Melanie Leeson's Coffee Journey Around the World
To anyone who has ever doubted career growth in coffee, we are excited to tell Melanie Leeson's story. Within the coffee industry, one can choose to pursue a number of different roles such as barista, roaster, green buyer, educator, and consultant. In Melanie's case, she pursued a career path that would encompass all five.
Before we look back on her career milestones thus far, Melanie describes the pillars that are her family:
My parents are Chinese (dad) and Korean (mom). My dad was born and raised in South Africa, learning English from a very young age, before moving to Canada with his family at the age of 11. My mom was born and raised in Seoul and moved to Canada when she was 18. She spoke no English and managed to bring the rest of her immediate family (three brothers and her parents) over after establishing herself. So both of my parents are of East Asian heritage and are immigrants, though they have very different stories due to their respective upbringings, which led to me having quite a specific relationship with my Asian-ness and Canadian-ness.
Thank you for sharing this! Our programming has so much to do with where we grew up and where our family is from, so if we understand a bit of that history, we can know ourselves better. Can you tell us who or what inspired you to go into coffee?
I was dually inspired to go into coffee by Josh [Hockin], who I have known since the 9th grade, and through learning about how inequitable consumerist goods supply chains are through doing volunteer work at Oxfam. Josh started becoming obsessed with coffee in 2008 and then started working at Transcend around that time. I would be the guinea pig for his coffee concoctions and experienced tasty coffee then for the first time in my life. I was not a coffee drinker before this, much preferring my family's tea drinking tendencies, and only knowing coffee as the bitter instant kind that my parents sometimes drank.
On the economic inequity side, I learned that coffee was the second most traded commodity and became invested in the potential of a more equitable coffee trade through more transparent supply chains. I also started working at Transcend, who was working to build these better supply chains and then had the ambition to become a green coffee buyer myself. This took me to Oslo in 2011 where I started a masters degree in Development and Sustainability and helped start a coffee import company, where I worked until the end of 2018. I started consulting at the beginning of 2019 in Oslo, then after a brief stint in London, I moved to Montréal and started consulting again at the beginning of 2020 just before the pandemic hit. It's been quite a ride.
Your journey has been incredible! You went from barista to production roaster and retail manager at Transcend in Edmonton. You helped establish Collaborative Coffee Source in Oslo, then joined Caravela Coffee as their European Sales Director in London, while also developing the education program for the 2018 and 2019 Nordic Roaster Forum. Around this time, you had also started your own consultancy! What does it take to do that?
I'm not doing much consulting these days, having recently landed a full-time position at Canadian Roasting Society with Andy [Kyres]. But to answer your question, I would say it takes a balanced mixture of confidence, humility, and being able to identify your network to start. You need a lot of confidence for obvious reasons, especially if you're a minority woman. You really need to tune in and see and especially be able to name your worth to yourself, which is no easy feat when you don't see much of yourself in your professional network. You need humility both because you're going to have to ask for a lot of help and because you're becoming a salesperson for your skills and experience. You need to be able to clearly identify who you have in your network because these people will become your clients, or lead you to clients.
The Canadian Roasting Society has allowed smaller cafés to roast their own coffees without the high costs and additional permits in their co-roasting space. As their resident green coffee guru, what's usually the first thing you ask or say to a new client?
"Guru." LOL. With green coffee consulting, I always start by asking how the client wants to build their menu. Is it by concepts (e.g. flavour profiles, blends)? Origins? Processes? Seasonality? A mix of these factors? Then we'll talk about seasonality because of the harvest and export/import cycles of the various origins, which will factor into the client's timeline and they might not be familiar with that.
The first thing I will mention to a client I'm cupping samples with is that the freshness of a sample, in terms of how recently the coffee was harvested, will have a huge impact on the intensity of flavours. I've started to make this an early discussion point because I started seeing great coffees being dismissed because people were expecting to cup fully developed coffees, which is what you taste as a consumer. When you're cupping freshly harvested coffees, in some ways, you're cupping for its potential. Of course certain characteristics will not change after a few months of resting, but the intensity of flavours is a big thing that changes as a freshly harvested coffee matures.
Can you describe one of your favourite traditions that is unique to your heritage?
One of my favourite traditions growing up was going to my Chinese grandparents' home for Christmas. It was always a full house of relatives and family friends. We ate my grandma's delicious Hakka cuisine and there was always a table of mahjong happening downstairs. Looking back, I love the mix of Chinese food and customs with the Westernized Christmas tree and decorations. At the time it was mostly the food and presents that I went for, but now as an adult, those moments clearly contributed to shaping my mixed identity.