Interview: Meet Michael Mac Donald, coffee legend and Head Judge of ASITD

Friday, 15 September, 2023

​We're so happy to share a little bit about this hugely talented human in the coffee industry. Through the years and his different roles in coffee, we have had the privilege to get to know Mike Mac Donald, now you can too. He always brings an impassioned intentionality to everything he does, including his role as Head Judge of ASITD Middle East. Here he is carefully evaluating an espresso :)

  • How did you first become interested in the coffee industry?

I started my adventure at Origin Coffee Roasting,  not actually with the intention of getting involved in the coffee industry but rather, I was simply looking for a job. This was after a 2 year Casino work stint onboard various cruise liners based out of Miami. I knew nothing about coffee at the time. In fact , I was still drinking copious amounts of instant coffee. I very quickly became obsessed with the complexity of it all and started learning as much as I could. My first love back then was a wet-hulled Sumatran lot from the Aceh province in Indonesia. As my sensory skills evolved, I found myself gravitating towards washed Central and East African coffees, particularly Rwanda and Kenya. 

  • What is your experience in roasting?

I have about 11 years or so experience in roasting. I was the Head Roaster for Origin Coffee Roasting for a number of years where I learnt a great deal about roasting and specialty coffee in general. I credit Origin as the company of my initiation into this wonderful craft ,where I started developing profiles using simple pen and paper and then transitioned to Cropster's roasting software which was a  game changer at the time. I would create profiles for over 50 different Specialty single origin coffees a year.  Near the end of my career with Origin, I became an Arabica Q- Grader, and consequently left my second family to seek an opportunity in the Green Coffee world.

Nonetheless, through this whole time I have been roasting in some form or another.

I've had experience roasting on the following roasters over the years-

US Roaster Corp, Probat, Genio, Mill City, Diedrich, Has Garanti, Toper, Aillio, Huky 

Various other lesser known production roasters and a multitide of gas and electric sample roasters.

With regards to software, I've used Cropster, Artisan, Roastime and Genio's Software.

I continued roasting mostly on sample roasters while working in the green trade, but also started consulting for clients, assisting them with roasting and sensory training, focusing on developing profiles on their setups, business models and product lines.

Q-graders are globally recognized and work across all aspects of the value chain.

The Q Grader course covers cupping protocols, olfactory and gustatory sensory skills, green and roasted grading, organic acid identification, triangulation skills, roasted sample identification, coffee processing evaluation, and general coffee value chain knowledge. These skills are invaluable in the green coffee trade. It's not really necessary to become a Q- grader if you only want to specialise in roasting and brewing though . I have however found it rather complimentary in my current situation. I find that the refined and intentional approach to sensory analysis that Q- Graders adopt helps elucidate previously misconstrued impressions.

  • Talking about everyday coffee life, what does that look like for you these days?

My current vocation is with Green Coffee Supply (GCS) and Faber Coffeesmith- two businesses owned and run by Jarrod Faber. 

The duality of my role as Head Roaster and Green Specialist has turned out to be one of the most mentally stimulating undertakings for me. A perfect fit- satisfying both my roasting and green coffee itches. 

As GCS grows, we may evolve the roastery into a Co- Roasting space as well as sensory and roasting training facility, where I would conduct all the courses/ workshops etc.

We have a 5kg Diedrich and 1kg Aillio Bullet which allows us to experiment with all the green coffees we decide to purchase. This puts us in a position to offer a high-level of expertise, service and advice to our green coffee clients.

Besides all the usual duties associated to running a roastery, I'm directly involved in green coffee sourcing and selection for GCS. I'm continuously grading, roasting and cupping to find the very best lots for the South African market.

  • Tell us about your Cup of Excellence experience? You have mentioned previously that this made quite an impact on you.

I participated in Rwandas 2012 Cup of Excellence competition, and it was indeed  a brutal initiation into serious cupping and deliberation.

The Cup of Excellence is arguably the most revered award given out for the highest quality coffees in a country. These awards come from a strict competition that selects the very best coffee produced in that country for that particular year. The pre-selection process reduces the number of entries to just over a  100 coffees ( depending on entrants) through cupping analysis performed by the selected  national cuppers of Rwanda. The pre-selected coffees are then cupped at least five different times during the competition process by an international jury. Only coffees that continuously score high enough are allowed to move forward in the competition. The final winners are awarded the prestigious Cup of Excellence® and sold to the highest bidder during an internet auction.

These are often incredible lots, and the whole experience and  process of judging for this competition really cemented my passion for the seemingly boundless possibilities in coffee.

  • Tell us about your journey with A Shot in the Dark.'s a little bit of a blur, I must admit. The good kind!

I've been a judge for the South African division of a shot in the dark for 2019, 2021, 2022, 2023.

I've also formulated all feedback for the competitors  for 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 ( Had to skip a year of judging due to Covid limitations)

I've been the Head Judge for the Middle East division for 2022 and now 2023.

I'm developing all feedback for that division as well.

It's been a humbling and  enlightening experience. Analysing upwards of 50 roasts of the same coffee roasted by different people on different roasting setups- nothing quite compares. It's fascinating to see how many ways a coffee can be expressed.

It's been a great opportunity to meet some amazing human beings along the way.

  • What was the first year tasting coffees from a different region like?

Super interesting, especially when seeing how roasters who have competed in a previous years comp handle a different origin and/or processing. This has been an illuminating reminder of how diverse our roasting culture is. Some years have been somewhat more convoluted than others. Washed African coffees have historically been easier to analyse and make sense of, for both competitors and judges ( at least in my opinion).

  • What kind of feedback can competitors expect from their submitted roasts?

Competitors will get copies of the judges score sheets as well as a synopsis of their cupping and espresso blend samples, where I'll emphasise on any negative commentary and suggest potential remedies or optimisations.

This may include commentary on suggested changes to batch size, total roast time, development time ratio, drying and maillard times, heat, fan and drum speed settings, etc. 

  • You are also a man of many talents and hobbies, please can you tell us about what you're into right now? 

I've been doing leatherwork for about 6 years now and really enjoy the craft. I've made a small business out of it since then but its taken a backseat for a little while. Archery has been a recent fascination for me as well. I started off shooting an olympic recurve ( with a sight) but I'm going to focus on barebow and traditional moving forward( no sight or any other attachments)-I like the idea of minimalism. Archery is definitely a form of moving meditation. I've also started doing Chigong recently - which is also a sort of moving meditation.

Besides that, I really enjoy long distance hiking or even just multi-day section hikes, especially where wild-camping is possible.

Before the start of my path in Green Coffee, I took a 3 month sabbatical in New Zealand with my significant other to hike the whole of the South island. This really sparked my interest in all of it.

Coffee dudes! Frederik Dreyer (Gegrond, 2021 ASITD Winner), Mike Mac Donald (Green Coffee Supply), George Robinson (Genio Roasters), Sinjon Wicks (La Marzocco ZA), Andrew Boltman (Zuka Green Coffee)

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