We get to know Kate Blackman, a mainstay in the Kansas City coffee community and coffee competition veteran.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Kate Blackman
Kate Blackman thought she’d be a teacher. While studying education, she began dabbling in café work, and eventually pursued coffee full-time. This ended up being an educational pursuit of a different kind, as Kate threw herself into various training and knowledge-gaining opportunities, eventually becoming fully immersed in the coffee world.
Now almost 20 years into her coffee career, Kate considers herself an “elder” in the Kansas City, Mo., coffee community; she currently has a little-bit-of-everything role at Messenger Coffee, where she also mentors Messenger’s young coffee competitors. We talked to Kate about the value of coffee competitions, making a shop special, and much more.
Chris Ryan: What are your earliest memories of coffee? Was it consumed in your household, and if so, what did you think of it?
Kate Blackman: My parents didn’t drink coffee, so it wasn’t a ritual in our household. Early specialty coffee crept onto my radar when I was a teenager in the ’90s. I thought of it as something rich people drank because I had a well-off friend who always had bottled Frappuccinos and Gevalia mail-order coffee at her house, which seemed really fancy in small-town Missouri.
What were you interested in professionally before coffee? How did you start working in coffee and how did it become your career?
I studied education in school. I always thought I’d be a teacher because I had so many wonderful teachers I admired, and I knew my path was to serve others. I stumbled into coffee in college. I worked at Barnes & Noble as a book seller, but I was always popping into the café to help because it was often short-handed and it seemed fun.
There was a local café (RIP LATTeLAND) right down the street looking for an assistant manager, so I embellished my experience a bit and they gave me the job. I was really fortunate to have access to educational and training opportunities through the roasters we used at LATTeLAND, including competing in the first Midwest Regional Barista Competition hosted by The Roasterie in 2002, and barista jams and cuppings hosted by PT’s Coffee. I think those events made me realize that coffee could be a career, and I’ve just been showing up and pursuing experiences and knowledge ever since.
How long have you been with Messenger, and what is your role and your day-to-day duties? What do you think makes Messenger a special shop?
I’ve been with Messenger for two years. I’m bad at titles, but my role is to manage the bar directly and act as a liaison between all the departments—bar, roasting, kitchen, pastry, and bread. My day-to-day could involve almost anything, from making drinks and helping guests to developing recipes and training or fixing random stuff.
Messenger is special because of the people. We have a really amazing team of talented and dedicated people who want to make the best products and experience they possibly can. Our building itself invites you into the process. It houses not only Messenger Café, but also Ibis Bakery and Messenger Coffee Roasting. As a guest in the café, you can have a seat six feet away from the cooling tray of our roaster or perch by the pastry department and watch them roll hundreds of croissants while you drink excellent coffee and eat tartines made by our kitchen on real bread. You can check out our custom flour mill or see what’s happening in the glass-fronted quality-control lab.
Basically, Messenger is special because we invite you to experience all the hard work and mastery displayed by our team while highlighting the ingredients we are proud to receive from our farm partners—coffee, grains, produce, and eggs to name a few.
I understand you’re closely involved in the Kansas City coffee community—what is gratifying to you about engaging in that community?
The Kansas City coffee community is the best. Our city really supports coffee, so we are able to have a really broad café culture. Our baristas really support each other and are friendly with baristas from other cafés. There’s healthy competition, sure, but KC never feels cutthroat. At this point, I’m definitely an “elder” in the KC coffee community, having started in 2000, so I enjoy being in a support role and helping where I can. I have so many meaningful shared experiences with people in the KC coffee community, so it’s like family.
Can you describe some of the activities you take part in at CoffeeChamps? What is worthwhile to you about engaging in the competitions, and how do you think they benefit coffee professionals?
So, currently with CoffeeChamps I am the chair of the U.S. Brewers Cup Working Group, as well as U.S. Head Judge for the Brewers Cup. That basically means I organize and lead the judges’ workshop, doing my best to help judges train and calibrate, then I get to taste lovely coffees and hear inspiring presentations all weekend, while striving to give brewers useful feedback.
We have had a busy couple of competition seasons at Messenger also! Last year Kaley Gann (Brewers) and Joel Bigelow (Barista) competed from preliminaries to the U.S., with Kaley taking third! This year we had a team of three make it through prelims (Joel and Kaley, plus Jerry Ponzer in Brewers), with Kaley (second in Denver) and Joel moving on to USCC! I’m very proud of them.
I support the competitions because I think they are a great way to push yourself as a brewer or barista and develop your skills. All the competitors I’ve known have gained technical skill as well as confidence by developing their recipes and routines. Also, you get to make coffee friends! Coffee friends are the best friends. Spending a few days just totally immersed in a pool of folks who take this as seriously as you do is really gratifying.
Finally, after all those coffee questions, what are you interested in outside of coffee?
Well, I am the mom of identical twin girls who are about to turn 16, so a lot of my energy is directed to supporting and guiding them … and teaching them to drive a stick. My husband and I just bought a 105-year-old house at the beginning of the year, so my love of handiwork and fixing things will be in full swing too. I’m warning folks—my Insta feed is going to shift from cats, concerts, and coffee to lowbrow HGTV for the foreseeable future!
I also never say “no” to a camping trip and I love my houseplants.
I really enjoyed reading this interview! It almost had the affect of sitting in on it. Having met Kate, I appreciated reading about her background. She is a special human being!