Meet Robert Mbabazi, La Terza’s Master Roaster
Robert, like all of our employees, has a wide variety of jobs that his title of Master Roaster entails. Some of his roles include roasting fresh coffee beans, running deliveries to different local shops, working the coffee bar at our roasterie, and making drinks. Drawing from his experiences in numerous different countries, Robert sources green beans (coffee beans before they’re roasted, not the vegetable!) and trains potential clients and employees in the different aspects of being a barista. You may even occasionally see him at a Farmers Market!
Robert grew up and lived most of his life in the capital city of Kampala in Uganda. He has only lived in the United States for three years, yet has gained a wealth of knowledge as one of the first to train as a barista in Uganda. Robert prefaced his search for a job in Uganda saying, “50 percent of all the people in the Ugandan population are millennials, and of those 50 percent, 80 percent are unemployed.” It is incredibly hard to forge a living. Out of college, he spent four or five months looking for employment in the restaurant and hotel industry, eventually finding a job working for a small Italian pizzeria… which also happened to have a coffee machine. Fascinated with the intricacy of the espresso machine in this restaurant, Robert requested to work with it more.
There was a lot keeping Robert from starting in the coffee industry. “Uganda is a coffee producing nation, but most people don’t drink it because 98 percent of it is exported. The beans that are left over are horrible quality and extremely bitter.” Robert grew up drinking tea instead. His interests were met with success though: “As a twenty-year-old, learning how to use the espresso machine opened up a huge window of opportunity for me and a chance to dive deep into the world of coffee.” As a young worker, he didn’t know the extent of the coffee world outside of Uganda. He soon came to realize that the coffee industry and barista communities in Europe, Asia and the US were huge. Accepting this truth, he was simply curious if he could “make a living out of the industry.”
The turning point of Robert’s coffee career happened after visiting his first plantation. He traveled to Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda, which houses some of the highest quality coffee in the country. He had the opportunity to immerse himself in the full farming experience, planting himself amongst all the other pickers.
“I arrived on a flowering day when the hills were covered in white flowers. The view that I had was so amazing with the beautiful white blossoms, butterflies everywhere, and the smell of jasmine and violet. It was so calming. I was amazed with how these blossoms can change into the cherries and then coffee beans. This is when I decided to dedicate my life to coffee and to sharing it with other people.”
After this experience, he enrolled in a coffee academy to take basic quality control courses, learn how coffee is produced, and more about the roasting and cupping process. Soon after, a movement of baristas from the United States, Canada and Belgium came to his country to sculpt a group into the first professionally-trained Ugandan baristas. Robert was one of them.
Actively involved in the barista community, he began to participate in different competitions, which gave him the opportunity to travel to many different countries to compete at higher levels and train with experts in the field. Robert was one of the first competitors in the now annual Ugandan Barista Championships. The competitions began in 2008 when Robert was disqualified for running over the time limit. However, this most definitely didn’t stop him; it only motivated him to work harder. He went on to win three national championships and eventually the African Barista Champion.
Competitions weren’t easy, but the stakes were high. The winner each year gets to travel to a different country to compete in the World Barista Championship. This was a huge opportunity for our roaster, since just a few years earlier he barely able to land a job! In each competition, baristas are required to make three sets of four drinks in fifteen minutes while presenting in front of a panel of judges. Four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks are judged along with the baristas presentation of roasting profiles, knowledge of equipment, cleanliness, professionalism and more. To call it multitasking is an understatement. Robert says, “so many bad things can happen. I have seen baristas choke, freeze and lose their ability to speak.” He says these high pressure experiences taught him so much and he was able to gain unimaginable experiences. Here is a short recap of his competition success:
2008 – Robert competed in the first Ugandan Baristas Championship.
2009 – He won the Ugandan Barista Championship which opened up numerous opportunities including a trip to Nairobi, Kenya working at a coffee seminar; Vancouver, Canada training with a prominent local roasterie and eventually Atlanta, Georgia for the World Barista Championship. He competed against 53 other national barista champions.
“This was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I learned so many things and met so many people. I felt like a different man when I went back home to Uganda. I started training local people and my own coffee consulting coffee (Barista Pro Coffee).”
