Marcia Yoko Shimosaka: Nourished by and Nourishing...

Marcia Yoko Shimosaka: Nourished by and Nourishing Coffee

Marcia Yoko Shimosaka’s life is entangled with coffee. Growing up in the family’s coffee farm, Marcia Yoko’s childhood memories were filled with picking coffee beans with cousins on holidays. Later, she decided to step into the coffee industry officially after graduation. Marcia Yoko has navigated through various facets of the coffee industry, including cupping, coffee exporting, and quality control. She has consistently evolved, actively engaging in every step of the coffee production chain. Her efforts are dedicated to satisfying the needs of farmers, roasters, baristas, and everyone involved in the coffee journey. Notably, she has served as the coach for the recent World Barista Champion, Boram Um, showcasing her extensive expertise and commitment to the industry. There is no denying that there are ups and downs. Nevertheless, the belief of being a humble listener and open-minded to all the innovations and ideas supported her along the way for 20 years in the coffee industry.

Nourished by Coffee on a Brazilian Farm

“I was literally born on the farm.” Marcia Yoko Shimosaka told me. Her first memory of coffee started on a coffee farm in Cerrado Mineiro, Brazil. The Cerrado region is recognized as a gourmet coffee region in Brazil, accounting for 12% of Brazil’s total coffee production. Nevertheless, the Cerrado area was not a traditional coffee-growing area. It is known for poor soil and defined weather with dry winters and rainy summers. The flat land also added the difficulty of producing coffee beans rich in flavors. Marcia Yoko joked that she believed coffee could be grown only in flat lands, not in the mountains until she was 15. However, her family, who are immigrants from Japan, managed to tame the land and turn it into a coffee plantation that produces some of the best quality coffee beans in Brazil.

For Marcia Yoko, her childhood on the farm was full of joy. She would never miss a winter holiday on the farm, which was harvest time. There was one time she and her cousins spent a total of three days on the farm to pick up the coffee fruits. Marcia Yoko thinks that the coffee plantation is part of her, but working in coffee was not part of her plan when she was young. She chose to major in law at university instead because her family is very traditional Japanese, and they do not allow women in the family business.

However, things turned around in Marcia Yoko’s last year in college. Her father got too sick for the business, and she had to assume her father’s position in the company. Initially, she started as her father’s assistant in an agricultural consulting company and worked there for two years until her father recovered. This period was the first time Marcia Yoko came into contact with and learned about coffee production, fertilization, diseases, quality, and more by visiting other farms and meeting various coffee experts. “Coffee is such an interesting, dynamic, and specific market. As much as you know the depth, you want to go further. I am the person who thinks a lot before I decide something; when I decide to work in coffee, I just go forward.” She said. And so her coffee journey officially began.

Nourished and Nourishing the Coffee Business in Her Way

Marcia Yoko considers herself lucky as she was helped a lot by the people in the coffee community when pursuing her career as a coffee specialist. She said: “I had very good mentors when I was learning about coffee in different sectors.” Of course, her family greatly influenced and inspired her about coffee. From a young age, Marcia Yoko grew up watching her father and uncle work on a coffee farm. Both of them produced coffee passionately, gradually making Marcia Yoko develop her curiosity about coffee and pushing her to learn more about it. Apart from her family members, Marcia Yoko told me that all her mentors were old agronomists who worked for the Brazilian Coffee Institute for many years. One of them is Jose Luiz Barbosa de Toledo, the top cup taster in Brazil. After meeting with Toledo, for the first time, she discovered that coffee could also have different layers of flavors. It was like opening the door to a whole new world of coffee to her.

Over the next few years, Marcia Yoko kept on tasting countless different coffees, and she became obsessed with finding out how coffee tastes different. She eventually came to understand what influences the taste of coffee. She won prizes at national cup taster competitions and was the judge for many coffee competitions in Brazil and overseas. Back then, almost no women worked and competed in the coffee field. It was hard, but Marcia Yoko never saw the obstacles. She believes all the barriers and difficulties she faced would eventually turn into opportunities that would lead her to new perspectives, and she would use them as a way to grow. “I will overcome all the difficult situations without thinking of them as difficult. Instead, I will try my best to be more professional to be someone people respect. In that case, no one can have any doubt about me.” She stated.

