[Y]ou may not know Elizabeth Chai by name, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen her work. In addition to shooting photos that have appeared on the cover of Fresh Cup and in numerous other publications, Chai has been commissioned to put together stage designs for the World Aeropress Championships, develop logos and branding for roasters, illustrate posters for barista competitions, and catalogue many of the coffee industry’s biggest events.
Chai grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, where she first made a connection to coffee as a giggling teenager with a barista crush. She’s learned a thing or two about coffee since, and has built wonderful relationships with industry members across the globe.
We asked Chai about her journey into coffee, some of her favorite projects, and what’s on the horizon for her multitude of talents.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
When did your connection with the coffee community begin?
I would say my first real introduction to the coffee experience was as a teen. I grew up in Iowa City, and our first coffee shop, The Java House, opened in 1994. My best friend Noelle and I would go to The Java House all the time and fawn over “Justin the Java House Boy,” my first barista crush. At some point we weren’t going there any more to see Justin—we were going because it had become a place we enjoyed hanging out and having deep convo time. After I graduated college, I returned to Iowa City and found myself at The Java House almost daily. That was when the coffee shop culture had seeped into me.
What was your “aha” coffee experience that got you interested in specialty coffee?
I’d have to say it was when I was living in Atlanta. Octane Coffee started brewing with V60s at their Grant Park location, and another café in Atlanta, Steady Hand Pour House, introduced the city to Chemex brewing. That’s also when I started learning what “single-origin” meant, and that different coffees tasted different. I began attending Counter Culture’s weekly Friday morning cuppings and learned so much there, including experiencing that classic “first time you cup a natural Ethiopia next to a washed Ethiopia and your head explodes and nothing is ever the same” moment.
When did art start becoming your profession?
I was pretty much born with a gift in art, but didn’t know how to practice it or use it. I was an art major my freshman year of college, but didn’t click with my professor so I switched majors to electronic media communications with a strong focus on multimedia and radio. I became the music director of our college radio station, and started booking and promoting concerts and small music festivals for the station. I would design zines and punk flyers to promote the shows. I realized designing the posters and flyers for these shows was equally important to me as the show itself.
Tell me about some of the collaborations you’ve been a part of that join coffee and design.
One of my favorites was the first project I did for Octane—this was before they hired me, it was just a freelance project. They wanted a poster printed as a gift to the staff for a Christmas/holiday party, and I had full creative freedom to surprise them. I decided to letterpress the posters as a limited-edition run of fifty, which was just barely enough for the staff. At the time, there were two main cafés on opposite sides of town: Westside and Grant Park. Each store served coffee differently—french press at Westside, and V60 at Grant Park—but they also had elements that were consistent throughout the stores. I took this idea and made a 180-degree flippable poster so the Westside baristas who received the gift could turn it upright to the Westside side, and the Grant Park baristas could turn it to the Grant Park side.
You took on a major project with La Marzocco, driving cross country with a Linea Mini in the trunk of your Mini. How did that project come to be?
It was for kicks. It came about because I had decided to move across the country in a mini camper, being pulled by a Mini Cooper, with my miniature greyhound. I woke up one morning, and said, “There should be a Linea Mini in the camper.” So I called up some friends at La Marzocco Home and they made it happen. David LaMont installed the Linea Mini in the camper just a few days before my departure, and I drove it cross country posting photos on Instagram with the hashtag #CrossCountryCamperCoffeeCrawl. Overall I made stops at thirty-four coffee shops, and brought the machine back to the La Marzocco USA headquarters in Seattle. It was tremendous fun. I’d do it again if I could.
What’s next for Liz Chai as she tackles the world of specialty coffee design?
I’ve been talking about it for years, but this is the year I will finally launch my Coffee Traveler’s Journal. It’s a handheld mini book, guiding travelers to the best coffee in the city they are visiting. I don’t want to build an app—I want something made of paper that I can hold in my hands and write in, something that will become a part of the archives of the life I lived. A memento of the coffee experiences I had. The first issues will focus on the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York or the Northeast, and Chicago or the upper Midwest.
—Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s editor.