start to shift? I still think that we're in a little bit of a conundrum when it comes to plant milks where we still treat them as the alternative—and perhaps even picking the alternative has become cool or trendy or interesting. But it's not that we have posited these two things as different. We still posit them as alternatives.

I'm thinking about amaros (amari), for example, those bitter liquors. All of those amari fall into the category of amaro, but they all taste different and you can build drinks with all of them.

I'm trying to think of a drink that's amaro-based and I can't think of any, but if you switch out the amaro, the drink is going to taste different, but you still fundamentally have the same sort of drink. You can still have a latte with almond milk versus cow milk. They're going to taste different, but they're still fundamentally the same drink. How do we think about things that go with them that will highlight all the flavors inside of them?

Sierra: Also who decided that dairy was the standard of excellence and taste?

Ashley: It's Eurocentrism.

Sierra: Well, there you go.

It really behooves us to start questioning these norms. And I think that that is happening. It's so interesting that you bring up the molecular composition of dairy because a lot of what makes plant-based products perform in coffee today is a blend of protein, of some sort of plant-based lipids and acidity regulators, stabilizers, some sugar as well really helps.

So when people, for example, ask me for unsweetened almond milk, I'm like, “You do know that that's totally not going to work in coffee, by the way. It just doesn't work. We haven't broken that frontier yet.”

That's definitely something to consider with oat and coconut as well—I think coconut gets a really negative rep and that's something that we've been trying to change at Alpro recently, because coconut, a lot of people tend to say, “It overwhelms the flavor profile of the coffee.”

I'm like, “You do realize that there were big, boozy, natural coffees that will be able to hold their own with coconut and will create probably a banging drink?” I think as an industry, we need to stop restricting ourselves, to get up out of our own way, and really think about exploring different possibilities.

Ashley: Is there anything that you'd want people to know about? I feel like we covered a lot of different topics, but very, very quickly. So is there anything that you would want people to know about you or about your work at Alpro or about The Kore that we didn't cover?

Sierra: I would probably say for people—I would love for people to do their research.

I think when it comes to things that you don't know much about—whether or not it's social justice movements or it's about equity, equality, diversity, et cetera … and then also when it comes to plant-based choices in your life.

If you want to pursue a new ingredient or if you want to try something out from a new brand because we're seeing so much competition in that market at the moment—and that competition is good, it's a good thing—but I definitely say try to be as discerning as possible with your choices, with what you support. Particularly with these products, find out where they're sourced, try to find out more about the supply chain of the ingredient, if you can … the credentials of the company, whether or not they're B-Corp certified, for example. It's just access to information and making sure that you are making as informed a choice as possible.

Ashley: Sierra, thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate it.

Sierra: No, man, this is great. This is so wonderful. I've been such a fan of your podcast for the longest time and the work that you do, and this was such an honor.

This Boss Barista episode is brought to you by Urnex.

One of Urnex’s latest advances is a range of environmentally friendly cleaners called Biocaf. Biocaf products are made entirely from plant- and mineral-based ingredients and are fully biodegradable. They're available for both commercial and household coffee equipment.

Urnex is also partnering with coffee pros—like me!—to highlight some of the best sustainability efforts in the industry with the Biocaf Sustainability Series. You can read my most recent piece on Onyx Coffee Labs’ switch to oat milk in their latest café, and learn more about Biocaf here. And be sure to read the dozens of pieces focusing on sustainability in coffee and beyond.

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