An Interview with Eric McWright of Coffee Beards & Bowties

An interview with Eric McWright of Coffee Beards & Bowties

This year, we're sharing the coffee journeys of the recipients of the Getchu a (gear) Grant, an initiative hosted by getchusomegear and sponsored by Brewista. Founded by Chris McAuley, getchusomegear is a grassroots organization collecting coffee gear to distribute to marginalized coffee professionals. From drippers to scales to kettles, the bundles contain gear needed to outfit a cafe. We’ll spend the upcoming months introducing these amazing grant recipients to you, many of them doing radical community work (in coffee and beyond). 

Eric McWright is a husband, father, retired Navy veteran, professional barber, and small batch coffee roaster. With a deep passion in coffee, the hair and grooming industry, fashion, and community, it was only fitting for him to call his coffee business Coffee Beards & Bowties. Eric is truly a person of many talents. 

We had a chance to catch up with Eric digitally from Temecula, CA. He shares his unexpected path to coffee, reflects on his first (ever) sip, where he looks to expand his coffee knowledge, and reveals his favorite coffee drink.

Brewista: Why did you start your coffee business?

Eric McWright: I started Coffee Beards & Bowties as a necessity to learn more about myself while completing a “Build a Business” assignment in my digital media class at our local community college.

(Backstory) … When I was 18-years-old I joined the United States Navy, and as luck would have it– that decision turned into a 23-year career. One of the greatest incentives the military offered was the opportunity to travel around the world, where I was very fortunate to visit many countries while serving. I made it a routine, that while in a different country, I would spend devoted time in local cafes to unwind and decompress after being out to sea for long periods; but mostly to enjoy the soothing experience and culture that comes with a cup of coffee. This ritual is something that I still practice today.

After transitioning out of the military I was somewhat uncertain of what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Like so many other Veterans, when our military obligation is complete many of us return to school looking to enhance our technical skills and broaden our level of knowledge to compete in today’s workforce. So that’s exactly what I did. Having earned my bachelor’s degree while on active duty, I enrolled in the Masters of Business for Veterans program at the University of Southern California after I transitioned out of the military (Fight On)! Having just received my business degree from such a  prestigious school, you would think I would be ready to launch the next Fortune 500 company (not so much). At this point, I was even more unsure about my next career endeavor. 

While serving on active duty, with my personal time after work, and on weekends, I managed to complete the requirements to become a professional barber and earned my license (I can’t help myself, I like to keep busy).  After graduating from USC, I figured I’d stay the course and our initial thoughts were fixated on opening a barbershop/salon. That idea was put on hold when our family found out that my wife had orders to deploy overseas for a year.

With her being away, I decided to use that time to learn more stuff. Our daughter plays volleyball and I wanted to become a better videographer to produce quality video footage for college recruiters. So, with the master’s program complete and my wife serving overseas, I decided to take digital media classes at our local community college. This time I was taking classes for personal reasons, not knowing that a breakthrough moment for what I was to become was on the horizon (more to come).

The assignment that changed our lives was “Creating a Brand & Building a Business.” The assignment consisted of logo design, website development, and the creation of a business plan. I thought to myself, what would a company look like if it were modeled after my top three passions: coffee, hair and grooming, and men’s fashion. Coffee, Beards & Bowties was born, and with the completion of each task that the assignment required, the business began to take shape. I knew that it was going to be something special.

Shortly after my wife returned home, the talks of opening the barbershop/salon picked back up, then the world was hit with COVID-19. Once again everything came to a halt. Something about connecting with people through coffee has always resonated with me; and through the seclusion and isolation, there were moments where I yearned to be at a coffee shop. That need ultimately led me on a new path to learn how to brew the perfect cup of coffee from the comfort of my home. My first home brew was with an AeroPress and bag of Death Wish Coffee.

Over time my collection of coffee brewing equipment grew, and I began to order coffee from roasters from all over the U.S. (even from the U.K.). I thought it would be a nice touch to brew coffee in some of the suits and bow ties that I had in the closet, just to throw a little style into it… I called it the “Suit Up & Brew Up”. The rest is still history in the making.

I didn’t know how vast coffee truly was/is, and the pursuit of learning more eventually led me to become a home-based small-batch coffee roaster, with the goal of growing into a community space–where our family can continue to serve, meet people, connect and grow.

Range of Coffee Beards & Bowties whole coffee beans.

