This interview is part of the #BrewLikeAPro series, where we share the journeys of coffee professionals doing cool things, their defining moments, and of course - their coffee rituals.
To say that Chelsea Thoumsin knows coffee is an understatement. A certified Q-grader (the only coffee scoring and certification that’s based on quality), coffee science nerd, former green coffee buyer, competition judge, and U.S. Cup Tasters competitor, Chelsea is someone who really knows the ins and outs, and intricacies, of the coffee bean. Over the years, she has also worked with coffee producers and business owners, gaining a unique and holistic perspective of the coffee supply chain.
We caught up with Chelsea digitally from North Carolina, where she works with Ally Coffee as the Southeastern Account Manager. She shares her most memorable moments along her coffee journey, the level of intensity she experienced while competing at U.S. Cup Tasters and how it gifted her a lesson on trust, the challenges the last 2 years have brought, and her other love— all things beekeeping and entomology.
Plus, we have a bonus video at the end where Chelsea shares her coffee cupping ritual— with a special cameo from another coffee connoisseur.
Brewista: Tell us about your most memorable moments in your coffee journey, and what ignited your love of coffee.
Chelsea Thoumsin: I started as a barista at Starbucks in the late 1990s. I began working in coffee because I was in high school and needed a job, and that seemed like a good idea! I remember loving building drinks there, pulling shots, steaming milk (and a ton of foam) and adding lots of flavors. I can still see the three-group Linea behind that counter and the huge steam pitchers. I would work at various coffee shops until 2013, so I stuck it out for quite a while!
In general, the most memorable moments were about building friendships and connections, no matter the role I was in. I still talk to people I served coffee to over 15 years ago. I still talk with coffee producers I’ve worked with, and owners of businesses I have helped support over the years. These connections mean the world to me!
Another memorable moment was the first time a coffee arrived that I had purchased as a green buyer, then sample roasting it and tasting it. That put the whole thing into perspective for me, and it felt incredibly special.
We hear you are a Q Grader and a coffee science nerd! What aspects of being a Q grader might surprise people, or that people don’t know about?
There are 19 tests and it is as hard as they say! I received my Q Cert in 2018, managed to pass all the tests the first go around. But I was nervous as heck and worked myself up into a tizzy and even got a bloody nose. It may surprise people to know that everyone gets nervous and most people don’t pass everything the first time. And that’s ok!
What do you love most about your work?
I love that my job is different every single day. I work at Ally Coffee now, as the Southeastern Account Manager. The conversations I have with clients, the revolving door of coffee seasonality and pricing, the circuitous (yet sometimes frustrating) routes that a coffee can take before arriving at its final home all force me to use a creative approach in my work.
How has being a former competition judge prepared you for entering the competitive circuit?
This is a great question! I was a former USBC/WBC judge and always admired the dedication of the competitors. It really gave me an idea on how all-encompassing it is. There are a lot of things that go along with competing, such as inherent privilege, access to resources, etc. I think there are some great conversations - and actions - happening now to address that (looking at you, Glittercat!)
For me personally, tasting was something I thought I was pretty good at, but maybe not amazing at. I’d been a QC specialist for a few years, and later a coffee buyer. I threw my hat in the ring for Cup Taster’s preliminaries in 2019 and did pretty well, landing at second place. My nerves were OUT OF CONTROL. I didn’t really understand why, because I tasted for a few hours a day, every work day. How was this different? Anyway, I was like, “Ok, guess I’m in this now” and moved on to Cup Taster’s qualifiers in Nashville.
Before qualifiers, I worked hard at managing my anxiety, and essentially taught myself to taste in a whole new, cerebral way. It was a very personal journey. I had friends help me set up cuppings, cheer me on, etc. I figured out a routine and a plan (something I historically had a really hard time sticking to in my life!) and practiced according to competition rules once a week.
In Nashville, I barely remember most of the competition. The nerves were there of course, but not debilitating. I got through it. By the time the announcer got to cup 5 and I had gotten all of them right, I was like “Holy sh*t.” He lifted cup 6. There was a dot! The crowd exploded. I felt like electricity had gone through me, I don’t know how else to describe it! My time was also quite fast (3:43) but in my head, it could have been 30 seconds or 30 minutes for all I knew. It was amazing and a little terrifying. Lots of emotions, because I was going through a challenging time in my career and was unemployed at that point. The win was really validating. I felt seen, and I felt like I was beginning to see that I have this skill, and it is mine. It shifted my level of confidence immensely.
