In a rare two-part interview, Jen Apodaca shares her views on past-crop coffees, her beginnings in roasting, and how the coffee scene has evolved.
Jen Apodaca, Head Roaster for Royal Coffee‘s newest venture, The Crown, is someone you want to know. Not only is she an accomplished roaster and production leader, but she’s dynamically interesting and incredibly supportive of her colleagues. Jen offered so many wonderful insights into her beliefs on roasting and the coffee industry, that we’ve chosen to give you her entire interview in two segments. Read the first half now, where she talks about her beginnings, the struggles of running a production team, and the ugly truths of buying and roasting coffee.
Ashley Rodriguez: How did you begin your coffee career?
Jen Apodaca: I was a roaster apprentice at McMenamins Coffee in Portland, Oregon. I made $10-an-hour and worked three days a week, supplementing my income with some serving shifts at the Bagdad Theater & Pub. Dahna Maskell, the head roaster, at my interview asked me, “What is your favorite coffee?” I told her about an interesting Nicaragua peaberry, and she hired me. She said I was lucky because she was worried about working with a Gemini, but everyone else answered, “mocha,” or “I don’t drink coffee.”
AR: How did you get into roasting?
JA: My story is not too different than most. I travelled after college and worked a number of uninteresting jobs to fuel my travel habit: delivery driver, office administration, shipping and receiving clerk, warehouse manager, and some bookkeeping. I saved enough to leave the country for nine months, and two of them were spent with the Zapatistas. I was helping them build a radio station and installing the electrical, as well as lugging around cinderblocks and mixing cement by hand.
Only four men from the village could spare the time away from their farms to work on the project. At night we ate dried tortillas and weak, instant coffee with lots of sugar. I brought up a 50-pound bag of oranges and about 10 pounds of trail mix to share. Our conversations were hilariously limited since I didn’t speak Tzotzil, but we managed. Sometimes all you need is food and a fire. It was on this project that I decided to work in coffee. I wanted to buy coffee, roast it, and sell it. I wanted to come back and visit these men and their families, and watch their children grow.
AR: What is different about the coffee scene today than when you began?
JA: It is so easy to start roasting today. Information is everywhere, and with the rise of co-roasting spaces, I see a ton of new businesses on the horizon. I love it! I always thought that roasted coffee should be like baked bread, with a roaster in every community. More independent business owners equals more successful communities. The responsibility of a business owner is huge. One bad decision can lead to employees losing their incomes, and the more you employ, the more people you can impoverish. So I am really enjoying the growth in small coffee-roasting businesses at the moment, and I hope the trend continues.
AR: You’re a roaster now, but you also have a ton of experience in production. What are the struggles of managing the production side of coffee?
JA: Project management is hard. Lots of people are very passionate about coffee, and they have lots of ideas how they can help or influence the industry. I also love coffee, but what I really love is people who are passionate about moving that green through the production floor and shipping out orders. Getting a large volume of coffee out the door means dealing with many people that own different steps in the process. Purchasing, marketing, digital, logistics, roasters, quality control, retail, trainers, wholesale—we talk a lot about all of the hands that touch coffee in the supply chain. Well, there are just as many in a large roasting company, but the turnaround needs to happen in a matter of weeks. If one thing goes amiss and a step is delayed, a coffee can get derailed.
A good project manager outlines expectations clearly, holds people accountable, has a good sense of the challenges each department faces and always chooses the best decision for the team over their own ego. Let’s just say cooperation is hard work and a lack of cooperation amongst team members can lead to low morale and a lack of efficiency. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable transitioning from roasting to management. I had always worked with my hands and talking all day does not always produce tactile results. You have to gauge your success differently.
AR: What’s your job now?
JA: I am the director of roasting for Royal Coffee’s newest addition, The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room, based in Oakland, California. I spend a lot of my time developing roast curves for our new Crown Jewel program.
AR: You wrote an article about past-crop coffees, and I’m interested in people talking about real issues in coffee that might not be so pleasant. What other issues do you want the industry to focus more on and talk about?
JA: Roasting out off flavors in coffee is one. I hope to write more underbelly-exposing articles. Stuff happens, and you will have coffee that does not meet your expectations. Maybe your first direct trade coffee gets tainted with diesel because it wasn’t transported well. You bought it and now it is your problem—what do you do with it? These things happen to every roaster.
Tomorrow, we’ll have part two of our interview with Jen Apodaca. Stay tuned!