Divya Raghavan: From Home Barista to U.S. Coffee Championships

Divya Raghavan competes in the U.S. Coffee Championship Qualifiers.
Raghavan competes in the U.S. Championship Qualifiers with the Smart Scale II. All photos c/o Divya Raghavan. 

Divya Raghavan's story is nothing short of inspirational. Until five years ago, she didn't drink coffee. She has never worked in coffee before, but she mastered three rounds of challenges to be crowned the winner of Glitter Cat’s 2022 DiGi2TiON — a coffee competition testing competitors’ palates, creativity, and endurance. Building off of that win, Raghavan went on to compete in the U.S. Coffee Championships Qualifying Event in Denver. 

Raghavan shares with us how her family and culture recently ignited her love of coffee, and how she prepared for entering the competitive circuit.

Brewista: In a single sentence, who are you as a human being?

Raghavan: I'm a goofy, adventurous, Indian-American immigrant who's deeply passionate about food, coffee (Asian coffees WOO), and the communities connected to them. I'm also a "digital nomad", and you will always see me in bright colors or bold patterns and if you don't, something's terribly wrong.

Brewista: After never having worked in coffee before, you mastered three rounds of wild challenges to be crowned the winner of Glitter Cat’s 2022 DiGi2TiON! Tell us about what ignited your love of coffee. 

Divya Raghavan pours coffee beans into a wine glass filled with coffee.

Raghavan: Until five years ago, I didn't drink coffee and it was my mom's deepest regret (a South Indian who doesn't drink coffee, gasp!). FYI, India is the 7th largest producer of coffee and for most South Indians, a steaming hot cup of filter coffee post-breakfast is non-negotiable.

One such incident was during the pandemic when India was severely affected by COVID-19, and sadly, my Pati (grandma) also fell ill. I traveled back to India to be with my family during this difficult time. Amidst the pain and uncertainty, every morning, my family and I would gather to drink our daily dose of South Indian filter coffee, lovingly brewed by my mom. Not only was coffee hella tasty, but it also offered unparalleled comfort and that sense of "everything will be ok". 

Inspired, I was determined to share this drink with others. However, upon returning to the US, I struggled to find places that could replicate my mom's brew, so I took it upon myself to learn and master the art of making authentic South Indian filter coffee, bringing it to my friends here.

This adventure took me on quite a journey, (Glittercat, Monk of Mokha, US Coffee Champs, competition judging) and along the way, I couldn't help but notice some disheartening stereotypes surrounding Asian coffees and brewers. It hit me hard that there were significant disparities, not just in terms of wealth but also in knowledge and resources, between coffee-producing countries and coffee-consuming countries. That's when it clicked—I had a personal connection to these issues, and I dove headfirst into an insatiable quest to broaden my understanding of coffee. My goal? To bridge these gaps and contribute to a coffee culture that's more inclusive and fair (all while indulging in the sheer joy of coffee and the coffee community d'oh :)). And now, two years have flown by, and this goal is a work in progress. 

Divya Raghavan competes at the U.S. Coffee Championships with the Smart Scale II.

Brewista: You also recently competed in the U.S. Coffee Championships Qualifiers in Denver. How have you prepared for entering the competitive circuit?

Raghavan: I'm a home barista and even though I have done a few popups, I have never worked behind bar in a coffee shop. I know I had to work triple hard to strengthen bar flow and get comfortable with commercial coffee machines. I leaned in on my creativity, passion for storytelling, and my palate as I honed the other skills. 

I was fortunate to train with my friend Marissa (@tanbrowncoffee), an incredible coffee pro who is rooted in Atlanta's coffee community and coffee justice. Marissa understood my strengths and weakness, helped me connect with local coffee shops and coached me. The experience was not only a lot of fun, it was truly transformational. (Shoutout to all my friends, baristas and coffee shop owners who also helped me practice, set up, watched me train aka make silly mistakes). Working alongside Marissa, we established an excellent rhythm, and my only goal every day for two months was to show up, and get a tad bit better.

Sharon, Aakash, and Mokhtar from Port of Mokha and Brewista were supportive of this journey. I may have competed as an individual but it really does take a whole village to set someone up for success for competition day. I didn't win but sometimes, even when you lose, you win. This was truly one of those moments. 

Brewista: What are some of the biggest lessons you learned during your coffee journey so far?

Raghavan: This has been a crazy journey but my takeaways:

  1. Make a solid plan 
  2. Stay consistent in your efforts to learn, grow, and practice. (show up for myself even on the hard days)
  3. This one is big: believe in yourself and remember that progress >> perfection 
  4. Ask for help and give help without being asked (it’s all about community)
  5. Have fun with all the above :) 

Brewista: We see that you are also a lover of food and travel! Is there any overlap with your coffee world?

Divya Raghavan sits on a stool facing us with hands clasped.

Raghavan: Absolutely! There's an exciting overlap because people around the world drink coffee, and it's fascinating to me to see how coffee culture like food varies from one region to another, even within the same country.

Let's take Sicily, for example. The coffee scene there is distinct from the rest of Italy. Sicilians infuse their love for pistachios into everything. Historically, Sicily has seen the rise and fall of many conquerors and invaders, each leaving their mark. One of them was the Arabs, and they brought with them their magic of pistachios. Today, centuries later, you will find "caffe al pistachio" in some Sicilian cafes which is espresso with creamy pistachio paste. SO GOOD! 

When I'm traveling, I make a beeline for coffee shops (specialty and otherwise) and I even love to see how people brew coffee locally. This love (cough obsession cough) for coffee has opened many doors and friendships with coffee lovers. 

Brewista: What does your coffee ritual look like?

Raghavan: Honestly, I don't have a set coffee ritual. Some days, I'll make my own cappuccino at home. Other times, I'll venture out and get a cup of coffee from a local shop for a change of scene. And sometimes, Deepesh (my partner) makes a filter coffee. One thing though, weekends are for indulging. I pamper myself with a South Indian filter coffee or Vietnamese cafe Sua da.

Brewista: 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?

Raghavan: Divya's hot tip: Connect with the Coffee Championship circuit in your country. It's not just for the pros – beginners (like me a year ago) can dive right in too! You can volunteer, be a judge, or help out at the events. It's a great chance to level up by observing the pros in action. And hey, if you can't make it to the events in person, no worries! Just hop online and binge-watch competition videos to soak up some inspiration. Then, grab your brewing gear and start experimenting at home. Be consistent, patient with yourself, and enjoy the process. At the end of the day, you are just making coffee bean juice hehe. 

Brewista: Are there projects you are working on that you would love people to know about?

Raghavan: OMG yes. I'm starting a new food series  "Around the World with 80 Foods". It's a fun food and travel series exploring food, history, and culture. Basically all the things I love haha. I've been shooting footage for years, and I finally had the chance to edit them. I can't contain my excitement because they turned out so fire!

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