Had I not experienced the competition circuit prior as a judge, I likely would not have been prepared for the level of intensity and sheer skill it takes to compete. You’ve likely heard that if you want to learn more about yourself, then you should compete in some type of competition. I completely agree with that!
What are some of the biggest lessons you learned, personally or professionally, while competing in the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship?
To compete in Cup Tasters, you have to trust in your sensory skills. There is no room for second guessing. If you hit a challenging set, you take your best guess and go with it. Any noise in your brain will get in your way. It’s an intense experience, to stay wholly focused on the coffees themselves, and nothing else, in a race with the clock. This trust, of course, can be transcribed to the idea that I needed to trust myself, period, beyond coffee! And, to be gentle with yourself. If you’re not having fun practicing or competing, it can turn into a negative experience really fast.
What have been some of the hardest moments in building your career? In particular, these past 2 years have dealt out its share of challenges. What have you learned?
Oh boy. Well I left a long-term job at the end of 2019 with a handful of new job leads and was looking forward to what was going to happen next. Two months later we were in lockdown and those potential jobs disappeared. I actually took a break from coffee, partly for mental health necessity and also, no one was hiring anymore! I worked on some other soft skill sets in the meantime, and generally just …coped. I taught English to kids online for a bit, and that was a good time. I learned to put some things in perspective for future coffee endeavors. It took nearly two years to land back in a position working with green coffee. I feel I’m a stronger person as a result of this period, though I can’t say I enjoyed the entire experience. I learned that I have a stronger support system than I originally thought, coffee job or not.
We hear you are also a beekeeper! What inspired your love of all things beekeeping and entomology? Is there any overlap with your coffee journey?
When I worked in Philadelphia, I would host weekly tastings in the training center that were free and open to the public. I met a guy there who later became my bee mentor - he mentioned he had bees, and invited me to inspect his hives with him. The rest really goes from there. I’ve been beekeeping since 2014. Once I started learning more about honeybees, it ignited an interest in other pollinators and other integral insects to our environment.
I’d almost always see bees (and other insects) when traveling to origin. Chances are if there is a coffee farm, there are bees around. At least I’d hope so! I really feel giddy when I see them elsewhere, like “Oh hi, you’re here too!” Oddly enough, bees (and other insects) can bring people together, like coffee. I’ve had some great conversations with interested farmers about bee health, how they can improve fruit set on trees, and of course, tasting various honeys if they kept their own hives (many did!) I also made it a point to learn as much as I could about coffee pests, better ways to manage them via IPM, and insect identification (figuring out who is a beneficial insect and who is NOT!)
If you had a magic wand and could make one change about the coffee industry, what would it be and why?
Evenly distribute the risk between supply chain actors at origin and those who buy and roast coffee at coffee companies. Yep, that would be it.
On days when you are tired to wake up, what are things (besides coffee ;-) ) that get you out of bed?
Well, I have five animals to take care of (not including myself) and they do need me every morning! Two dogs, a cat, and two chickens. Even if I don’t feel like getting up, someone else makes enough noise to prompt me to! I also like to remind myself that even though things may not feel great in the moment, they won’t feel bad forever.
What does your morning coffee ritual look like?
We use a Moccamaster every morning. It’s a dream. So consistent, and it definitely brews better coffee than I do first thing in the morning. Typically, I start with half-caff coffee and dose up from there!
Our readers are really serious about coffee. For aspiring coffee pros, what is one single advice you would like to give them as they navigate the coffee industry?
Trust yourself. Try new things and pay attention to them. Find people who challenge you in learning more about coffee via learning more about yourself and your interests. If someone is talking at you about coffee and not with you, they’re not there for your coffee journey.
Are there projects you are working on that you would love people to know about?
My IG account @chelsea.tastes.things is a low-key tasting/review/not entirely coffee related account. It’s pretty fun! It also features beverages that are non-alcoholic, since I started looking for substitutes to drinks with alcohol in January 2021. It’s amazing how that industry has grown in the past couple years!
@pollinatorproject is my account about bees, beekeeping, and wildflower seed packets that we sell to promote the health of pollinating insects.
Watch the bonus video as Chelsea shares her coffee cupping ritual and reflects on the biggest lessons she learned while competing in the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship.