Find out more about the Glitter Cat trainee and top finisher in both the Barista and Cup Tasters competitions in Nashville, Tenn., in January!
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo by Paige Hicks
If you’ve been following the competition season, Elisabeth Johnson might be a name you’re familiar with. At the preliminary event in Seattle she placed in both the Barista and Brewers Cup competitions, and at the qualifier in Nashville, Tenn., she placed in both the Barista and Cup Tasters competitions. The Seattle-based coffee pro tells us about her childhood in coffee, how she prepared for so many competitions, and some of the most outlandish things she heard while working in a drive-thru.
Ashley Rodriguez: When did you first start making coffee? What was your first coffee job?
Elisabeth Johnson: When I was about 8, I used to make my dad’s pourovers for him at his office. My parents were (and are) avid coffee drinkers, and we had a small home espresso machine growing up that I loved playing with.
My first coffee job was in 2010 at a double-sided drive-thru. My only training was a two-hour crash course, and after that I ran the stand solo. As the offspring of struggling small-business owners, I had previously decided that I thought café ownership was dreamy and wanted to learn how to run a coffee shop. (Fast forward eight years and I’ve certainly learned that it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.) A family friend owned the stand and gave me the opportunity based off my previous experience in fast food. There was always a story to tell about my day at the drive-thru. The most memorable to me was when a 70-year-old woman confessed murder to me. (I cannot make this up.)
When was your first “aha” moment? When did the idea of a coffee career become something you were interested in?
I was always interested in coffee as a career, but it took me about five years to comprehend what it meant to be a coffee professional outside café ownership. When I started working at Bluebeard Coffee Roasters in 2015, my “aha” moment was realizing that I had accumulated enough coffee knowledge to make a barista training program.
I firmly believe that in anything you involve yourself with, you should fully apply yourself. My personal motto is, “Learn more, do more, be more.”Photos by Paige Hicks
That being said, I still had my doubts about a career in coffee. It was at that time that I actually went back to university to finish my bachelor’s degree, and I continued to explore a lot of career paths, including personal training and performing in a band that I was pretty serious with at the time. I didn’t resolve to be a coffee professional, I realized that I simply had become one by nature of “doing.”
I firmly believe that in anything you involve yourself with, you should fully apply yourself. My personal motto is, “Learn more, do more, be more.” Personal growth and career development are intertwined, and as I’m driven by a desire to be the best I can be at anything I do, I believe that contributes to professionalism. I’ve been “all in” with coffee as long as I’ve been a part of it.
What inspired you to compete?
I don’t consider myself a “competitive” person, but I try to push myself to do things that I find uncomfortable. I enjoyed competing in latte art competitions, triangulations, and espresso competitions, and I saw the barista competition as a fun accumulation of all of the above. USBC in particular was always a “bucket list” item for me. I thought that someday, if I was good enough, I would compete just to prove to myself that I could. As it turned out, I put both feet in before I had any idea what I was doing. It was such an amazing learning process that I decided to do the whole thing over again.
What did you learn from being a Glitter Cat participant? How did it make you a better competitor?
The most impactful part of Glitter Cat bootcamp for me was theme building. It challenged me to boil down my core values as a coffee professional and turn it into a theme for competition. Not only did it help me feel more prepared and purposeful going into competition, but it really made me internally re-establish myself as a coffee professional and solidify why it is that I do what I do.
You competed in both Barista and Cup Tasters—how did you juggle that? How did it feel to know you qualified for both events? And how did you juggle it with Brewers Cup when you competed in the preliminary?
To start with preliminaries, I competed in both Brewers Cup and Barista because I didn’t know which competition I wanted to focus on. I think a lot about “sunk cost,” the fear that you’ve already invested too much in something to change your course. I didn’t want to continue with Barista competition simply because I’d already done it once, and I absolutely love brewing coffee.
Because of the nature of preliminaries, I didn’t have to practice for either [competition] other than what I had already been doing for the past eight years—making and tasting coffee. The most challenging part for me was not having a support group during the event. I was on the phone with my boyfriend in a different state trying to lock down flavor descriptors because I had extreme difficulty simply finding someone who was willing to taste my coffee with me. I was extremely proud to have placed in both by simply trusting myself.
For qualifiers, I was very nervous for Cup Tasters because I did not practice at all, and at my current job, I don’t have exposure to a lot of different coffees. I knew I just had to trust my palate and draw on previous experiences, but I was feeling very insecure. I put 100 percent of my energy into practicing for Barista and just planned to “show up” to Cup Tasters and see what would happen. Honestly, I was so upset I missed a cup because I got so close to 6/6!
In Barista, I made a few mistakes that I thought would keep me from qualifying, so I was definitely relieved to have made it through. I was a bit disappointed in myself for not doing better, but that just means I have to practice twice as hard for nationals!
One of my favorite pictures of you is you throwing down at the Cherry House TNT in 2017 with your daughter on your shoulders—how do you think about parenting in the coffee world?
My daughter is the most amazing person that I know, and I honestly love putting her in the spotlight. She is both my biggest challenge and greatest blessing. My childhood wasn’t the norm, and I always try to question age-ism and encourage people to see my daughter as she is, her own independent person. Besides convenience, I often bring her to events simply because she loves it, and the coffee community should be more nurturing of children as well. She’s extremely interested in coffee and is always asking me when she can make another latte!
As a mother in coffee, I want my daughter to know that she is strong, smart, and capable to do anything she wants with her life. I don’t want her to grow up with the expectation I did that women should only be “mothers and wives.” I got pregnant when I was 20 years old, and being a young, working mom is difficult enough without judgments from society. I have a dream that society will stop putting limitations on women’s capabilities and guilt on mothers for having lives outside of their children. On top of that, we mothers shouldn’t have to justify the value of the career itself or time spent without our children. You don’t have to make Martha Stewart cookies to be a good enough mom, and you don’t have to be with your children every day to be a role model.
How do you think your story is different from others? How would you want people to remember you?
I rarely see single mothers or young mothers in places of influence, probably because it is so excruciatingly difficult to succeed if you don’t have a team of people to back you up. That being said, those that I do see motivate and inspire me to keep pushing. I have a multitude of obstacles that could keep me back, but I am driven by a desire to prove that we are more than our challenges. Single motherhood aside, I also struggle with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I hope that what I have to say resonates with someone, and rather than remembering me, I hope you feel inspired to reaffirm your purpose and keep pushing despite your obstacles.
What does the future look like for you?
Right now I’m managing a café and consulting for our upcoming expansion to a roastery and second café within the next six months. Juggling that and USBC is all that I have my sights set on right now!