An interview with Jennifer Young of Queen Bean Curated Coffee.
This is the story of how she found that third-wave coffee is her jam.
How it Started
My mother used to drink coffee when she managed a convenience store. I thought she was just being picky when she insisted that coffee must be fresh and the pots remade after a specific time.
I didn’t taste coffee until I was in university, except for Hong Kong coffee tea which is half instant coffee and half tea and has a distinct flavour. Starbucks was all the rage when I was in university, and the first coffee I tried was a white chocolate mocha. Having worked at Starbucks since, I know it’s more accurate to call it a coffee beverage, as it’s basically sugar with just a little coffee.
I started drinking Starbucks’ drip coffee and noticed different coffee tastes, but I didn’t know what they meant. I just knew I liked certain ones, like the Christmas Blend or the Pike roast, but not others.
My Start in Coffee
Do you remember those “take your kids to work” days? I only participated once. My Dad’s work was too boring, and my mom was a homemaker at the time, but my godmother was running a Second Cup. So I worked at Second Cup for a day. They offered me a job afterwards, so I guess I did a good job! I didn’t take it, though, which I kind of regret because if I had, I would have gotten into coffee faster.
When I entered the workforce proper, I held a bunch of corporate jobs in Human Resources, event planning and marketing. Somehow I always wound up in charge of catering, and eventually, I was ordering coffee for the whole office. I resented it. Why was I in charge of ordering food for people? [Editor’s note: I know why. It’s sexism!] Even so, I started to care about what I was ordering and paid more attention to which coffees I ordered. I developed preferences but, again, didn’t know why I had those preferences.
Acts of Service
When I learned about love languages from the book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, I realized that food could be two of the love languages: gifts and acts of service. My mom’s love language is acts of service: she shows her love by preparing food and feeding people.
I kept this in mind as I ordered food for people in the office and saw that I could impact people’s experience at the workshops. I put more thought into my planning: a heavier meal at lunch and two pots of coffee at the beginning of the workshop with two refills at set intervals. I considered how what the attendees were eating and drinking would affect them and help them absorb the material or not. And whether they would feel they were being respected and cared for as clients or students.
I lived in Vancouver then, and my interest in coffee grew, like the number of fancy independent coffee shops.
But as I approached my 30th birthday, I thought I would self-destruct at midnight.
What had I accomplished?
What would be on my tombstone?
Finding My Jam
For my 30th birthday, I gave myself the gift of going to China and volunteering for two weeks in an orphanage. It was one of the most fulfilling periods in my life. It took me several years not to get emotional every time I thought about it. I felt a stretching in my chest, like the Grinch at the end of the story, where his heart grows three sizes.
It showed me that I didn’t have to have a corporate job. I felt I was contributing to something bigger while feeding the babies in the orphanage. I reflected on the parts of work that I had previously hated, the food and drink, and saw how I had probably impacted people more in those areas, even though my efforts were unseen and often unthanked.
The Coffee Scene in London
So I decided to go on a working holiday visa to the United Kingdom and worked in coffee shops in London. London has a vibrant coffee scene. It felt like the intersection of two worlds of coffee: classic Italian-based coffee and the modern, Australian-inspired third-wave. And it’s easier to break into the industry there.
Even though I had seven years of work experience, I was considered inexperienced for barista roles. It was humbling and a little offensive, but it speaks to the skill required of baristas in third-wave coffee. It’s not just pushing a button and dispensing this dark liquid into a cup, putting a lid on it, and passing it to the customer.
When you get into third-wave coffee, you have to pay attention to physics, chemistry, and health sciences. You need to be able to discern different flavour notes and make very technical things palatable and approachable.
Long story short, I quit my job and ran away to England. Starbucks hired and trained me on my first official coffee job; they have excellent processes. From there, I moved to a huge, famous café which boosted my resume’s juice, and then I was taken on at a small café where they taught me everything from the bottom to the top.
Origins of the Queen Bean
Before I started the Queen Bean, I worked at a non-profit coffee shop in Calgary that was created to be a community hub and sanctuary for people looking for a place to belong. During that time, my natural friendliness exploded into developing personal relationships with the clients who came in. We would often see people who were vulnerable in some way, either emotionally, psychologically or physically. Being in the position of running the café and not having people looking at me like, “if you can lean, you can clean,” gave me the space and time to sit down and connect with the customers.
My enthusiasm was palpable, and people interested in learning more about coffee asked me questions. We got into dialogues about coffee, and they asked me for recommendations. I had gotten to know this person and their palate and preferences, so when I made a coffee recommendation, it was very personal and curated just for them. They would enjoy it and come back to ask me for another suggestion. And for some customers, they would come in and ask, “What should I buy today?” and I would just hand it to them. They trusted me because they knew that I knew them.
After a few years, I left that job, but I knew I wanted to stay in coffee somehow. When I reflected on my experience, the most fulfilling part was the ability to share my passion and enthusiasm for coffee, helping other people learn and learning from them too. And I still wanted to drink coffee at home. So I decided to buy and sell coffee as a way to expand on my acts of service love language, and this way of connecting with people.
The Queen Bean’s Purpose
My purpose for Queen Bean is to foster a community where we can learn about coffee and enjoy it together. The number one mission is to enjoy coffee.
Third-wave coffee can sometimes seem pretentious, like “Oh, you put milk in your coffee?” Not everyone in the industry is like that, but some certainly are, and there can be judgment even among baristas. On your latte art, for example. There are so many ways we can judge each other. I don’t want anybody to feel shamed for not knowing something.
I want to spark curiosity in people. You might be used to coffee that you have to put cream and sugar in, but what if you try this coffee that smells like orange and tastes like peach?
There are guidelines: use a lower temperature for darker roasts and higher for lighter ones. But what if you just tried something? What happens to the taste if I use 80-degree water? Trying something different helps you to understand and appreciate the guidelines.
My subscribers and I are in a WhatsApp group where we can write something like, “I used 92-degree water for this Bolivian coffee in the December subscription box, and I found it was really bitter or there was low body.” Then someone else in the chat can suggest tweaks to the preparation, ask more questions or offer their opinions.
We can experiment together. It’s science, but more fun because you can drink it.
Ultimately, I’d like people to come out of the Queen Bean experience feeling empowered to try different things with coffee. And getting their minds blown! It could be different, like, “blech, I’m not brewing my coffee like that again.” Or it could be, “Oh, now I know what you mean when you say strawberry tasting notes. I taste it; I taste it!”
Visit the Queen Bean and see what coffees and teas she’s got on right now.
Or follow her on Instagram @queenbeancuratedcoffee
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