Claire Wallace - Brew Lab

Photo: Jess Shurte
Next woman in coffee >>

Head Barista – Brew Lab - Edinburgh

What got you into coffee?

Claire fell into coffee when she was at university, doing Law. She liked drinking coffee, and being in coffee shops, and got a part time job doing something very different to sitting down and studying.

“I started working in a café to earn money to travel and that’s where it started. I gradually learned more about the sensory stuff, the production, and discovered so many different facets to coffee.”

Claire finished her degree and made the tough decision to move into coffee instead of Law. “I chose Law when I was 16 years old – you don’t really know what you like doing at that age. I enjoyed it from an intellectual point of view and did some job shadowing and internships, but it didn’t click the same way as coffee and café work did.”

“When I got more into it, I realised there are jobs here. There’s a career here. Who sells coffee to who and how the whole industry works. I felt there was real potential in coffee.”

What do you love about being in speciality coffee?

Claire says she “loves it all”. She’s Head Barista at Brew Lab in Edinburgh and selects and orders all the coffee they serve as well as trains in Brew Lab’s onsite training lab. 

“We have a few guest roasters we trust and work with and I do a lot of tasting and exploring - choosing roasters who are doing really interesting stuff. We’re starting a new type of relationship with Union, in that we get a lot of insight into the roasts and sourcing. This means I do lots of tasting, honing my sensory skills, green coffee and sourcing. Union have a great sourcing programme - they’re transparent, directly traded and have long, ongoing relationships with coffee producers. I really like what Union are doing. At the moment we’ve got a Rwanda micro lot on the bar that is exclusively produced by women, which is great.”

Claire is also a competitor in Barista Championships. “The first time I competed I wanted to get over my fear of it. Competing pushes you outside your comfort zone and I learned so much about coffee, presentation skills, myself. I was the top performing woman that year in the UK Barista Championships.”

What would tell someone who was considering a career in coffee?
“I always tell people, if you’re starting at the bottom and haven’t done coffee before, you need muck in. When you’re working in a café there’s a lot more to do than sit at the coffee machine. If you’re not willing to take on the whole café experience, then you’re not a fully-fledged barista. 

Don’t focus solely on coffee.  Bringing in other skills such as training, managing, business knowledge and marketing, makes you a more valuable asset. A lot of my law degree stuff such as writing, speaking and analysing makes me better at my job. For example, condensing a lot of complex information into something that’s easy to understand helps me carry out training. Being in coffee shops is not as glamourous as it looks on slow motion Youtube videos. There are a lot of dishes involved! But getting fully into the experience and learning all the different parts of the business builds your skills and opens opportunities.”

What’s it like being a woman in the coffee industry?

Claire describes being a woman in the coffee industry as amazing but frustrating at the same time. 

“A lot of the women in coffee in Scotland know each other and this community aspect is great. It’s also infuriating because there are so few of us. There are lots of cultural barriers for women who aren’t very confident. There’s quite a ‘bro culture’ in lots of places, especially in places that don’t have many women on staff. I think mostly the men don’t realise, but sometimes you know they do.”
Examples of bro culture Claire talks about are the jokes some men make, made worse if people senior take part or ignore it. “It can become uncomfortable. I don’t think it would be the same if it were all women and one male. It’s the same in non-coffee organisations and it shuts women out. Men don’t see how it disadvantages others because they don’t feel it happening to them. But the point is: it’s not what they think, it’s how they make others feel that matters most.” 

Claire’s also keen to point out that the culture between staff is visible to customers which means sometimes customers get shut out too. “Being a barista is 50% customer service so this is definitely not what you want. My fear is that a lot of women come into coffee but leave again.“
“The UK Barista Championship has never been won by woman. Even out of 40-50 competitors there can be 5-8 women. There’s a lot of talk about this within Barista Connect” (Barista Connect aims to improve equality by empowering and inspiring women in various roles within the international coffee community. They host events for women around the world to exchange knowledge, experiences and connect.) 

“Maybe women don’t do as well in competitions because judges are more biased (potentially unconsciously) to a male presentation style. There’s certainly anecdotal evidence that confidence is marked down in women as a negative trait and up in men as a positive trait. Perhaps women also aren’t as confident because there are so few women competing, which perpetuates the cycle. Competition organisers are looking at incorporating unconscious bias training into judge training which would be good.” 

Claire recommends that women in coffee look up Barista Connect. “I got to meet and talk to a lot of women that I look up to professionally. There was a lot of discussion about stuff that doesn’t get discussed at mixed events.“

“At Brew lab we have 50/50 men and women and it’s a nice vibe.”

Photo: Jess Shurte
Next woman in coffee >>

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