After graduating high school in Beijing, Bonnie Li took a gap year to figure out what she wanted next. She became a barista at a local Starbucks, thinking it would help to get some experience working with people.
Ten years later, she’s a master coffee roaster, the only woman to hold that title at Starbucks globally, the only company where she’s ever worked. She oversees roasting operations at the Shanghai Starbucks Reserve Roastery, and will help lead coffee and roasting training at the new Starbucks China Coffee Innovation Park.
“I am very grateful that I have had this opportunity to become a roaster and a master roaster,” she says. “I just want to say: Don’t care about others’ opinions. If you want it, you got to do it.”
Li describes the best elements of her job as a combination of play, science and technical expertise: how she can help a green coffee bean transform into something new – surprising tastes of strawberry, hazelnuts or rosemary; how each batch requires its own calculation of heat, air flow and timing; and how that changes from coffee to coffee, depending on the unique location on Earth it came from.
She loves the machinery too. She operates a Probat Neptune 500 coffee roaster now, but got her start with a hand-roasting pan in her kitchen, inspired by a friend who experimented at home with something similar and a store manager who always brought back interesting coffees from her travels.
“After a certain point, you play with coffee, you play with the brewing equipment, you kind of naturally think about what else impacts the coffee flavors, and I thought about roasting,” she remembers. “I started roasting at home, and I loved to bring those coffees to my partners (employees) to see what they think.
“Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. I still remember the first batch of coffee, I roasted it like charcoal.”
Li’s career path became clear as her passion for coffee grew. She became a certified coffee master, won a national coffee pour-over competition and represented Starbucks as a district coffee ambassador, sharing her passion for coffee with inquisitive customers coming from a tea-first culture.
“I’m very glad I’ve found something I feel passionate about. I’m very excited about it.”
When she learned about the Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, the desire to work in “this kind of coffee pantheon … seized my heart,” she says. Naturally, when the Shanghai team had an opening for a roaster position, she was ready. Since then, she and her team have roasted more than 150 different Reserve coffees, among the most unique in the world.
In 2021, she was promoted to master roaster, one of just 11 people to hold that title at Starbucks – high-level leaders, teachers and problem solvers who not only understand the art and science of making coffee but are also charged with trying to improve the process.
“I haven’t really thought about my next goals, but I Iove my journey so far,” Li says. “I’m very glad I’ve found something I feel passionate about. I’m very excited about it.”