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You have a story that somebody out there needs to hear.
A few weeks ago, I won an award for a piece I’d written on Temescal Brewing. My story was about Queer First Fridays: a monthly dance party that Temescal hosts, and which invites queer folks and others who are left out of the mainstream beer industry to join in the revelry.
But the story was also about me.
I lived catty-corner to the brewery, which was being constructed at the same time I was settling into Oakland after moving cross-country from New York in 2015. The brewery quickly became part of my identity. I went there for solace after a terrible breakup. I soon discovered it took me precisely 93 seconds to walk from my apartment to the taproom door—a fact I drunkenly revealed to owner Sam Gilbert at a tasting event in the neighborhood. Eventually, then-manager Theresa Bale hired me. By then, I felt entirely at home within the brewery’s community.
Recently, I was interviewed about my Temescal story by my friend, Bryan Roth, for the North American Guild of Beer Writers, the organization that awarded the prize. Before we started recording, he asked me what I wanted to talk about. I told him I wanted to encourage people to insert themselves in their own stories.
When I first started Boss Barista, I had grandiose dreams of tackling Big Issues. I don’t necessarily think my ambition has evolved, but the way I approach storytelling certainly has. Over the last three years, the biggest change I’ve made is allowing the podcast to be driven by me—by who I am and what I care about—and not by outside pressures and expectations.
It can feel both selfish and risky to center yourself in your own story. I’ve seen people across multiple fields—those who make things for others, who roast coffee that people will want to buy, who write articles that folks will want to read—fall into the trap of going big. It’s easy to think expanding outwards, and striving towards universality, will help your work connect with the greatest number of people.
I’d like to discourage that thinking for a few reasons. For one, it devalues your own unique point of view. Going big can also function as a cover: a way to hide your vulnerability and obscure yourself. And absent that personal feel, or the higher stakes that come with vulnerability, the resulting work often loses its vitality—and its broader appeal.
On the latest episode of the podcast, I interviewed Carlos Sims Jr. of Happy Home Coffee Roasters. Carlos is a fanny-pack-toting, minivan-driving dad, and he’s also an excellent coffee roaster. Those two identities aren’t commonly seen together—and without many tangible examples to point to, it took Carlos time to figure out how to bring them together.
I had some hesitations of being this family coffee business because I didn’t want to just market to soccer moms. I didn’t want to just have my coffee be for people who only watch HGTV and all this stuff. At the end of the day, I just had to be like, “Okay, I’m just going to be who I am and then just trust that the coffee will speak for itself.”
Before starting his business, Carlos looked to other coffee roasteries and considered adopting a similar aesthetic—monochromatic, minimalistic, and stark—to what he saw around him. But instead, he ultimately grounded his business in himself and in his family. In doing so, in choosing to adorn bags of coffee beans with photos of his children, he ensured that Happy Home had its own, totally distinct identity.
I’ve thrown around the idea of, when I first started off just trying to be more minimalist, because, as an art form, I leaned toward that. At the end of the day, my family is so important to me, and so integral to who I am as a man, as a person—I just felt like I had to be authentically who I am.
What Carlos discovered is that digging into the specifics of your own story, unapologetically inhabiting your individuality, actually fosters relatability, and proximity. This was something I had to learn after years of doing this podcast, and feeling stuck for a long time. Ultimately, I was scared that what was true for me wouldn’t resonate with others.
Slowly, that started to change. I began by asking folks questions that I, personally, found interesting. At first, that approach felt both lazy and petrifying: I couldn’t hide behind a larger “vision” for the show. But as a result, Boss Barista suddenly ripped open. For the first time, I was as much a part of the podcast as my guests were.
The decision to tell your own story also honors your journey, your growth and evolution. In the last piece I wrote, I talked about how we’re all atoms, bumping into one another, leaving changed from every impact. Your story is born out of this infinite series of collisions and transformations, and it becomes a point of connection—a reminder of how we’re all part of a greater whole.
In my city, Chicago, there’s incredible forward motion happening in our relatively stagnant coffee scene being driven by BIPOC coffee workers. Places like thrd. coffee company, Everybody’s Busy (who was featured on the show), and Atmos Coffee—who opened their doors just yesterday—are changing the local landscape. I have to believe it’s because the industry is finally beginning to accept the validity of myriad narratives and experiences. Lately, I’ve seen more and more people—like the recipients of getchusomegear’s grant program, which is aimed at uplifting new coffee businesses helmed by marginalized coffee folks—grounding their work in their own unique stories. Nobody is reinventing the coffee wheel, or debuting some wild gadget meant to revolutionize the way we drink coffee. The fact that they and other members of the industry are basing their work in their individuality is revolutionary enough.
A few months ago, I reframed my thinking around Boss Barista to include musings on empowerment because I began trusting myself in a way I never had—and I wanted to encourage others to trust themselves. Capitalism likes to trick us into believing that we’re replaceable. Who hasn’t heard this from their boss, or had this idea reinforced through the expectation of turnover in the food and beverage industry? It’s this fear that causes us to descend into sameness. And it’s evidence of the power that insisting on individuality holds.
This reminds me of an interview I did a few weeks ago with Ian Williams of Deadstock Coffee. I remember telling him, “No one else could have opened Deadstock.” Maybe we all need that encouragement—and that permission to embrace being the only person who can do what you do.
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