Arizona’s foremost conurbation is commonly referred to as Phoenix, this being the major airport in the area. On the north-eastern edge is the city of Scottsdale, a landing point for cowboys in late 19th century. It’s there that Cartel Roasting Co. has set up shop, and where Sebastian Maconi acts as their Guest Experience Coordinator.
In this interview Sebastian outlines his entry into his professional coffee career, the closeness of community in the Scottsdale setting (and directness of dollars spent), and the benefits of working at small v. large coffee companies. Resources for others looking to extend their coffee knowledge wrap the interview, as well as Sebastian’s ambitious goals for meeting the mid-point of the decade.
When did you start your career in coffee and how did you come across the industry?
I started my career with Cartel in March of 2021, though I've been a coffee obsessive for a good few years before that. I had just left working as an internal auditor during the pandemic, and knew that whatever I did next had to be less sedentary and more stimulating.
Cartel is also the reason I am a specialty coffee nerd - their brew guides walked me through my first home Pour-Over years before I worked here, and their baristas used to give me all sorts of brewing advice and coffee knowledge when I'd come in. They were the first place I saw the gatekeeping origin of third-wave coffee start to recede, so it feels very poetic that they've welcomed me into the fold and given me a chance to start my career here years later.
What's the status of specialty coffee in Scottsdale?
Much like the rest of the US, we're living through a pretty exciting period in coffee right now all across the Phoenix area. Scottsdale proper has a little bit of catching up to do with the rest of the east valley in terms of its specialty coffee scene, but that's more because of just how much truly wonderful coffee is being produced in Arizona than any particular lack of enthusiasm!
Scottsdale itself has still experienced such fantastic growth in recent years. There is a ton right here in Old Town, and just a short ways away in Arcadia, that is worth patronizing - ourselves, of course, but also Provision, Echo, Berdena's, and many others! So, there is a great opportunity to experience some different philosophies on coffee in this area that simply didn't exist in prior years. What's more, most of it is local - so your spending is much more likely to feed back into your community instead of disappearing into the ether.
What types of people are suited to working in coffee?
All sorts of folks! It really just depends on what you like to do. Generally, though, I would say that if you're someone who is very experience-oriented, you'll find coffee is a great line of work to be in. In a broader sense, there is always something new to explore - interesting processing methods, new brew techniques, new farms and processing stations whose work travels thousands of miles over many months to arrive in your cup. In a more narrow sense, your day-to-day can have so much variety, especially as you start to take on more responsibility outside of working bar. A healthy curiosity and love for trying new things can take you a long way!
If someone is new to coffee and looking to start out, what would you recommend they start with?
As I mentioned before, it all depends on what you like to do. If you're someone who likes stimulation and activity, and especially if you get bored easily, starting out as a barista is great. You'll never be bored, and you have ample opportunity to hone skills that will benefit you later on in different roles within coffee. The single best advice I can think to give is to visit a bunch of local roasters or cafes, and see if you can get a job at the one that makes the best straight espresso or drip. The more expertise they have, and the more seriously they take their coffee, the more you'll learn and grow from your experiences there.
There is also something special about working with a company where everyone has some stake in the day-to-day that's not easy to replicate in larger corporate environments - that's not a knock against folks who do work with really big companies, but you have much more meaningful access to knowledge when you work at a place where the management and/or ownership is involved in things and interacting with the front line staff more frequently. You have opportunities to ask questions beyond your own day-to-day that can really feed your curiosity and expand your horizons quite a bit. Just make sure whatever place you're looking to work at takes their coffee seriously, and treats the work that producers do with respect.
Are there some central blog posts or websites that you go to gain more knowledge, develop further skills
Absolutely! I have spent quite a bit of time reading through courses on Barista Hustle, Matt Perger's educational website. It's been great both for really basic coffee knowledge and much deeper stuff that can be hard to suss out elsewhere. I am also a fan of Coffee ad Astra, Jonathan Gagné's blog. He's an absolute fount of knowledge, and takes a very scientific approach to exploring coffee, so what you're reading about is typically backed up with data that can help illuminate a lot of the why behind the what. Home-Barista.com is a really fantastic forum, if ever you have a coffee question it's pretty likely someone there has asked it and debated about it for days with someone else.
Videos from James Hoffman on YouTube are particularly great for anyone starting out on their coffee journey, and were a big influence on me prior to starting in this industry because of his stellar combination of approachability and expertise (also, please watch him drink decades-old coffee, the faces he makes are among life's purest joys). He just has a knack for making it both educational and fun in a really remarkable way. Sprometheus is another YouTube that I love for getting me thinking critically about coffee. And of course, you can't have a conversation about skill development in coffee without mentioning Scott Rao. His blog is pretty interesting, and his books - in particular, The Professional Barista's Handbook - can be a great reference to have around. Even just following these folks on instagram has led to me learning quite a bit over time!
What's next for your career? What's on the horizon and what goals do you have for the coming three years?
Talk about a tough question! I am already kind of working my dream job here, so hopefully I will still be doing some form of quality control, education and experience curation for our retail spaces - just on a much more robust and meaningful level as I grow and learn.
In terms of specific goals, we have an older La Marzocco GS-3 in our training lab that I would really love to convert to the Strada-style group, which allows you to read your brew pressure directly in the group. It's a bit of effort and a lot of technical reading, but the experience is already teaching me so much about how our machines work, how pressure profiling works, how to get the best out of pre-infusion, and so much more. Best of all, it's keeping things fresh and feeding my curiosity.
I'd also really like to do more sensory skill development - I recently had the privilege to do a sensory training with Patrick O'Malley over at Infusion in Tempe (who is extremely knowledgeable and someone more specialty coffee folks, especially in AZ, should be aware of), and it was such an illuminating experience to see just how deep and complex the sensory component of this work can be. I think there is a lot to be gained for the industry as a whole to make sensory skill development more of a focus for everyone, from roasters to baristas and everywhere in between. I think the other big thing for me in the coming years is going to be exploring roasting a bit more. I would really love to have as complete an understanding of this industry as possible, and I don't see that being achievable without learning quite a bit about roasting.
Visit one of Cartel Roasting Co.’s 9+ venues when you’re in town, and be sure to say “hi” to Sebastian