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Celebrating Women's History Month: Inspirational Women in Coffee

March 06, 2014

  It's Women's History Month, and tomorrow is International Women's Day, so it's only fitting that we take the opportunity to highlight the contributions of women to the specialty coffee industry and highlight some of the most inspiring women working in the coffee industry today.  

Aida Batile FarmerWomen at the Origin

  Like so many other areas of our daily lives, most of the hands that touch your coffee from the seed to the cup are very likely to be of the feminine persuasion. In most coffee-producing nations, harvesting and processing coffee is often women's work, but those women's faces seldom make it onto the shiny coffee packaging we see in coffee shops. More often  than not, the women are the faceless workers who do the drudge work - trekking into the mountains to harvest the cherries, sorting through them at the farm and turning them as they dry on terraces.   There are, however, some exceptions to the rule, and there are a number of women who are quite literally changing the face of coffee on the international specialty coffee stage. A couple of years ago, NPR profiled four African women who have taken on the challenge of filling seats on the national boards that govern coffee trade in their country and taken other high profile steps to change the way that coffee is grown, processed, tracked and traded in their countries. You may never hear the names Angele Ciza, Fatima Aziz Faraji, Immy Kamarade and Mbula Musau, but they are performing inspirational work in the coffee industry in their home countries. Ciza, for example, owns the land she farms in Burundi. She employs 100 women and pays the school fees for their children. Faraji manages her family's coffee farm in Tanzania, and is co-director of the Tanzania Coffee Research Institute. Kamarade has established a coffee coperative of about 100 women in Rwanda, which is rapidly becoming a go-to destination for fine specialty coffee, and Musau is a Q-taster who has served as a sensory judge at the World Barista Championship. These are just four women of many who have stepped up to take leadership roles and help shepherd their countries' coffee industry toward sustainability and profitability, while extending a hand toward other women in their home countries.   And of course, no discussion of women at the origin in the specialty coffee industry would be complete without mention of Aida Batlle, whose leadership has taken her family's Salavadoran coffee farms to international celebrity by winning the Cup of Excellence for her beans year after year. Batlle was recently named to the board of directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where she continues her leadership role and serves as an inspiration to other women in the area of coffee production.  

Shannon Steele-Knuckles coffee roastersAt the Roaster

  Roasting coffee is hot, sweaty, dirty work that seems to attract more men than women -- or maybe it's just that men have had more opportunities to develop their roasting skills. That's slowly changing, though, as more and more women step up to the roaster and take their turn. A couple of weeks ago, when we highlighted Passion House Coffee Roasters, you met Shannon Steele-Knuckles, roaster and green bean buyer for Passion House. Shannon is representative of the up-and-coming breed of women in specialty coffee. Her passion for coffee extends beyond the confines of brewing, drinking and selling it. She is working behind the scenes to help turn Chicago into a destination on the national coffee tour of excellence and is passionate about imparting her knowledge to others.  


Behind the Counter

  There's a good chance that the barista who pulls your morning shot is a woman, but when it comes to barista champions, women are severely under-represented. Heather Perry is a notable exception. Currently the director of training and consulting for Klatch Coffee, Perry has been working in the coffee industry since the age of 11. Along the way, she has collected multiple Western Regional Barista Championships, a number of U.S. Barista Championships and finished second in the World Barista Championship in 2007. She served as a chair of the Barista Guild of America and helped launch the first Barista Certification Program, as well as starting the Barista Guild's Barista Camp.   We also boast another inspirational woman in coffee among our specialty roasters. Talya Strader, lead barista at Bow Truss in Chicago, placed in the 2013 North Central Barista Championship. Strader was recently named to Zagat's 30 Under 30 list, which highlights up-and-coming professionals to watch in the food industry. And like fellow Chicagoan Shannon Steele-Knuckles, Strader wants to preach the religion of coffee to a wider audience. To that end, she co-founded New Gotham Coffee Community, dedicated to promoting coffee collegiality among professionals in the emerging Chicago coffee scene.  


Behind the Scenes

  In every industry, there are those who work behind the scenes to promote the success of others. They're no less indispensable than the buyers, the roasters, the growers and the baristas. Without them, coffee shops would never open or would fail within months of their launch. They seldom get the notoriety or attention of their more visible partners, but they are no less inspirational or hard working. Among our own list of favorite coffee roasters, we have Christa Duggan of Portola Coffee Lab. Duggan's husband, Jeff, was a hobby roaster until Christa decided she needed a job that allowed her the flexibility to care for her kids. She's the business brain -- and so much more -- behind Portola. When the business first launched, she even took to the streets with her kids in the back seat to deliver fresh-roasted coffee to their customers' doors. That's dedication!  

Tooting Our Own Horn

  Can we just toot our own horns for a paragraph and add our own marketing director, Jenn Chen, to our list of inspiring women in coffee? Jenn is a tireless promoter of coffee culture, and yet another member of the New Gotham Coffee Community in Chicago, where she ran Caffentures, a company that organized and ran coffee crawls through the city, inspiring us and many others with her love of and dedication to coffee.   How about you? Do you know any inspiring women in the coffee industry? We'd love to hear and learn more about them. Drop their names in the comment section so we can get to know them, too.  

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