We talk to Lucy Ward, green coffee buyer of Melbourne, Australia’s ST.ALi, about discovering specialty coffee, becoming a green buyer, and much more.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos by Tayt Bale
Lucy Ward didn’t intend for coffee to be her career focus—originally, it was a side gig that helped her pay the bills while she pursued an arts education. But as she discovered the specialty side of the industry, her passion grew, and she found herself immersed in the specialty-coffee world—first while working at cafés for Melbourne roaster-retailer ST.ALi, then as she transitioned to green-coffee buying for Proud Mary Coffee.
In 2015, Lucy melded these worlds by rejoining ST.ALi as their sole green coffee buyer, where she sources coffee not just for the company’s wholesale and retail businesses, but also for coffee competitors using ST.ALi’s coffee. In the first installment of this two-part interview, we talk to Lucy about her interests as a child, how she got into coffee, and her tenets as a coffee buyer.
Chris Ryan: Where did you grow up, and what were you interested in as a kid?
Lucy Ward: I grew up in country Queensland, Australia. It was one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It was hot and dry as hell in summer, and I think our winters were on a Tuesday some time in June every year.
I was a skinny, nerdy kid obsessed with animals of all kinds, but especially horses. I had great dreams of being an Olympic equestrian competitor. I rode them every moment I could, and when I couldn’t ride them, I read about them and all the other animals in the world.
Beyond my sporting delusions of grandeur, I was deeply interested in the arts, a passion that grew as I got older. Having a creative family, we were encouraged to be both inventive and resourceful in everything we did. I was drawn particularly to the concept of storytelling through any creative means possible.
What did you plan to pursue professionally, and how did you get involved in coffee?
When I left high school, I decided to do a journalism degree; I moved to another small country town and began my university career. One year of this caper was more than enough to teach me I was not cut from the journalist cloth, so I switched degrees and pursued an undergraduate degree in visual art. I’m not sure what I was thinking doing that. It was quite a self-indulgent move on my behalf, but it taught me the valuable lesson of critical thinking.
After a few years studying in that country town bubble, it was time to uproot and move to the big smoke. It was here I decided to up-skill and do a second degree, a graduate diploma in arts management. It was also here I landed my first coffee job as a non-coffee drinker: slinging terrible lattes all day. That job kept me funded through my second degree, my follow-up master’s degree, and yet another graduate diploma in the little-known field of Community Cultural Development.
During this long period of focusing my career on the arts, I picked up numerous volunteering roles, mainly working with marginalised people: the homeless, the indigenous, young people, and asylum seekers.
But all through this time, coffee is what paid my bills. And for the longest time that really was how I saw coffee. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my work, but I didn’t see how I could turn it into a viable career. I read all the BeanScene magazines, taught myself latte art, and dreamt of visiting ST.ALi to try this mysterious thing called specialty coffee.
In 2008 I moved to Melbourne just as specialty coffee was being born, and somehow through a series of lucky events, found myself not just visiting ST.ALi, but running their flagship café! It was at this point that I realised it was time to drop my more idealistic career hunt and embrace the industry that was opening doors for me.
ST.ALi is where I finally understood and fell in love with coffee and its power to tell stories and change people’s days. I loved that good service and a good cup of coffee could make someone’s day. I learnt so much in these first few years. I finally gained an understanding of origin, processing, and varietal differences for a start! I learnt to cup and the basics of how the coffee industry worked.
How did you start working on the green buying side? What are some of your guiding principles when it comes to buying coffee, and how did you build those?
After a few years at ST.ALi, I decided to change companies and moved to Proud Mary to work in the café. I needed a break from the managerial roles I had been doing, but I got bored quickly and asked to move to work in the roastery within a few months.
This is where my real coffee knowledge blossomed, and I was challenged to push myself to learn. I was lucky that Nolan Hirte (the owner) saw my potential with the raw knowledge I had. He gave me the opportunity to begin helping him with buying around 2013.
I suppose my buying principles could all be boiled down to trying to keep a sustainable environment for everyone in the chain: producers, roasters, and consumers. I need to be really aware of my impact on both ends of the chain as someone kind of in the middle.
I don’t really have a detailed manifesto, but my philosophies are founded in community development work, moulded to be commercially viable, and then shaped again by years of practice, and of course successes and failures. But I keep the overarching goal simple: I buy good coffee from good people—coffee my customers like from people who have good practices and mindsets.
How long have you been with ST.ALi, and what is your role there? About how much of the time do you spend traveling to origin, and where do you go?
It’s a bit hard to answer how long I have been with ST.ALi since this is technically my second stint. So I’ve been here eight-ish years in total, but four and a half this most recent stint.
I am the sole green buyer and a shareholder at the company, and as a part of that I do quality assurance, quality control, training, and a whole lot of other things. It is a multifaceted role, which is one of the big things that keeps someone with a short attention span like me engaged.
I’m on the road for around three to four months of the year. Pretty much all of my travel is through Latin America, though sometimes I do go to Africa or Asia. Latin American coffee is the crowd pleaser, especially in Australia, where we drink our coffee with milk almost exclusively.
We’ll conclude this conversation with Lucy in an article on Barista Magazine Online on Monday.