Like many typical college students, Alex Bernson ’11 really loves coffee. Yet it takes a very special kind of love of coffee to center a profession around it. Bernson, who is perhaps best known at Wesleyan as the student who founded Espwesso in 2010, graduated with a degree in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (FGSS) with a focus in Urban Sociology, writing his senior thesis on the role of cafés in urban society. Since then, he has used this knowledge as a springboard for a career that lets him share his appreciation for cafés as social hubs as well as constantly keep a finger on the pulse of coffee trends and culture. A Seattle native, Bernson now resides in Portland, Oregon, where he serves as the Assistant Editor of Sprudge.com, an online publication covering all things coffee.
“I got hooked on the coffee bug growing up in Seattle,” Bernson said. “In high school, I would do my homework in cafés and I happened to be doing homework at some of the best cafés in the world at that time.”
Bernson’s favorite cafe, Espresso Vivace, was not only where his love of cafés started, but also where he landed his first café job during the summer before his freshman year of college. For Bernson, it was a dream come true.
“Working at Espresso Vivace gave me a strong grounding in the magic that can come from cafés and from serving people coffee,” he said. “Working there, I got an amazing introduction both into how to make coffee and how to serve people coffee. That was really very foundational for me and one of the things that inspired me in my thesis work on the social world of cafés, and has definitely continued to inspire my perspective on coffee and the importance of service going forward.”
Before coming to Wesleyan, Bernson spent two years at Boston University, where he continued to work at cafés. However, feeling unfulfilled by his education, Bernson left BU and one year later, came to Wesleyan. It was here, with its open and flexible curriculum, that Bernson felt like he could channel his passion for coffee.
“At BU, I was very unhappy with my education because I didn’t feel like it was getting me anything and I wasn’t studying what I cared about,” Bernson said. “I was really happy at Wesleyan to be able to literally study the thing that I wanted to do and cared most about, which was cafés and looking at cafés from all sorts of sociological standpoints.”
Bernson soon discovered, however, that the Univeristy was woefully lacking in social spaces on campus.
“I think Usdan is a crime against architecture and so it was really important to me to create a space at Wesleyan that not only served good coffee, but was a place were students could come together and hang out and want to spend time,” Bernson said.
This need for a communal space, combined with Bernson’s longtime goal to open his own coffee shop, bred Espwesso.
Bernson cited the abundant opportunity available to students at Wesleyan as the thing that made his dream a reality.
“I wanted to open a café, so I was able to open a café with other people’s money,” he said. “Through some alumni donations and WSA funding, I was able to practice opening a café by opening a café.”
The experience of opening Espwesso gave Bernson an invaluable experience in café management, which would later be a huge part of his career.
“I had worked in a lot of cafés, but I had never managed a café before starting Espwesso,” he said. “It was an incredible learning process that I might have done differently had I known things, but I learned a lot of things by doing them. I think [the current students] are doing a great job of updating it and growing it with student demand.”
That was all in 2010. Now, four years later, Bernson occasionally comes
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back to campus to spend time in Espwesso and train new baristas. He is proud that the café remains entirely student-run.
“I’m really pretty happy with what Espwesso is and how Espwesso is because it has all sorts of ridiculous constraints on it,” he said. “The space is tiny, it was not designed to put a café in it, it has a complicated relationship to the school itself, and I think within that, it has managed to succeed really well.”
Bernson’s senior honors thesis, which he described as “a very Wesleyan situation,” was entitled “The Social Space of The Café: How Service and Physical Design Condition Social Performances.” In this work, he explained how a café functions as a social space and the importance of the café layout in fostering relationships between servers and customers.
In many ways, this thesis provided a foundation for Bernson’s career in ways he could not have imagined. Since graduating, Bernson has delivered several talks that expand upon his thesis. He developed a course for Joe Coffee in New York on the history of cafés (based entirely on the first chapter of his thesis) and delivered talks at the 2013 Nordic Barista Cup in Oslo and, most recently, at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Symposium.
Currently, Bernson invests most of his time writing and editing at Sprudge. After graduating, Bernson managed Sweetleaf Cafe in New York while also freelancing for Sprudge, writing about the New York coffee scene, which has recently experienced spectacular growth. When he was offered a full-time job writing for Sprudge in Portland, he seized the opportunity.
“I feel really lucky to have gotten to where I am at the pace I’ve gotten there,” he said. “That was a combination of both a lot of planning on my part…[and] also a whole bunch of really lucky happenstance and being in the right place at the right time and acting on the opportunities that were given to me. I think that it’s important to both have goals and plans but also be open to radical shifts.”
Bernson has found the transition from café management to coffee-based media production both challenging and rewarding.
“Part of that challenge was I didn’t set out to go into media,” he said. “I think with a lot of people going into a career, there’s a whole process to it and steps you follow…With this, I just jumped laterally into it and went from managing to writing…I’m still writing about coffee, but going from managing a high-end café to writing and editing for the Internet full-time is a wildly different skill set. It made me really glad I took that Creative Nonfiction course at Wesleyan!”
One of the most rewarding aspects of Bernson’s job is traveling.
“I do between three and five months a year traveling all over the world,” he said. “Getting to visit Amsterdam, visiting Berlin, visiting Melbourne, going down to El Salvador, going to Ecuador, and seeing coffee being grown has really been an unbelievable privilege for me. It has also been really great because coffee is such a global industry, so I have this network of friends all over the world…[You] feel like you’re connected to this global network of passionate people, so that’s been really rewarding to me.”
When asked if opening his own café was still on the horizon, Bernson acknowledged that it remains an ultimate goal.
“It’s definitely on the to-do list, but Sprudge is where I’m at right now and it’s definitely a more-than-full time commitment,” he said. “It’s a really cool opportunity because specialty coffee is experiencing explosive growth globally now. We are trying to cover that all over the world and bring all that news to a really engaged, really curious audience of coffee lovers.”
Bernson emphasized the importance of a coffee shop being original.
“I think the biggest mistake I see coffee shops make is trying to be something to everyone,” he said. “You want to have a wide range of clientele, but you have to be confident in what you’re doing and confident in offering a vision of coffee…and you have to be confident in knowing that if people don’t like what you’re doing, they can go to a different café. You don’t need to make every person that comes through the door happy; you just need to make enough of them really, really happy. I think that one of the reasons that Espwesso was so successful is that people love it because it is its own thing and it has its own vibe.”
This need for a coffee shop to carve out a special niche for itself becomes all the more important in a time where opening an independent café can be a financial gamble.
“It’s a really exciting time to be getting into the coffee business I think, but it’s certainly a challenging business to get into and it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” he said. “You have to do it because you love it.”
Bernson, who to this day values the opportunities offered to him while at Wesleyan, gave The Argus some words of wisdom for current students.
“Get the absolute most you can out of the Wesleyan opportunity because there’s an unbelievably large amount of things you can do at Wesleyan,” he said. “Don’t just look at what you’re doing at school as something to do, look at it as something to get you somewhere because almost all of what you’re doing can be turned towards a career aspiration. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a career aspiration. I think sometimes people get a little weirded out by that, but if you want to succeed in whatever it is that you’re doing, you need to be kicking ass at it and have no shame about it. Really commit yourself to doing it.”