A Tale of Two Teachers: Stevo Kuhn and Joseph Matheatau

Thursday, 20 July, 2023

Stevo Kuhn on his experience training blind barista, Joseph Matheatau, and how he turned it into a barista competition set that shook the room.

Interview by Katie Burnett

I asked Stevo Kuhn to share a bit about his life in coffee and his experience training blind barista, Joseph Matheatau with me. I asked him to tell us about Joseph, the kinds of challenges he had to overcome as he committed to the completion of his SCA intermediate barista qualification. Here's what he had to say about this pivotal experience in his coffee journey.

I was a primary school teacher for almost 4 years, having studied a Bachelor of Education, and at this point of my life I was brewing on a moka pot and making pour overs at home. I quickly realised that there was more to coffee than just chucking water over ground coffee. What a rabbit hole this realisation has led me down. 

I fell into a major depressive state and after hospitalisation, quitting my job with no clear plan and a transformative weekend of café hopping in Johannesburg; I decided I had to be part of the coffee industry. It was a rocky start being a coffee dude in a city where things take time to change. I co-owned a small café where I started learning more about customer service, culture and coffee. I immediately started running barista courses, I was so aware that people were hungry for more and had no guidance. In 2016, I officially launched Urban Brew. The goal was always going to be education. Things really started taking off in 2018 as I started to do work with larger corporations as a trainer and consultant. 

I have wanted to compete in barista competitions for as long as I can remember, the idea of measuring myself up against others in my shoes was really intriguing. I started finding success, which was a shocker for me: a Bloem bra who wasn't coming from a big company with a lineage of comp legends. In the 2020 Nationals I finished 2nd, winning best espresso and technical. I then competed on the world stage at the 2021 World Barista Champs in Milan, Italy. 

It was actually at a coffee event that I met Joseph. I found myself working alongside two baristas with hearing impediments and Joseph, who is blind, as they communicated with each other and found their way around a hot espresso machine. What a day!

A few years later, Innovation for the Blind in Worcester reached out to hear if I would be interested in taking Joseph on as a student. I knew Joseph, and I was keen. Joseph is one of the most inspiring people I have ever come across. My first challenge was to adjust my teaching language and standard examples to something that he would be able to relate to, we managed to quickly come to a middle ground where we were both comfortable. Joseph would use phrases like "it's nice to see you, Stevo", his sense of humour is just something else!

I believe that one needs to be aware of their shortcomings, but not emphasise them. So, I didn't want to focus on sight, but rather work with the other senses and heighten them. I would not be willing to ease up on quality of training and the process involved, and Joseph wouldn't have it any other way - surprise. He immediately took to using scales and a proper workflow. We approached it in a very systematic way, we literally counted the steps, mapped out the layout of the grinder, the rest of the workflow and operated like we were on a competition set. 

Joseph makes use of a Bluetooth scale to measure the dose and yield of the coffee. In this way, he doesn’t have to rely on seeing the measurements, but rather, the lady tells him how much the dose is in a lovely British accent. The saying goes that where you lose a sense, the others will inevitably become heightened. I expected an incredible ability to taste, but it turned out that his hearing was the most sensitive. He could tell you whether you had water or milk in a pitcher when you steamed it just by the sounds that the different-density liquids make. Although, I am happy to say that we worked together towards a very solid level of tasting to help him in his sensory awareness and evaluation of coffee. 

There is absolutely nothing in Joseph that didn’t shout of incredible character. His uncompromising drive to grow and learn, to make a difference, to be the difference, to step up and be counted. Man! I remember moments during our breaks where I had the opportunity to share some extra treats with him. We would share cups of cascara tea that I got my hands on while I was in Kenya. We would talk about life, the senses and the sense of purpose we both felt when we spent time together. 

The way in which Joseph was so invested in his growth was truly inspiring. I remember the first time I did SCA Intermediate with him and he missed out by a few points. The failure didn't crush Joseph, and after a few months, I was back. We were both set on making sure he crushed it. During the last section of the assessment, you are required to prepare 4 high-quality drinks under a time limit of 6 minutes. When he poured the final cup and called time, I paused to assess the quality of the drinks. I shared the time with Joseph, he felt the texture and level of the cup with his lips and we both burst into tears. Tears of accomplishment and not tears of defeat.  This is a moment I will never forget, he strikingly exhibited what it meant to push through hardship and self-doubt.

My interactions with Joseph remind me to live with an open hand and to share my story authentically, because it could be encouraging to the next person. One of my favourite stories about Joseph is when he learnt how to ride a bicycle: he would fall onto the gravel, throwing his bike in defeat. Yet, he would come back after a few hours and do it again. Never stopping, never ceasing and never giving up. For me, Joseph's story is about resilience, transcendence and inspiration.

Joseph and I continue to work together, he now runs his own barista courses for the visually impaired. Sharing what he has learnt with the community around him and continuing to pass the baton. We've each taught each other and I look back fondly on drinking cascara tea with Joseph.

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