Café Imports’ Joe Marrocco discusses the journey that brought him to coffee and his belief that the beverage makes the world a better place.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Joe Marrocco was headed on a spiritual career path. Working as a youth minister, he thought he’d stay in the church helping to guide young people. But after a series of events he found himself working as a barista, and from there he never looked back on his career path in coffee. Nowadays Joe is a man of many hats: He serves as Café Imports‘ director of education, co-host of the Opposites Extract podcast, events committee chair of the Roasters Guild, and much more. We talked to Joe about his first memories of coffee, how he embraced the industry, and why working in coffee is gratifying to him.
Chris Ryan: What are your earliest memories of coffee? What was your relationship with coffee before you started working in the industry?
Joe Marrocco: My dad is a coffee drinker—I mean, he probably drinks around a liter of coffee a day. I was never allowed to drink coffee as a kid, since my mom thought it would make me too hyper. I would smell it, sneak sips, try to get at it any chance I got. I loved the aroma and the mystique. The caveat to this was camping, or making maple syrup. When I would find myself with my dad around a fire, with my mom at a distance, he would pour me a cup.
My dad makes maple syrup as a hobby. Every winter we would sit around that big vat of boiling sap, and he would use the sap in place of water to brew his coffee. That sugary elixir colliding with his bitter first-wave grounds would warm my soul to the core. It was so much more than a flavor experience. It represented special moments with one of the most important people in my life. It represented a reward at the end of a long day filled with very hard work, cutting wood, carrying buckets, trudging through snow. It represented that my dad wanted me to feel I was important, “old enough and strong enough,” and that in these moments, I had earned it. There may have been a bit of defiance at play as well.
Hard work and passive defiance are still threads that coffee holds for me. Before I came on board in the coffee world fully, I also spent some time with farmers in Nicaragua. They were passively defiant in their hard work, unifying as a fair trade cooperative, working toward both justice and security. Coffee was a lifeline to them, not simply a coming of age. Seeing the impact that coffee has, and more importantly, that buying practices have, changed me forever. I decided to devote my life’s work to making coffee better. I truly believe that by making coffee better, we make the world better.
CR: When did you start working in coffee? What industry did you think you’d work in before coffee happened?
JM: In 2001 I spent that special time in Nicaragua. I was 21. It was not until 2005, after I was married, had a child, and quit my other career for a return to college, that I began working in a coffee shop as a barista. I wanted to learn this craft and threw my whole self at it.
My former career was one of a more spiritual nature. I did church music and was a youth minister. I was falling out of faith in this mode of spirituality, one that spoke of thinking a certain way, but not of being a certain way. I saw the churches and people I loved ignoring the decline of our planet, social decline, prejudice, injustice, poverty, etc. I couldn’t take it. I would bring to light these issues with the high schoolers and college students I worked with, and see their eyes light up, hear their questions and insights. I would then get calls of reprimand from parents, church leaders, and ministers. It was heartbreaking. I began to see that the avenue I was walking down was a dead end. I needed a new perspective, entirely. So, I went back to college for philosophy with an shared emphasis on ethics and logic. I quit my church job, picked up a portafilter, and never looked back.
I want to be clear in saying, early on my life, shaped by my background and religious upbringing, was wrought with colonial ideals of me helping the poor, third-world people. Through many travels, a break with the church, and further studies in history and anthropology (anthro was my minor on my return to college), I began to see things very differently. I am still on a journey, and likely always will be. I began to see that the change really needed to happen in me. If I wanted to change the world, working on myself was the place to start. Doing even the smallest thing that I have right in front of me to the best of my ability was the path. If I wanted to make coffee better, I needed to make this very cup I am brewing better. This is what I have tried to implement into my life.
CR: What does your day-to-day work look like now? What are your areas of focus?
JM: I have moved in my career in some interesting and unexpected ways. Today I work for Café Imports, where I have been for nearly six years. I am a senior sales guy, and the director of education. My days are varied. If I am in the office, I am usually at my desk in the mornings, placing orders, booking coffee contracts, and speaking to roasters mainly all over the U.S. and Canada.
I also spend a lot of time teaching roasters how to better roast, buy, and navigate the industry. I co-host a podcast with my co-worker and dear friend Meister called Opposites Extract. We talk about all facets of the coffee industry. I have a YouTube series in collaboration with Mill City Roasters on which I do a once-a-month video on roasting. I teach classes online for the SCA, at Café Imports and at Mill City, plus travel a bit to teach in other labs. I also travel to the SCA and Roasters Guild events, take a few coffee farm trips a year, visit many of my customers, host regional events (the most popular being an event I came up with called Stump the Roaster), and serve as the events committee chair of the Roasters Guild. When not doing these things, I am cupping, roasting, brewing, cooking, etc., at the office.
I also have a real life. I swear it!
CR: Do you have a favorite memory or two from your time working in coffee so far?
JM: I am a nature lover. When I am on a farm and see an exotic bird, a monkey, etc., as dull as that is, I come home talking about these moments.
CR: What is gratifying to you about working in coffee?
JM: I get to put all of my energy toward making coffee better, which I truly believe makes the world better.