The James Beard Foundation, leading organization representing America’s culinary community, interviewed me for their feature piece: Jobs We Love.

Jobs We Love: Andrew Hetzel, Coffee Taster

It’s a good thing Andrew Hetzel drinks a lot of joe: as a professional coffee taster, he spends about 200 days a year traveling and sampling various brews. Read on to learn more about his business of the bean.

James Beard Foundation: What’s your job description?

Andrew Hetzel: In summary, as a coffee taster I get paid to fly around the world and drink coffee. I started a small consultancy that provides quality control, operations design, and management consulting services for specialty coffee retailers, roasters, and farming businesses. Despite being based in Hawaii, which is itself a coffee growing origin, we provide nearly all of our services to companies in rapidly emerging markets, such as the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia.

JBF: What was your big break to become a coffee taster?

AH: I sold my prior in-store retail marketing business and used the profits to fund my pursuit of information in the world of coffee tasting. At the time, there were far fewer structured resources for training available than today, so I do not believe my same success would have been possible without an investment in my own self-directed education. Thankfully, in a short time I found numerous industry veterans that welcomed my questions and began to share their knowledge, like an informal apprenticeship.

I began to consult for companies within the coffee industry to help improve business efficiency, marketing, and profitability, later adding functional design and agriculture services with the addition of two partners that are specialists in those areas.

Two milestones were critical to the current trajectory of my career: First, in 2003, I began volunteering as a judge for the then fledgling US Barista Championship, a coffee competition where baristas produce espresso beverages that are scored on sensory and technical criteria. This later led to my involvement as a judge and now a board member of the World Barista Championship, an organization that oversees the world’s largest competitive coffee event, with over 55 member countries and thousands of participants. The exchange of information with coffee experts from around the world and the cooperative pursuit of coffee excellence that I have experienced through this organization have been critical to my professional development in the field.

The second milestone was a personal achievement, when in early 2008 I was accredited as being one of the first Americans to obtain certification as a Q Grader (accredited coffee taster) by the Coffee Quality Institute, a nonprofit organization that cooperates with government and NGO funding sources to provide economic improvements in coffee growing regions. The Q Grader test is a three-day series of 21 rigorous coffee tasting examinations that are infamous within the industry; having successfully obtained certification provides me instant worldwide credibility as a judge of coffee quality and provides me with a vocabulary necessary to describe my findings with colleagues and clients.

JBF: Describe a typical day like for you?

AH: Lots and lots of writing: writing reports, writing articles, writing proposals, presentations, and press releases. I would love to say that my typical day is spent cupping hundreds of different coffees, leading training classes or doing work on a coffee farm, but those days are dwarfed in number by the paperwork necessary to support my existence in business.

JBF: What’s the most exciting part of your job as a coffee taster? What do you like least?

AH: Both answers relate to travel: I find it very enjoyable and exciting to see new places, meet new people and experience new flavors and customs, but dislike the hours of boredom and minutes of terror that are often necessary to reach remote destinations. It is not unusual to spend 30 or more hours en route to some exotic destination, only to be greeted by an alcohol-swilling, chain-smoking, cell-phone-talking cab driver running Formula One time trials in a Trabant through traffic, pedestrians, livestock, or whatever else may occupy the local definition of “road.”

“A tolerant spouse with a steady day job is strongly recommended for anyone wishing to be a coffee taster.”

JBF: What advice would you give to someone who’d like to become a coffee taster?

AH: I travel an average of 200 days per year and flew a distance equivalent to circling the earth eight times in 2008. The most complex and interesting projects on both the producing and consuming side of the coffee industry are in developing countries, so be prepared to spend a lot of holidays and birthdays away from home, sitting on airplanes or alone in some dank hotel room. This is not a job well suited to someone who wishes to raise children…it’s challenging enough for those of us who have pets. A tolerant spouse with a steady day job is strongly recommended for anyone wishing to be a coffee taster.

JBF: How do you see your job and career as a coffee taster evolving over the next five years?

AH: The coffee industry is endlessly complex, touching millions of people in most countries around the world. You can learn something new about coffee every day that changes your impression of bean and business, so I plan to keep learning and to share my knowledge with others. The largest opportunities that I see for the future of our industry will come from vertical integration within the coffee industry: retailers becoming roasters, roasters becoming farmers, and farmers taking their products directly to retail consumers. You’ll find me somewhere in the middle of all of it.