ROASTER: Mandy Spirito
YEARS ROASTING: 5 years
COMPANY: Halfwit Coffee Roasters, Chicago IL
I get to tell a story about one of the dearest people I’ve ever met.
I met Mandy at a bar in 2015 and I knew we’d be best friends. Not become best friends—be best friends. Immediately. Within days we were texting everyday and casually dropping in at one another’s apartments. I think what captivated me the most about them was how much Mandy knew about everything. They was easily the smartest, sharpest person I had ever met. Where I’d stumble and trip over myself, they’d catch me, making an astute comment or telling a joke I’d only get hours later and begin laughing out loud to myself or in front of others, seemingly without cause. I admired them so much, and I’d ask for their opinion on everything I was doing. I trusted their thoughts, ideas, wisdom on pretty much every subject, from music to movies to coffee.
Mandy is exactly the type of person you want to roast your coffee, and I remember when they first started working at Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco at the end of 2015 as an apprentice roaster. Mandy was immediately obsessed. They talked about roasting in a way I pretended to understand, but I’d just nod and let them talk because it blew me away how quickly they seemed to absorb all this information. Before Mandy, I thought roasting was a really obscure skill; roasting seemed like something that could only be passed on through others and truly difficult to learn. And not that roasting is easy by any means—but to see Mandy tackle a completely new skill set head-on changed my mind about the preciousness that is sometimes attached to roasting.
Let’s be clear: I think it takes a person like Mandy to become as skilled and accomplished as she has been over the last two years. Their talent has led to their current job as Head of Coffee for Halfwit Coffee Roasters in Chicago, and they’ve quickly become one of the most respected roasters in the game. When we talked about whom we wanted to cap off our first year of the Matchbook Coffee Project with, it was a no-brainer.
There are some obvious reasons why Mandy is an excellent roaster—they’re smart as fuck, hard working, and can solve problems easily. But there are other facets of roasting that mirror parts of Mandy’s life and personality. “Not too many people know, but I have bipolar I disorder, which means I have to lead a very structured and routine-driven life,” Mandy shares. “My meals, my sleep, my interactions: all of these are meticulously tracked so that I can identify any idiosyncrasies, stay on top of medication, and compensate for fluctuations in mood.”
Routines are important for Mandy’s mental health, and that theme is easily echoed in roasting. “Funnily enough, I’ve always felt that all of this ties into roasting pretty neatly, and this is why it appeals to me so much. The patience, the attention to detail, the constant trial-and-error, keeping meticulous track of everything from mechanics to roast profiles and the coffees themselves—it all allows me to step outside of my head and into a familiar place where the rules are rigid enough to keep me grounded but bendable enough to keep it fascinating.”
Mental illness isn’t something a lot of people understand. “If you have any sort of experience with mental illness, you know that normalizing and finding the right medication can be incredibly taxing and it requires a lot of patience. It’s tough —you spend some days feeling like you’re two different people, but you’re not certain which one is you.” To the outside world, an internal struggle may seem like a conscious choice to act a certain way, and Mandy thinks a lot about that when they interacts with others. “By nature, bipolar disorder is an illness that doesn’t lend itself to easy empathy; it’s difficult to relate to, and it can be hard not to view the accompanying moods as willfulness. With that in mind, I try to consider the difficulties of interpersonal communication with the people that I work with, and the different ways that they may process information or stressors.”
I like telling Mandy’s story because it’s a story of overcoming struggles without being preachy or trying to tell a narrative with a neat bow at the end. Having a mental illness is fucking hard. It just is. “It's shitty. It's shitty on a scale that I think is hard to comprehend. It's hard to not let it interfere with your work; you're gonna make mistakes, and those parts of you are sometimes gonna show through the cracks. It's hard for me to remember that other people experience this kind of thing too, and to convince myself that I'm actually not a monster.” Mandy has worked hard both to get to their position within the roasting world, and to manage mental illness, but neither is a perfect, linear progression. There’s no finish line, but there is constant movement and to find some solace. “It's possible to thrive despite all of the complications, and the best support I've found is through other people. I've had some real trash reactions when I've disclosed my illness (probably the worst was hearing someone say that they felt unsafe around me), but for every narrow-minded person, there have been so many others that, even if they didn't understand, offered an immense amount of support. The best advice I ever got was simply to give people the benefit of the doubt.”
Mandy is constantly mindful of how they interacts with other, and this informs the way they approaches coffee and roasting. “It’s incredibly important for me to have a sense of community in the workplace. We spend so much time with each other that it just makes sense to create a space that’s inclusive and comfortable for everyone. We need to look out for each other.” With that in mind, they chose a coffee that’d appeal to everyone. “As a nod to those ideas about inclusivity, when I started looking for a coffee for this project I really wanted to pick something that was approachable. I wanted it to be interesting enough to appeal to coffee folks, but approachable enough to serve to your curmudgeonly Folger’s-swilling grandpa during the holidays.” The coffee, called The Sensitive Lover’s Club, is a good summation of Mandy: “I am horribly, horribly soft around the edges, and that's generally how I like my coffees.”
Speaking of the holidays, over a Thanksgiving dinner, a friend of mine asked me about friendship. “Who have you felt the most connected to?” Without a second thought, I said Mandy. I can’t write about Mandy without sharing my experiences because I feel like I can’t quite express how special they is without sharing these snippets of our relationship. I cannot simply write a story about them, and while my friendship with Mandy has evolved over time, seeing them become an amazing roaster has been a delight for me that I can’t possibly put in words. That’s cheesy—I know. But what can I say? I just hope one day you get to share maybe a quick conversation with Mandy, get home, and then realize they told you the fucking funniest joke you’ve ever heard and only now did you get it. I hope you fall over laughing. I hope you never forget it. Mandy stays with you forever.