Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been asking readers to put their coffee-related questions to 2019 Roast Master Champion and head roaster at Belleville Brûlerie, Mihaela Iordache.
As an MTPak Brand Ambassador, Mihaela provides regular insight for our Education Centre on everything from quality control to roasting competitions to café management.
Here, she answers all your questions, including how she prepared for Roast Masters, what it takes to become a head roaster, and how Paris’ coffee scene is developing.
Who am I?
I’m Mihaela Iordache, I work as head roaster at Belleville Brûlerie in Paris, one of the main roasteries in France. Along with three or four other roasteries, it played a big part in bringing specialty coffee to the country.
I’ve been working there for five years in charge of roasting, quality control, and logistics, among other things. Prior to that, I worked for two years as a barista at Ten Bells.
I first came to Paris from Romania as I was trying to become a classical musician (I play classical guitar).
Somewhere along the line, I decided that becoming a musician wasn’t for me and found coffee while I was sitting in cafes, thinking about what to do with my life.
It was the most random encounter, but I’d just noticed that the people around me were happy, the drink was good, and it was exciting.
That led me to seriously consider going into coffee – so I went to do a cupping to see if it really was something I was interested in. During the cupping, there was this one coffee from Guatemala that transported me back to being a young girl, in my grandma’s kitchen, at home.
It moved me so much that I quit everything I was doing and obsessively pursued coffee without any plan beyond wanting to learn more.
I think I was very lucky, but it was a blessing of an encounter at a time when I needed it.
What’s your advice for someone looking to become a head roaster?
My advice is to become a roaster first, I guess! Figure out a way to get into production. It’s never easy, but as long as you’re in a roasting job, there’s hope of becoming a head roaster.
I also think there’s also a lot of luck involved. I was in the right place at the right time in a fast-growing company that had a very small team when I joined them. So maybe try to find a company that has a lot of potential to grow and join them.
Perhaps what I would’ve done had I not found my current job is to learn how to roast on as many machines as possible. I would’ve tried to become a versatile roaster so that I could join a bigger company and work my way up.
Finally, it’s important to decide at what level you would like to be a head roaster – whether you want to manage a big team or be hands-on at a small company. This can influence the steps you take.
How did you prepare for Roast Masters in 2019?
There was a lot of preparation on storytelling, I would say, because we felt like we had the coffee part ready. We wanted to compete with a blend we already had and that people could buy, so this part had already been done.
Then we looked at ways in which we could set ourselves apart without breaking the rules. You win by getting as many points as possible, but also by the energy you build up in the audience.
In the first round, we made coffees that were part espresso and part apple liqueur, and randomly shared them with the judges and members of the audience.
Although I don’t think it gained us points, it built up some energy that helped with the dynamism of the routine.
We also wanted to make sure we presented the coffee as we would normally sell to our customers – otherwise we don’t really see a point if it’s only something we’d only do in a competition.
You want to make sure you do something exceptional, but also something you’d do for your customers.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?
I’ve been able to learn certain things through music that I’ve been able to apply to coffee, such as working with the best you have access to, not caring if you’re being put down, and not wasting time on little things.
The one piece of advice I was lucky to have right when I started was to taste everything you do and base all your choices on taste. Obviously read about everything else, but make sure that it’s the taste that drives all your decisions.
There weren’t any sensory summits when I started roasting and I’ve joined all of the ones in Europe since. So I would recommend delving into sensory summits, too.
If you could change one thing about the coffee industry, what would it be?
Maybe some of the positioning of the language. I think sometimes, in the specialty coffee sector, we put ourselves on a bit of an elitist platform. It would be to make sure that what we’re sharing with customers can be understood by everyone.
There’s a point in sharing complex recipes, but also about having a conversation with someone who is just starting in coffee and doesn’t want to be overwhelmed.
Maybe less lecturing is something that I would love to see, because I think we would all benefit from it.
As soon as you charm someone into something that’s tasty, they are sold forever and happy they can always come back. If you make people feel bad about their choices, on the other hand, it can be a harder story to sell.
How would you describe the coffee scene in Paris?
I think it’s a scene that’s very hungry for knowledge. People are very excited about pushing things forward. I see a lot more small roasteries and coffee shops opening, people with a clear identity of what they want to do rather than a copy of something they’ve seen when on holiday.
It’s quite versatile and exciting. People are taking more responsibility than two years ago. But I haven’t actually had much time to discover all of the new places because of the lockdowns.
What’s probably most worrying is that the culture of the coffee shop is struggling. At one point, there were serious conversations about whether it was the end of Paris’ cafes. It would be a shame to see the closure of places that have been open for hundreds of years.
That being said, there are lots of coffee festivals starting again, such as the Allegra Coffee Festival, which I think is a good sign.
Would you like to put a question to our experts? Next up is three-time South Africa Barista Champion and Starbucks consultant, Ishan Natalie.