After years of sweat and tears, Marcia Yoko has become one of the best coffee specialists, and she is eager to give back to the community, especially her home country. “Back when I first started in the industry, my mentors taught me not only the techniques to cup and taste the coffee but also how to organize coffee samples and have a good attitude in the coffee lab with producers and buyers. None of these things are taught nowadays.” She told me in the interview. Seeing all the new people coming after specialty coffee started booming, Marcia Yoko decided it was time to contribute as an instructor for coffee newbies.

For over ten years, Marcia Yoko has continuously spread coffee knowledge in Brazil. However, she wanted more than that. Representing Brazil, Marcia Yoko hopes more people will know the potential of Brazilian coffee. Brazil has one of the most extensive coffee origins in the world. More than 20 regions have different terroirs producing coffee in the country. The country’s coffee production rep- resents a third of the world’s coffee production. However, many think that Brazil’s emphasis on quantity means a weaker quality. Marcia Yoko argued that it was not all correct. She said, “It is undeniable that we have potential in the specialty coffee industry. Meanwhile, we also have the capacity to supply all the non-specialty coffee community. We just need to find a balance between offer and demand.” To achieve this goal, she has worked as the main in- structor of Brazilian Coffee Courses in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, trying to make the Asian market understand Brazilian coffee more.

Apart from education, Marcia Yoko is also devoted to bringing the best coffee from Brazil to Asia. “Coming from a coffee producer family, I know sales are always crucial in the chain. Therefore, after years of learning about the producer part, I decided to focus on export and how I can add more value to the coffee itself and simultaneously offer the products that the market needs.” she said.

Japan was the first Asian country that Marcia Yoko chose to explore. As a Japanese descendant, she not only speaks the language fluently but also understands the culture. In the 2010s, Japan was one of the most advanced coffee markets. Marcia Yoko remembered that some of the premium and unique brand coffee names only existed in Japan then, such as Jamaica Blue Mountain, Hawaii Kona, Indonesia Mandelin, Moka Matari, and Colombia Emerald Mountain. The market had great potential, but all of Marcia Yoko’s Brazilian colleagues told her that doing business with the Japanese was very difficult. “I can see I have an opportunity in this market, considering my background.” She said. In the next few years, Marcia Yoko has been cooperating with Japanese coffee trading companies to import high-quality coffee beans from Latin America. She led the quality control for Ataka Trading Company, a Japanese trading company focusing on wholesale distribution of groceries and related products, to import Blue Mountain Coffee from Jamaica and 50 different coffee country producers. She is also the consultant responsible for quality control for all Latin American suppliers for Mi Cafeto, one of Japan’s top specialty coffee brands.

“During my years working in Asia, my effort was and still is showing the reality in producers’ way to the market, including the hard work, the volumes, as well as the political and social challenges faced, and show the people the real value of that. At the same time, I also want to open their minds and make them understand more about Brazilian coffee.” She concluded.

Besides trading and teaching, Marcia Yoko Shimosaka’s other focus in recent years is sustainable farming. Sustainable farming has become increasingly important amid all the severe climate change. Like wine, climate change also threatens the amount of land and the altitude used to grow coffee that has the optimal Arabica growing temperatures.

Nevertheless, for Marcia Yoko, sustainable farming is not a new thing at all. The Second World War and the population boom afterward taught a generation of Japanese, like Marcia Yoko’s father, the importance of innovative and sustainable agriculture and food consumption. For more than 20 years, Marcia Yoko’s father has been studying the impact of using herbicides in the soil. Her father’s agriculture consulting company focuses on combining mineral and organic fertilizations and other sustainable techniques. Marcia Yoko said she was delighted to see that all those techniques have become standard in coffee farms now.

