MCP#019: Cara Zebrowski

NAME: Cara Zebrowski

YEARS ROASTING: 8 Years roasting

MACHINES: Diedrich IR-1, Diedrich IR-12, Probatone 5

COMPANY: The Pantry, Cold Spring, NY

What are the moments that make your coffee career? This is sort of a hypothetical question, but also one we hope you sit and ponder for a moment. And we don’t just mean the good moments—although they’re important to remember—but the incidental moments. Perhaps a customer who ended up being a close friend or a meaningful piece of advice a colleague shared in a passing moment.

Cara Zebrowski has plenty of these moments in a career she describes as, “eight years of not setting coffee on fire.” Cara is Matchbook’s September featured roaster, and after eight years of turning coffee from green to brown, she’s collected dozens of these moments. “Small little moments have been everywhere for me,” Cara shares. “I made friends with a roaster and cafe owner through another friend. Turned out the cafe owner and I grew up only about a mile away from each other. And my oldest sister, the cafe owner, and the friends all worked together at one point in time.”

I personally remember Cara through a small moment, too. I competed at the 2013 NERBC (Northeast Regional Barista Competition), back when regional competitions were a thing and qualifiers didn’t exist. The year before, Katie Carguilo won the NERBC and went on to become the best barista in the U.S. I remember watching Cara compete—I didn’t know her or who she was at the time—and thinking she knew how to captivate the judges and the audience. But that was it. I don’t think I ever thought about this moment, and it took me a moment to connect that our MCP roaster was the same person until she mentioned NERBC. “I competed in the 2013 NERBC and became a GIF on Sprudge,” she shared. The connections we make with people are funny and sometimes drawn of the strangest moments. “It's always through the oddest of things.”

Cara’s collection of small moments began in 2009, when she answered a job ad on the door of a local coffeeshop in upstate New York. “I was freelancing and working a terrible retail job. The coffee shop in my town had a hand written help wanted sign on its front door, so I applied,” she shares. “They didn't have any more applications, so I had to write my experience and contact information on a note pad. I didn't drink coffee at the time, and I admitted it. I don't know why, but I was offered the job, and I promptly quit my crappy retail job and became addicted to coffee.”

Nine months later, Cara was roasting, and now she’s the production manager at The Pantry in Cold Spring, New York. “Working with coffee was one of the first times I felt like I was actually kind of good at something, and that people were feeling better because of something I was able to do for them. It was a language I could speak.” For you folks, Cara will be roasting a classic, fully washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, which has notes of apricot and black tea.

Cara is drawn to roasting probably for the same reason a lot of people like making coffee: she wants to give people something tasty and enjoyable. “I guess I really want people to feel good when they drink coffee I've prepared,” she shares. “It's silly, and too simple a thing, but I really want someone to feel better. Everything else may be falling apart and on fire around them, but this, this one thing, this is something I can do for them to make the world suck a little less.”

Creating tiny moments like this matter to Cara. She can chronicle her coffee career in them, and they’re what make coffee valuable and rewarding for Cara. “I went to Honduras and visited Liquidambar farm,” she says, recalling one of these moments. “I stood in a storage shed and stared at a wall of green coffee beans in sacks, ready to go out.  They were all ours. I promptly started crying.” Of another moment: “Being taught how to make tulips in lattes by Skip Finley, may he rest in peace and fun, then competing in a latte art throw down and making it to the quarter finals two days later.”

There’s more: “Receiving the nickname, ‘Coffee Fairy,’ by more than a few people. Not getting palate fatigue after cupping 35 coffees. Smelling coffee blossoms on the side of the road in Honduras. Getting totally immersed in a field about which I was completely ignorant, still love it nine years later, and find something new to learn almost every stinking day.”

The small moments can sometimes be eclipsed by the big ones; by the mistakes we made or the self-doubt we are consumed by. For all the small moments Cara finds her career marked by, there are still moments of doubt. “I look at what I've done, career wise over the years, and it's a lot of, how did I manage to get this far despite myself? How did I not screw up? I don't get it. I really don't understand how I haven't completely gotten in my own way.”

We’re positive this is a feeling every one has felt at some point, and we hope that you take a moment to think of the small instances; the ones that have changed your coffee career and you use them to keep motivated, positive, and remember that you are fucking cool as shit. We hope you don’t ever forget it.