Serving the Under-served: Meet the Coffee Roasters Guild Vice Chair, Jen Apodaca

Serving the Under-served: Meet the Coffee Roasters Guild Vice Chair, Jen Apodaca

AAfter an inspirational and activism related trip to Southern Mexico, Jen Apodaca sought out her first steps into the coffee industry.

SUSIE KEALY draws a spotlight to one of our long-term volunteers in a series on SCA News. This month, she’s interviewed JEN APODACA, Vice Chair of the Coffee Roasters Guild (CRG).

Her first job was as a part-time production roaster in Portland, Oregon. From there, she became an incredibly well-known and driven community leader. Among many other roles tied with countless initiatives and events, including the educational grassroots collective She’s the Roaster, Jen is the Vice Chair of the CRG. “I have always wanted to work with the Guild in some capacity,” she writes. Jen also recently competed in the World Cup Taster’s Championships in Berlin, representing the United States, along with judging several different competitions across national and global stages. It is undeniable that she is one of the hardest-working and recognized mentors in coffee today.

Writing from California, Jen recalls how she initially discovered and found her footing in the coffee industry. “I had been traveling in Mexico and working with the Zapatistas.” The Zapatistas, a well-known indigenous social movement, operate a number of coffee cooperatives in the southernmost part of Mexico, still growing coffee today as one of their main sources of income. “The way they came together to create an autonomous space and empower their communities was truly inspiring. As a young activist living through the first tech bubble in the Bay Area (in San Francisco), I was desperate to find a meaningful way to create autonomy and power in my daily life.”

This connection in Mexico led Jen to another lead in her coffee journey, a man in Colorado named Kerry Apple. At the time, he was purchasing, roasting, and selling Zapatista-produced coffee in the United States. “I asked if I could work for him, but he was not interested in being an employer. Instead, he encouraged me to start my own roasting company.” These conversations with Apple led Jen to eventually move her life to the city of Portland and search for a roasting position, where she landed a part-time role as a production roaster for McMenamins Inc.

Throughout her prolific career, Jen has roasted and cupped for specialty industry pillars like Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia. She founded Mother Tongue Coffee in West Oakland, a company that practices and preaches supply chain transparency. Jen currently resides and works in Oakland, California as the director of Roasting for The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room. Yet despite being no stranger to a cupping table (or the world championship stage), the roaster’s preferences on coffee characteristics have stayed much the same. “I still gravitate to the same coffees that I have loved since the beginning, a well-balanced medium-light roast. I am adventurous and will try anything put before me on the cupping table. I drink a lot of coffee – at least 4-6 cups a day, not including quality control.”

One of her most cherished coffee memories is based on the idea of community, and of the first She’s the Roaster gathering at the Coffee Roasters Guild retreat. “More than 60 women came which is such a tremendous difference from the amount of women that I had seen at the retreat in previous years. We met at sunset and introduced ourselves and talked about our career goals. These types of meetings are so simple to execute and create lasting relationships. It was pretty magical.” She’s the Roaster began as a popular hashtag across social media, but soon transformed into a movement and scholarship program. The group’s main objective is to promote and advance self-identifying womxn and non-binary individuals to the ranks of professional coffee roasters, driving to create a more diverse and accessible coffee roasting community.

A strong sense of community and acceptance are also among the main reasons that Jen first joined the Coffee Roasters Guild, and eventually came to occupy a senior position within the group. “I remember working alone as a roaster in the beginning with little to no access to information for improvement. I knew very little about the world of specialty coffee and I was doing so much wrong. The Guild was the first place that accepted me and through the forums I was able to connect with other roasters and ask all of the questions that had been piling up on the back burner. Unlike other forums where I was interrogated to even participate, the Guild’s forum was always inviting and someone always thoughtfully responded. I work with the Guild because I want to be there for people who are just getting started.”

On her days off, which are “more rare than unicorns,” Jen hopes to spend them feeding her friends and playing with her kids. Her role as the incoming Guild chair is fast approaching, and the community leader is eager to see what the coming seasons will bring for the association. “I see more participation with leadership in SCA national chapters to create events and content that our members want… I want to connect with as many people as possible to help them get involved. Especially our brothers and sisters that are not from the US or Europe.” Jen is widely seen as a representative of support within the industry, for both her working peers and new members of the community. She has been regularly interviewed by different coffee publications for her achievements and positions across competitions, events, and businesses. Her focus for the future of the coffee roasting industry will lie along similar goals to the She’s the Roaster: lifting those in the wider community and creating a stronger global network. “2020 is a year for introductions and conversations with roasters in underserved communities. It is a year to connect membership conversations and interests on a world level.”

SUSIE KEALY is freelance communication and marketing professional based in Berlin.

The SCA was built by dedicated volunteers with a vision of an organization that promoted the values of specialty coffee and community. The contributions of SCA volunteers can be seen in the various leadership groups that support the mission of the association and in the thousands who give their time at SCA trade shows and community events every year. Please join us in thanking the many volunteers who make the work of the SCA possible!