Can you talk a little about your greatest challenge in your coffee journey so far?

My greatest challenges in coffee so far have been finding access to educational curriculum to learn more about coffee in my area (schools, training programs, etc), mentorship with roasting (local and in person), and business plan development (integrating each market).

Do you remember your first (ever) sip of coffee? 

Yes!!! I vividly remember my first sip of coffee.

Growing up the only person I can recall that drank coffee was my stepfather. He drank Taster's Choice instant coffee every morning before going to work.  I was the only one in the house that made him coffee just the way he liked it.  He made his with three teaspoons of coffee and two teaspoons of sugar. Seems pretty simple right, not a lot to it, but for some reason, I was his go too for coffee almost every morning. I was 13 years old at the time, and even as a teenager I always loved the smell of coffee. So, one day while I was making a cup of coffee for him I decided to make myself a cup. I added milk to mine and I was officially hooked. I didn’t routinely drink it because I still considered coffee a beverage for adults during my teenage years… but that all changed when I joined the military. Coffee in the military is a must, at least it was for me!

How has the way you identify kept you from accessing the things you want/need for your business? 

Coffee Beards & Bowties is a relatively new business, and we’re a home-based operation. Who we are and how we identify hasn’t stopped or hindered us from getting our business started. We are a family of color, and we are very aware of the many biases that do exist for individuals in marginalized communities and understand that exclusion is still a factor across many industries. I would be naive to think that certain limitations or barriers won’t present a problem for us in the future, but our mindset would be to push past any adversity with courage and boldness.

What advice would you give to someone that holds a marginalized identity who is looking to start a coffee business?

The first thing I would say to someone is to always believe in yourself. Your vision, who you are, and what you bring to the table make for a more diverse community, so go after it. Don’t let anything or anyone get in your way. The success of your business starts and ends with you and an important thing to know is that there is no substitution for hard work. I believe networking is key to anything. Finding the right mentors to model yourself after, and gaining the necessary insight and knowledge to build your business is imperative. By aligning yourself with the right like-minded individuals who want to see you succeed is a great way to start.

What is the most unexpected thing you’ve experienced with your business so far good or bad?

The most unexpected (Good) thing I’ve experienced with our business so far was being awarded the Getchu a (gear) Grant sponsored by Brewista. Similarly, last year I had the opportunity to receive barista skills training and some incredible perks from Coffee Project NY & Chobani. Being “The New Guy” you don’t know if your ideas are sound, or if others will welcome you into the club so to speak. Well… to my surprise, something is working because we’re still here and growing. That something is a testament that all you need is to believe in yourself and reach for the stars. The universe will respond in kind.  

The most unexpected (Not So Good) thing I’ve experienced so far is learning that California has so many limiting rules on small home-based businesses. Cottage food laws, income caps, etc. I didn’t learn about many of these rules/laws until I started applying for the required permits to get started. I get it, so I’m not too upset. I’m learning to work within the lines and hopefully, we’ll expand into a commercial space soon to get around these restrictions.

Why do you think it is particularly important for the coffee community to take care of each other?

Great question… I think it's important that the coffee community takes care of each other because when we do, it creates opportunities to care for so many others. 

Case in point before we transitioned into roasting coffee, we wanted to support a local non-profit that cares for children in the foster care and adoption system. Our fundraising goal was $2500 which we met. Our friend LaNisa Williams shared our campaign with Oatly, and they agreed to match our final contribution. So just like that… A simple act of kindness and desire to help was doubled to $5000 for a worthy cause. Our coffee community did that.

Additionally, coffee is such a large industry to navigate. While a person may not have an interest in opening a cafe, there are other career opportunities where an individual may possess the skill set needed for a promising position, such as training and development, distribution, quality control, supply chain, etc. From what I’ve seen so far, many of those career opportunities in coffee have been and are communicated by word of mouth. Similarly, being awarded the Getchu a (gear) Grant was an opportunity that wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t some seriously thoughtful coffee people behind it– making sure that the word got out.

One of my biggest personal challenges was transitioning out of the military after 23 years. To this day, I still find it difficult to fit in. The same is to be said in coffee. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who are interested in being in the coffee business, or maybe they just started their journey– like us– and need help figuring out their next steps. Having a community support system could make all the difference in the success or failure of a person's business. 

It takes a village.

What kind of music do you like to listen to while you work? 

