Barista Profile: Hadassah Wilson

Nine Bars

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So often personal and barista journeys entwine. For Hadassah Wilson, her tortuous path to coming out as gay in one of the most culturally conservative pockets of the Northeast (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) can be measured by her barista jobs, first at Prince Street Café in Lancaster, then at a Philadelphia café for a year, and then back in Lancaster at Square One Coffee.

Growing up in a heavily Amish and Mennonite community, Wilson battled her feelings of attraction to women from an early age. “I truly loathed myself for it,” she says. It wasn’t until her first barista job that she fell for a woman—kicking, screaming, and full of shame. The relationship had no future, but it forced Wilson, an avid Christian and church worship leader, to re-examine the way she looked at the world. After many years of repressing her orientation, she was looking herself in the face, and she didn’t like what she saw. She moved to Philadelphia.

The coffee-job she found there brought her first experience with coffee as a stand-alone drink when she went to Blue Bottle’s training facility in Brooklyn. “That was the first time I realized what coffee could be: it definitely kick started my love affair with balance, sweetness, and acidity in espresso,” she says. There was still a fair amount of mystique to the whole concept, she says, but a fascination was birthed and she never looked back.

Hadassah Wilson at her machine. Above, competing at the Big Eastern barista competition. (Photos: Courtesy Hadassah Wilson.)
Hadassah Wilson at her machine. Above, competing at the Big Eastern barista competition. (Photos: Courtesy Hadassah Wilson.)

As she began to turn coffee into a career, Wilson decided to return to Lancaster and confront the people and ideas that were causing her so much hurt, seeking healing and renewed relationships—and a few personal goals, one of which was to date a man and “never be with a woman again.” If those seem contradictory, it simply reflects the place Wilson was in on her journey.

Fortuitously, Josh and Jess Steffy happily hired Wilson and she came on staff with Square One Coffee at the beginning of 2012. Square One is a rapidly growing specialty coffee company that focuses on the people they have the privilege of reaching through coffee. “We believe coffee is driven by relationships,” says Wilson, “and we see that you can’t have empathy for someone you don’t know or can’t relate to. We want to take care of and value each person along the chain, from farmer to consumer.”

Wilson became one of the prime recipients of this openhearted approach. Wilson’s family had begun to fall apart and she was slowly coming to terms with her orientation. Through it all, the entire company embraced Wilson and journeyed with her. The experience has been a powerful bond not just for their relationships; it’s formed them as a team into a dynamic business and community.

This focus on compassion has unexpected side effects, like the shop being embraced by the LGBT community in Lancaster. Square One’s now opened a second location in a part of Philadelphia known as the Gayborhood. “We want to make sure each person is taken care of and valued—embracing who they feel they are, whatever that looks like,” says Wilson.

Outside of work, Wilson loves drinking craft beer—she says she firmly believes she’s helped her palate develop for coffee by “drinking fancy beers” with her partner, who is co-owner of a local coffeehouse, Chestnut Hill. As a barista competitor she’s gaining a strong reputation, making it to the Big Eastern national semi-finals in 2014. At Square One she’s now the director of training and quality control, a job that has her travel frequently to train and perform quality control measures for its fifty-shops-and-growing base of wholesale clients.

Her personal and coffee journeys have just begun, and she promises staying power in an industry about which she says, “I have seen beautiful things in the coffee community.”

Emily McIntyre is a regular contributor to Fresh Cup.