Coffee Query: Julia McKenna, Bailies Coffee Company
Julia has been in coffee for 8 years, & currently works as a barista trainer for Bailies Coffee Company in Belfast.
What got you into coffee and what’s kept you in coffee?
When I was at university I took a part time job working for Clements at the Queens’ Students Union. This is where I first began to learn the barista trade. It was a great place to work, lots of fun, friendly customers and co-workers, it was a high volume site so there was always a great buzz about the place.
What kept me on, truthfully, is that I wasn’t able to get a place on a masters course after my undergrad degree. It was disappointing at the time but I was fortunate enough to have been offered the position of assistant manager at the students union branch of Clements and very soon after this the markets crashed and the recession hit so I considered myself very lucky to have a full time job that I enjoyed doing.
I then soon entered my first barista competition and to my surprise did quite well. I was a finalist the first time I entered IBC and eventually placed 4th. This also coincided with my first ever pourover filter coffee… it was a game changer. I was hooked.
Since then I have met so many lovely and interesting people, I think it is the community that has kept me in this line of work. I’m now doing my dream job working as a barista trainer for Bailies Coffee Company and I am totally loving it!
What have been your favourite coffees, both in filter and as espresso?
I get asked this question quite a lot by my trainees and I find it a tricky one to answer. My favourite coffee in general would be anything from Ethiopia with a natural process but I don’t think I have favourite individual coffees, however there are a few that stick out as being the most memorable.
As mentioned above, the first time I was at IBC I had my very first V60 filter coffee at the inaugural “Brew Ha Ha” (now very formally known as the brewers cup… a much less exciting name in my opinion). Marco had just launched their Uber Boiler which was on show and Stephen Leighton from Hasbean was there doing the live stream and some commentary and had brought along some Bolivian Machacamarca for the event. The barista who brewed the coffee was named Michael (I can’t remember his surname) and I had never tasted coffee like it in my life. It was sweet, fruity, smooth like caramel… delicious. Up until that point I had always just drank instant coffee at home and once I got back from Dublin I just couldn’t drink it any more. It was like I had taken the red pill in the Matrix, there was no going back!
I don’t think I have had that experience with espresso yet. I have definitely had some nice espressos but none that have resonated with me quite like that Bolivian filter coffee.
What’s your home coffee setup?
At home I have quite a few different brewers – Aeropress, V60, Chemex; I also had a go with those little disposable Kalita Kantan paper filter brewers. I have a Hario hand grinder which does the job rightly - it gives me a good workout on my arms grinding the coffee up. And then just a bog standard electric kettle, nothing fancy. But honestly… at home I mostly like to drink tea!! Tetley, milk, no sugar.
Where do you want Dublin/Ireland’s coffee culture to develop next?
I think here in Belfast there is still a little bit of a way to go in terms of raising the standards of the average coffee offering. There are certainly a few people who are doing an excellent job setting a high bar for others to aim for, but I definitely think there’s room for improvement. There’s a great coffee scene happening up the north coast which is great, I have to admit I am a bit jealous of the locals of Coleraine, Portrush & Portstewart. Not only do they have some excellent cafes on their doorstep, they’ve also got the beautiful causeway coast to sweeten the deal.
I think it’s only a short matter of time until there is a speciality coffee shop in nearly every town in Ireland and Northern Ireland. With the wealth of information circulating online at the moment and the ease of access to excellent coffee beans and training resources and with more and more people buying into the 'shop local' ethos it will just take a few passionate people to go into business and open their own cafes up and down the country to really establish a fantastic coffee culture.
Who’s someone you admire in coffee?
If I had to pick out someone who has inspired me and has always encouraged me as a barista it would be Sé Gorman of Café Krem. Sé is a real gent and has taught me a lot over the last eight years. I find him to be a very calming influence due to his soft spoken demeanour, he just exudes coffee wisdom!! Lol! He was one of the first people to do pourover coffee in Belfast, at his Brew Bar Café. It only lasted a few months as a pop up in 2011, I still have my loyalty card… I miss it!
What advice would you give to somebody just starting out in your field?
Taste and learn and discuss and watch as many different coffee related things as possible. Immerse yourself in it as much as you can, learning as much as you can. It’s always great to get different opinions and points of view from people who make coffee in different ways.
Always keep an open mind – there’s always going to be ways to improve your barista skills. Once you’ve built up your skill set all you really have to do, as once stated by my good chum Ger O’Donohoe, is make nice coffee and be nice to people
What are you drinking now?
I am currently enjoying our latest single origin roast, Ethiopia Henna which is a natural coffee (my favourite kind!) and is just yummy. We are doing a little in house brewers cup here in Bailies between the sales and barista teams, to help improve our own skill sets, and this is the coffee we’re using. It is a pleasure to work with, sweet and juicy with sweet berry flavours and a big fat body, just what you would expect from this sort of coffee.