MinnEcon@Work: The Coffee Guru

Most career success stories don’t start with running late and needing caffeine. But that’s what helped Nate Hrobak land his first job at Caribou Coffee and led him to discover he possessed an expert’s taste for coffee.

He’s gone from “slinging lattes” at an Uptown Minneapolis shop to one of four green coffee buyers for Caribou. Each day, Hrobak, 32, tastes and judges coffee the company buys and blends. Mornings are filled with roasting and analyzing samples in a kitchen just off Caribou’s bean roasting room in Brooklyn Center.

What’s accepted will end up in Caribou bags at coffee shops and grocery stores.

Hrobak once thought he’d be a chef but says he realized he didn’t like the greasy part of kitchen life and the fact that he’d be working while everyone else was going out.

We spent a couple of hours recently with Hrobak, a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network. He gave us a lesson on coffee, roasting, and the the crucial roles slurping and spitting play in his work.

Hrobak graduated from culinary school. But coffee buying and tasting is an apprenticeship training process. That includes learning the biology of growing coffee — acidity, weather, soil composition — from around the world and honing a world class palette.

I kind of fell into working for Caribou one day, about ten years ago, while I was running late for work, I stopped into a Caribou Coffee in Uptown, Mpls (as I did every morning, in a perpetual state of lateness) and the manager mentioned that If I worked at Caribou, I would already be at work, and subsequently not late. Imperfect logic at best, but apparently good enough for me. I began my coffee career at Caribou shortly thereafter in one of the cafes in South Minneapolis.

The lousy economy hasn’t damaged the coffee business. Nationally, just over half the nation’s adults were daily coffee drinkers and while daily coffee consumption by young adults slipped in 2009, making coffee at home is up, according to the National Coffee Association.

That’s in line with what Hrobak says Caribou’s seeing.

The primary effect of the recession has been a shift in where customers buy their coffee. Instead of coming into coffee shops, they get their coffee in grocery stores. While this does have an impact on our overall strategy, the actual purchase of green coffee supply remains relatively unaffected.

He says he’s not a coffee snob and that he can still enjoy diner coffee.

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MinnEcon@Work is an occasional series featuring Minnesotans in our Public Insight Network with cool jobs and interesting vantage points on the economy.

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