From barista to retail trainer to barista competition judge to coach of some of the world’s top barista competitors, Holly Bastin has had a long and fruitful career in coffee, which she reflects on here.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo courtesy of Garrett McGraw
Holly Bastin thought she was destined for a career in music, centered on her instrument of choice, the viola. But when she became disenchanted with that option she took a job as a barista, which jumpstarted what has become a long and fruitful career in coffee. A fixture of the Kansas City, Mo.-area coffee scene, Holly worked for a dozen-plus years with PT’s Coffee, serving as a barista, cafe manager, trainer, and much more. She also started judging barista competitions early in the contests’ history and eventually evolved to coaching competitors, helping to guide her childhood friend Pete Licata to his 2013 World Barista Championship win. Holly and Pete currently work together on several projects, including the consumer coffee site Roast Ratings and the consulting firm Licata Coffee Consultants. Holly shares with us how she got into coffee and some of the highlights of this long journey.
Chris Ryan: What are your earliest memories of coffee? What was your relationship with coffee before you started working in the industry?
Holly Bastin: I very clearly remember the moment that coffee absolutely captivated me. I was around 11 or 12, alone at home, rummaging through the cabinets for an after-school snack. My nose was suddenly drawn in by some lovely, intoxicating odor. It caused that reflex of “wanting way more of whatever that was!” The source? A bag of slightly oily brown beans that smelled like heaven! I just had to taste this, and had paid just enough attention to my parents’ ways to understand the basic steps of the brewing process. So I set to work to taste this thing that smelled so incredibly magical! I crunched up some beans in my parents’ state-of-the-art whirly bird grinder, placed it in a filter, added water, and we were on our way!
As I stood there in the kitchen that day, feeling every nanosecond of anticipation between me and that finished cup of brew, I tried to imagine what it must taste like to smell as it did. Ultimately I wouldn’t know until I tried it, and try it I did. Without a hint of cream or pinch of sugar, I eagerly sipped the brew. My expectations totally primed for awesome, my mouth was rather shocked to find a hot mess of intense bitterness within it—something that I only knew to call “burning” at the time. It was truly horrible and I was disinclined toward coffee as a beverage for a long while, but I never forget how it began with those smells. In fact, it’s what I remember best as time marches on.
CR: When and how did you start working in coffee? What industry did you think you’d work in before that?
HB: I began working as a barista in 1999 at Espresso Vita in Overland Park, Kan. I was almost 20, approaching my first major “crossroads” in my newfound adult life. The previous year I had gone straight from high school into college at the University of Kansas (KU for the fans!). For 12 years I had studied viola in school. At the time, music had the strongest pull for me in life, so I decided to declare straightaway for music education in the hopes of some day being an orchestra teacher. It seemed like the right idea at the time, but it quickly became obvious that I needed to reevaluate what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It happens. I’m now rusty on viola, but I do still manage to play every now and then.
Upon my musical disenchantment, I fell into a bit of a directionless funk for a little while. But in my random attempts to find some campus activities where I could make friends, what I accidentally discovered was coffee culture. Oh man! People were writing on walls and playing chess, others renting an hour or two on the cafe’s internet-ready rainbow iMacs. And there was me, sipping on an Italian soda in the corner taking in conversations on any and every topic!
It made sense to me instantly and I felt I belonged—like I was “home.” That was what made me decide to get a job in coffee and see where things went. Little did I know, “Oh the places I’d go!”
CR: You worked for over 12 years at PT’s Coffee, and since then have started Roast Ratings, coached barista competitors, and worked on consulting projects around the world. What does your day-to-day work look like now? What are your areas of focus?
HB: Day-to-day work is often a mix. Training and mentoring professional development is still a big focus, as is keeping my palate tuned in. With Roast Ratings I find particular joy in spending more time with regular consumer folks, trying to get a better understanding of their take on #coffeelove. As a business owner, there are many days that aren’t terribly exciting to the outside eye, but other days I find myself halfway across the planet teaching folks what I have come to understand about the bean. While it keeps me on my toes, I often get to choose my own projects and have the opportunity to get to know some amazing folks throughout the process. I have made so many unexpected friends along the way! It’s not a job I would have ever known to think up as a kid, but it suits me well. I’m fortunate and grateful.
With respect to training barista competitors, helping someone develop through a competition can be an intense and interesting way to really get to know them. For me, coaching and training have become more about mentorship and its advisory/feedback loop than just about making tasty coffee—that’s a given. Because of the deeper approach required to build that kind of relationship, it can be limiting in how many people we can reasonably “mentor” at a time. But regardless of competitive outcome, it’s easily one of more the rewarding parts of what I do. I absolutely love it.
CR: Do you have a favorite memory or two from your time working in coffee so far?
HB: Goodness! A lot of them would revolve around competition. I remember witnessing the many stages of Heather Perry, from “Boot Girl” to All-Star Champion! I had the tremendous opportunity to judge the Jay Caragay “Lobster Drink” of 2009—delightfully delicious! And, of course, when Pete won the WBC in 2013. That was something else … I’m still speechless!
But from regular bar days back at PT’s, the thing I miss most is that magical buzz that only happens during the rush time—when the line is endless and every move you make is nailing the steps of the coffee dance.
CR: What is gratifying to you about working in coffee?
HB: People. It’s where it all began for me and it’s where I keep finding myself coming back to, time and time again. Coffee is an amazing and often unexpected way to really get to know the realest parts of each other. Don’t get me wrong—I now take delight in the bean juice on the daily—but nothing can quite beat the feeling of giving someone’s day just a little more hope and happiness.