I like to listen to a variety of music, but I don’t listen to anything while I’m roasting coffee; no distractions because I certainly don’t want to burn the batch. When the roasting is complete and we transition into bagging and labeling, that’s when the music starts.

I recently started collecting vinyl records and when I’m trying to clear my head I’ll play old school R&B like my mother listened to; Smokey Robinson, The O’Jays, or Teddy P. They’re days when “The Blues” is just right for the job I’ll play Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Taylor, or B.B. King. Most days, it's Jay Z or 90’s hip hop or R&B. As for recommended playlists, Three Keys Coffee has a Spotify, “Roast-Inspired Jazz Playlist” that’s incredible to listen to. I enjoy all of their playlist selections, check it out when you get a chance, you won’t be disappointed. 

Describe your favorite coffee drink!

My favorite coffee drink is The Barista's Choice! Whenever I go into a cafe I always ask the barista to choose for me. I let them decide based on what they like.

In doing that, I believe the encounter becomes a more personal experience. You get to explore the opinion of others, learn a little about consumer exploration, and enjoy a cup of coffee from someone else’s perspective. I understand that I may not completely reach their perspective, but it allows me to grow in different ways.

So, my favorite drink is whatever you make me (the journey)…!

Where do you look when you’re expanding your coffee knowledge?

I have always been an inquisitive person and I have Google & YouTube on speed dial! Much of what I’ve learned I’ve gotten from those platforms, but there are a couple of coffee friends who have gone out of their way to help me out. For coffee roasting, hands down it’s been Kenny Baker at Ethnos Coffee Roasters. For coffee sourcing, it’s been Jen Hurd at Genuine Origin. The list of coffee professionals that motivate me to become better is a whole host of folks. Please forgive me if I fail to mention you in this list.

My coffee influencers: Stephen Zinnerman; The Coffee Enthusiast, Lanisa Williams; Hustler’s Cup Cafe, Bold & Gritty, Marc Cunningham; The Shop Table, The Book of Roast (Roast Magazine), The World Atlas of Coffee (Hoffmann), CxffeeBlack, Three Keys Coffee, Black Girl Black Coffee, and the list continues. Thank you all very much.

How can your coffee community support you best right now? 

So far the response to our whole bean coffee has been great, and the best way to support our small business and help it grow is to tell everyone you know about us. Additional support would be visiting our website to purchase some of our merchandise, and visiting us at our weekly farmers market to purchase a bag of our whole bean coffee. While you’re there, grab a few stickers for your friends and spread the word. 

What do we need? A commercial space to roast coffee. We’re operating as a cottage food operation from our home. We’ve converted our 275-sq.ft. casita into a small-batch coffee roastery–and it's great, but the State of California limits our ability to grow our business, by restricting us from online sales and shipping. We’re authorized to conduct direct sales (B2C)(Farmers Markets), and indirect sales (B2B)(coffee shops, stores, etc.), but the product has to be personally delivered (no shipping). Tough right!?! So, that’s what we need the most. The opportunity to move into a commercial space to expand our operation. 

There are always new things to learn about coffee! What’s holding your interest the most right now? 

Right now my focus is primarily on learning how to become a better coffee roaster. I’m reading and watching as much roasting content as I can. I’m currently roasting on an Artisan fluid-bed roaster and would love the opportunity to learn how to roast on a drum roaster to become a well-rounded coffee roaster. In the immediate future, I plan on working on my latte art skills (help me, please). Ultimately, I am working to be someone who can also add value to my community, both locally and abroad; by learning more about the business of coffee and contributing where I can. 

What’s next?

Another great question… As I type this I’m thinking about bagging the coffee I just roasted in preparation for our upcoming farmers market.  Progression is what’s next. Actively searching for opportunities to serve others and build something special. As we strive to grow our business and find our voice, we understand that the road ahead isn’t without challenges, but we’re committed to being a part of the solution. I’ll be the first person to tell you that I don’t have all the answers, but we’re willing to sit at the table and help figure things out.

If you would have asked me a year ago if I thought we would be where we are today, all I can say is it’s amazing how life works. So, what’s next is a pretty broad question. We are currently working on a few collaborations that we’ll announce at a later date, but the sky's the limit. I have so many aspirations, but most importantly I’m keeping an open mind and remaining receptive to the evolving world around us in preparation to welcome opportunities or business prospects that I hadn’t considered.

You can follow Coffee Beards & Bowties on IG or explore merchandise on their website.

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