Nourishing the Next Coffee Star

Regarding farming, exporting, and education, Marcia Yoko thinks more is needed to show the world about Brazilian coffee. As a sports lover and barista competition fan, she always wanted a Brazilian World Barista Champion. She thought that it would be the most significant contribution she could make to the Brazilian coffee community. She has always kept an eye on potential candidates who participated in the Brazilian domestic selection competition over the years, waiting for a potential champion to come up. With years of experience in the coffee industry, judging hundreds of baristas, Marcia Yoko has the instinct to detect a qualified future champion. However, she was frustrated to see most national baristas fail until she met Boram Um. Boram and his brother were sports boys when they were young, so they already had a competitive mindset. Moreover, she found that just like herself, Boram is not only satisfied with making coffee in their home country. They both aim for the world stage. Marcia Yoko still remembers when they were still discussing if they would join the competition; she sent Boram 4 questions on diet, exercise, therapy, and the goal for the competition. Boram texted her back his answer in less than 5 minutes and said with determination that he wanted to be a world champion.

The dream finally came true for both of them last year. For the first time ever, a Brazilian competitor won the World Barista Championship – Boram Um and the Brazilian team behind showed the world what Brazilian baristas can do. As the head coach for Boram Um’s team, Marcia Yoko does not shy away from happiness, but at the same time, she still keeps her humble attitude. She said: “Honestly, I do not consider myself a head coach. I think my position is more like a manager. I grew up a lot during the process, and I think this is the most important part of the competition – growing up as a person. I feel very happy about the achievement. Hard work, discipline, and good attitudes help you to achieve your goal.”

Looking back on the way to the championship, it was hard to believe how much they had overcome. For the World Barista Championship, the presentation time is only 15 minutes, but the whole preparation period takes years of practice and training repeated every day from sunrise to sunset, and endless rethinking and adjusting to achieve perfection. As soon as Boram decided to compete, Maria Yoko helped make a very tight and intense training routine. Even if it was not a competition season, they still kept on training, inserting all the physical, mental, and barista techniques skills into their normal working time.

In the first year of training for the national competition, Boram was preparing for six months in secret, which was very intense. Maria Yoko has designed some of the most challenging training for Boram. One of their training is to make Boram give a time-limited speech without seeing the timer. Another time, Marcia Yoko would modify the settings, such as hiding some tools or suddenly changing places after Boram finished his set-up, to simulate possible emergencies during a formal competition. Boram had to learn to fix them during his presentations.

Marcia Yoko believes that as a good coach, it is vital to create the best environment where baristas can perform on their own – always remember your position in the team and support and help extract the best from the barista. Moreover, respecting and focusing on baristas’ ideas is equally essential because the barista takes the stage at the end of the day. To achieve that, Marcia Yoko points out that being a good listener is key. She told me: “You have to extract the best you can for the competitor, and being a good listener helps you under- stand them better.” Marcia Yoko also mentioned the third essential point: being dynamic and proactive – always looking for inspiration, books, documentaries, and other coach experiences.

When asked how to detect a potential barista champion, Marcia Yoko emphasized the importance of personality and attitude. She thinks “to be a champion is more about responsibility, not barista skill.” You can always learn and practice your barista skills, but changing one person’s personality is hard. The barista’s attitude and energy are also crucial. It is not just about how you present on the stage but also behind the bar and with other colleagues.

For barista competitors, Marcia Yoko also gave her advice: training in basic techniques in the off-season, always being ready, and focusing on different aspects of the competition when the competition season comes. What’s more, the competitor and team mindset is the most important thing. “Be open-minded, resilient, humble, and assertive when needed.” She concluded.

Being in the industry for over 20 years, Marcia Yoko has done a lot, from farming to exporting to competing and judging, and now coaching for the world barista champion. She has also experienced and learned a lot along the way by visiting different places and people working in various aspects of the coffee industry. However, what keeps her motivated is the coffee community itself, with all the good people in it. Through the coffee connection, Marcia Yoko always feels grateful that she has a chance to contribute, whether by supplying green coffee, helping in the competition, or even sharing a cup of coffee and listening to people’s stories.

After winning the World Barista Championship, Marcia Yoko feels her journey to show the world a different perspective on Brazilian coffee has just started. For her, that is the way to keep on nourishing the coffee community in which she grew up.