10 Minutes With—2020 U.S. CoffeeChamps Edition: Chelsea Thoumsin—Part One

We get to know Cup Tasters Nashville Qualifier winner and former Counter Culture Coffee buyer Chelsea Thoumsin.


Cover photo by Salesio Mbogo

Editor’s note: The 2020 U.S. Coffee Championships season is nearing its end. Over the past several weeks, we’ve interviewed some of the competitors about their coffee careers, approach to competition, and much more. Today, we continue this series by speaking with Cup Tasters competitor Chelsea Thoumsin.

Chelsea Thoumsin has been involved in coffee as long as she has been working—her earliest jobs as a high school student were behind the bar as a barista. That journey eventually led her to Counter Culture Coffee, where over a six-plus-year period she progressed with the company, eventually moving from the East Coast to the roaster’s North Carolina home to work as a coffee buyer. No longer with Counter Culture, Chelsea is still active in coffee; this has included taking part for the first time in coffee competition, where she finished in first place at the Nashville Qualifier in January. In part one of this two-part interview, we talk to Chelsea about how she started working in coffee, her journey at Counter Culture, and what the industry means to her.

Chelsea practicing triangulation, the format used in the Cup Tasters competition. Photo by Chris McAuley.

Chris Ryan: First, can you tell us a bit about your background?

Chelsea Thoumsin: I grew up in Arizona, went to college in Washington state, went to art school and lived in Philly, and ended up in Durham, N.C. I studied a lot of things in school but mostly cared about art, specifically ceramics, drawing, history, and installation. I had a great time in art school (I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), but I found myself alone, a lot, doing odd things like wrapping furniture in string and wondering why I had no friends. Turns out I like being around people, and while creating things and getting all “conceptual” is energy-giving to me, I felt really really lonely in the studio. Having a job in a coffee shop at this time was crucial to my mental health and helped me realize I had more I wanted to give. After the program I was in was finished, I stuck around in Philly and worked full-time in coffee. 

Did you work in the coffee world before that? And how did you start working with Counter Culture?

Starting in high school (circa Y2K), I had at least one job, and one of those jobs was always working in a shop as a barista. I started at Starbucks when La Marzocco Lineas were in the shops, and I was hooked. Being a barista taught me how to be social, what good customer service meant, and how to multi-task, which happens to be one of my favorite things ever. It wasn’t until a handful of years later that I thought, “Wow, I must like this enough and must be doing this for a reason, I think I need to learn more about coffee,” and that sentiment has been the driving force of my career ever since.

I was a barista for over 10 years at various places, the final one being a Counter Culture account, where I knew I would have access to taking educational labs. The hitch was that I was in Philly, and the training center was in New York. I’d take the bus or train up real early in the morning, and come home the same day after a full-day lab. The New York TC is where I met some of my long-standing coffee friends and mentors (hello Ever Meister, hello James McCarthy!), and I thought, I want to do THAT. I felt, and was, welcomed and valued in that space, and after coming out of a prior toxic work environment, it completely regenerated my hope in coffee.

In 2013, I landed the job as a wholesale account manager/educator for Counter Culture in Philly, as they had just opened their training center there. Educating and building community in that space was extremely rewarding, and making sure accounts had what they needed to succeed in the ways they wanted to was also a highlight. I did that for a little over three years, and, sure enough, the proverbial “I need to learn more about coffee” urge took over again. 

What did you do next to pursue that interest?

I ended up packing my things and my dog into a U-Haul in 2016 to relocate to Durham, CCC’s headquarters, to start a position as a quality specialist apprentice. This position taught me a ton about protocol of all kinds: evaluating green coffee, sample roasting, data entry, and cupping every day. A few months later, the “apprentice” part of the title was removed and I was a member of a team that handled all green samples that showed up, including offers, pre-ships, and arrivals, as well as doing warehouse QC and East and West Coast roasters calibration. 

In 2018, I moved into the role of buyer, and was responsible for managing the company’s supply chains and purchasing contracts in Mexico, El Salvador, Papua New Guinea, and Kenya. I loved the roles of that job a lot, and I don’t take lightly the sheer amount of responsibility it is to hold that space. Coffee is a product entirely rooted in colonialism, which I knew, but seeing systems and cultural dynamics firsthand was immensely complex. It was daunting, disheartening, frustrating—and also hopeful, as I do think the tides are starting to shift as more communication and accountability from actors along the supply chain are coming to the forefront.

This isn’t just at origin; I think of movements like Barista Behind the Bar, Coffee at Large, and Getchusomegear that are shifting the paradigm of how people are treated and exploring/educating others as to why some people have access to information and others do not. Following that, how do we make coffee more equitable for all? What do people need to succeed, especially those who have not been given or allowed the opportunity to?

Cupping coffees has taken Chelsea from coffee buying to coffee competition and beyond. Photo by Chris McAuley.

I understand you aren’t at Counter Culture anymore—what are you up to now?

I left Counter Culture at the end of 2019. I had grown up and through a lot in the nearly seven years I was there. What am I up to now? Taking a short break to ask myself some big questions about coffee, reaching out to others in the industry who I hadn’t before, and re-centering myself for the next thing. There’s so much incredible work being done in the industry, and, speaking for myself, I had been in a bubble of one type of system for some time. It’s certainly been wild (and exhilarating) to take a little time to shift my viewpoint just a tad, and realize the vast amount of opportunities there are to contribute to in impactful ways.

Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of our interview with Chelsea, where we discuss her journey through the 2020 competition season so far through Cup Tasters.

About Chris Ryan 264 Articles
Chris Ryan (he/him) is Barista Magazine's online copy editor and a freelance writer and editor with a background in the specialty coffee industry. He has been content director of Sustainable Harvest and the editor of Fresh Cup Magazine.