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Longtime Judge Nathanael May on the Future of Coffee Competitions

Nathanael May coffee

Photos courtesy of Nathanael May.

Nathanael May has been judging coffee competitions for more than eight years. That’s not likely to slow down as he takes on the role of Chair for the Barista Competition Working Group of the Specialty Coffee Association.

Countless baristas have been on the other side of Nathanael May’s clipboard at the United States Barista Championship (USBC), which is organized by the SCA and made possible by the support of sponsors such as Pacific Foods, where May now works as the customer marketing manager for specialty coffee.

Getting his start in coffee with Starbucks in 2006, eventually moving on to roles as head trainer, green buyer and director of coffee at Portland Roasting Coffee, May has been involved in coffee on many levels over the past twelve years. Here he shares his perspective on the role of community in coffee, his goals and ambitions, and life outside of coffee.

Lily Kubota: What inspires you most about coffee?

Nathanael May: The coffee industry seems to attract people that value connection and value other people. Some of the most inspiring and rewarding relationships I’ve cultivated in my life have been with other coffee people. And they’ve centered around connection — both with each other and with the larger global community.

LK: What troubles you most about coffee?

NM: For all the things we do well around community, there are still far too many people that feel like they’re on the outside of that community looking in — because they’re being accidentally or purposefully excluded from participating. We need to change our structures to encourage more diversity, and seek out the voices and leadership of women and people of color to a much greater degree.

LK: What would you be doing if it weren’t for coffee?

NM: I would either attempt to break into the boardgame industry full-time, or head back to my old job in training at Disneyland.

Nathanael May coffee barista judge

LK: What have you learned from judging barista competitions?

NM: I’ve learned a lot about commitment from baristas who have fought through major setbacks just to show us their coffee. People have battled disease, loss of family, dangerous travel, and so much more. They’ve sacrificed deeply in order to present their work and fight for something they believe in. How could I look at commitment like that and not be moved, not be changed? I want to honor them with a drive of my own to support them and help them develop however I can.

LK: What do you envision for the future of barista competitions?

NM: Like we see with the broader coffee industry, our competitions need to open up and be more inclusive. We’re working toward that, and in some ways, we’ve started taking steps in the right direction, but we need to have a healthy dissatisfaction with the way things are, and look forward to a day when no matter what you look like, and no matter who you are, you have the same opportunity to be the United States Barista Champion. Most of all, my hope is that baristas see value in competition, and find the development and growth that they’re seeking when they participate.

LK: What are some of your personal goals (with coffee or outside of coffee) in the future?

NM: My biggest goals are to improve as a husband and father. Those are the most important roles I have in my life. Beyond that, I want to help affect whatever positive changes I can in coffee competitions, whether that’s improving accessibility and inclusiveness, or helping people develop as competitors and judges. A life lived in service is a good life, and so I want to serve.

nathanael may green coffee picking

LK: Have there been any mentors or particularly influential people in your life who have helped get you to where you are today?

NM: In the last few years, the most inspiring people to me have been five women: my wife, Misty; my colleagues at Portland Roasting, Eva Attia, Maggie Davis and Lauren Lathrop; and my mentor/manager, Deb Kaminski. Each of them have been examples to me — in speech, in conduct, in love, in life, and in faith. I am thankful to have them in my life, and thankful for the lessons they’ve taught me. What I am is because of what they’ve influenced me to be.

LK: What was your favorite movie from the past year and why?

NM: I adored Coco. The animation was extraordinary, and the connection of music to memory for Alzheimers patients was personally very powerful for me and my family.

LK: You mentioned board games. Which game do you play most?

NM: I try to cycle through them as much as possible — like with coffee, variety is the spice of life — but if we go strictly by number of times I’ve played, that honor goes to Santorini, a lovely little abstract game about building tiny towers in Greece. I play it with every coffee professional that comes and stays at my house. Consider this an open invitation: Come stay with me and let’s play Santorini!