He also met his wife in Uganda who is Cincinnati-born but was studying as an anthropology major in Uganda.
2010 – Robert won the national championship for the second time. He first traveled to Maastricht, Netherlands to train with a local company followed by his second world championship in London.
2011- He did not compete but concentrated on his consulting business. He did have the opportunity to travel to Switzerland and Italy, training directly with an espresso machine manufacturer. His boss at the time wanted to learn the coffee cultures of other countries. Back home, business was booming and he was able to start roasting locally.
2012 – He won for the third time in his final year of competition for Uganda, followed by another win in the Africa Barista Championship in Ethiopia. Yes, La Terza is honored to have the African Barista Champion working for us! He topped off his World Championships in Vienna, Austria. Robert was then trained and certified as a Q grader.
Why, you may ask, did he stop competing? He had much bigger things on his plate, like moving to the US to be with his wife and roast in America. When asked if he would ever be interested in competing again he said, “The competitions have lost their flare for me. I am all about connecting to the average coffee drinker. The baristas have now become scientists making coffee part of their lab set. That isn’t for me.”
You may be wondering how La Terza was able to snatch such an incredible roaster. Well, the answer is: Robert chose us! Prior to moving to America, his wife knew that he wanted to work in the same field and asked her parents to look around and find roasteries that had good coffee and had a similar approach to his own. Robert’s mother and father and law were instrumental in finding the right place for him to work and share his expertise. About his style, Robert says,
“I have a holistic approach to coffee. It is something you drink for enjoyment, social interaction and gathering, but besides that it affects so many lives. The process is a chain of people with so many hands, from the the people who tend the nursery to the pickers and farmers to those who process the beans, those who roast and cup the coffee, and finally those who brew and enjoy the drink. There is a huge social and financial impact. I feel privileged to have worked in all aspects of the coffee industry. I have worked with the farmers but I am also a roaster, a barista and I get to drink it. Every day I come to work and I think about how I can respect coffee in the right way and approach each cup appreciating the individual story. So many generations have tended that magical coffee tree. I don’t just drop the beans into the roaster and let them brown up.”
Robert’s father-in-law attended one of La Terza’s classes and had been drinking our coffee for a while, so he recommended that Robert and his wife check out La Terza first when they get to the states. On day two of arriving, Robert came to the Wyoming Farmers Market, met our team, and loved our approach and the quality of coffee we source. Now, he has been working for La Terza for the last three years. We are so honored to have such a qualified barista and roaster working for us!
Why does Robert enjoy working for La Terza? He says, “La Terza has good coffee and a good team. Each member brings in a special skill-set to the group, which complements my skills. I am able to learn things each day. I love the small company feel. I feel like an asset, not a statistic. People listen to my suggestions and I have the freedom to roast coffee in my own style and teach other people about coffee. I don’t take any of these privileges for granted.
The biggest thing for me is that they have good coffee. They don’t compromise on the coffee they buy. They bring in the best beans from the best farmers while paying the premium they should so farmers can have a living wage. I believe in buying the right beans, roasting them the right way, and then sharing the story.”
Robert has a wife and two girls, age ten and one. When he is not roasting, he loves playing with his girls, cooking, playing online chess, keeping up on current events and spending time outside. One interesting fact is that when Robert first came to the US, he loved the movies. He wanted to play as an extra in film based out of Cincinnati called Miles Ahead, about the jazz musician Miles Davis. The casting directors wanted him to do more than just play as an extra though; they asked him to play the younger version of Miles Davis under the lead, Don Cheadle. Robert almost didn’t take the role though because it required him to cut off all of his hair (which you may have noticed in earlier pictures). Don Cheadle called Robert and told him to cut his hair and play the role so he did!
“I want to inspire others who want to join the coffee industry but don’t see how they can forge a living out of it. Opportunity is out there. The majority of my friends saw me taking this path and laughed. They didn’t think I was serious, but they saw my life transform and they couldn’t believe it. I am able to enjoy coffee and transform someone else’s life thousands of miles away indirectly. I am so passionate about it. Coffee changed my life.”