Takeaways

1

After fourteen years working for some of the biggest names in coffee, including Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle, Jen Apodaca founded her roasting company, Mother Tongue Coffee, in 2019.

2

Jen’s mission is to create a company where every person, across the entire value chain, is paid fairly for their work and for their products.

3

When Jen realized how few women roasters were being spotlighted, she started the #ShestheRoaster campaign to help celebrate and empower women to pursue coffee roasting.

Jen Apodaca

Founder, Owner, and Head Coffee Roaster, Mother Tongue Coffee

Expertise: roasting, Q-grader, café owner, entrepreneurship, social accountability

Coffee insight: Contrary to internet lore, dark roast coffee does not have less caffeine than light roasts. Water, not head, releases caffeine from coffee, so the caffeine content in your final cup is determined by your brewing method, not your roast.

Coffee Fun fact: Jen’s life motto is “Fueled by Spite”—check out the video for her tattoo commemorating it! She explains, “People tell me I can’t do something, it just makes me want to do it more.”

Jen’s Coffee Origin Story

Jen moved from the Bay Area to Portland in 2004 with the goal of starting her own roasting company, but she ran up against numerous barriers—the secrecy around roasting recipes and tips, the difficulty of finding a roaster to rent, and the costs of starting a roasting business.

So she applied for a job with McMenamins—an internal posting for a roaster assistant. And to her surprise, she landed the gig. She says the entire interview may have come down to one question. When the head of the roasting department asked Jen to name her favorite coffee, she said a Nicaraguan Peabody. Jen says that was what sealed the deal: “I guess everyone else … said ‘mocha’ or ‘I don’t drink coffee.’”

Jen’s Current Role

Fourteen years after Jen first set out to start her own roasting business, she founded Mother Tongue Coffee, back where she started in the Bay Area. Today she’s the owner and head roaster for Mother Tongue, and just last year she added “café owner” to her resume when she opened her Mother Tongue Café & Bar in North Oakland. Jen was the 2019 US Tasters Cup Champion, and in 2022, she won second place in the Roasters Championship.

What Fuels Jen’s Work

Jen believes the strength of her company and her brand comes from the trust she’s engendered—with her suppliers, her employees, and her customers. One of her highest priorities is ensuring that people are paid fairly for their work and their products across the entire value chain. “This company is a giant experiment,” she explains. “Can a coffee company exist without profiting off someone else’s back?” Jen’s goal is to grow her business while making sure that everyone from her suppliers to her baristas are supported and compensated fairly.

In fact, her commitment to being a business owner others can trust is at the heart of the name she chose for her company—Mother Tongue. “A mother should be someone who stewards you, who takes care of you, who guides you to the correct things,” Jen says. “[The] tongue is how we taste everything, how we enjoy food, drinks, everything. I think [the name] signifies trust that we will always give you delicious things.”

What Jen Wants Coffee Drinkers to Know

Jen says that the beauty of our increasingly global culture is that more people in the coffee world—including consumers—can now connect directly with producers. That means producers have a greater platform to share what they do and what they need to sustain their businesses. And Jen points out that “all of them will tell you that they need $3 a pound minimum to just break even.” For Jen, understanding the economic realities of the coffee industry can help coffee drinkers better understand the price of their coffee beans.

Jen says when she’s working with producers and exporters, she’s not interested in groups that focus on charitable projects; she wants to know that they’re paying workers fairly, rather than gatekeeping funds to fuel initiatives that may not even be what workers need. “Just give them the money,” Jen says.

How Jen Cultivates Community through Coffee

Jen is the original organizer behind #ShestheRoaster, which promotes, supports, and inspires women roasters. Jens says the idea for the hashtag campaign came six years ago when she was part of the competitions committee for the Roasters Guild. “They called all the contestants on the stage, so there’s 40 roasters up there, not a single woman, not one,” Jen recalls.

She realized that many of the incredibly talented women roasters she knew felt they didn’t have the expertise to enter competitions, in spite of their years of experience and deep knowledge. “So I wanted to do a hashtag campaign that highlighted the fact that not only do women roast coffee, they’re already roasting your coffee and probably some of your favorite roasting companies,” she explains.

She knew that many women would feel uncomfortable promoting themselves, so instead, she focused on having women roasters champion one another. “We did the first hashtag [as] us doing pictures of some of our friends that were roasters and then writing a little story about them, about how badass they are and who they work for and how amazing they are,” she says. Over time, as the movement grew, they started to offer scholarships, supporting more women having access to the industry.

Learn more about how Jen’s #ShestheRoaster movement continues to thrive and support women with scholarships and mentorship from the current managing director, Baylee Engberg.

Where You Can Find Jen

Website: https://mothertongue.coffee/

Mother Tongue Coffee Instagram: @mother.tongue.coffee

Mother Tongue Café & Bar: @mothertongue.cafebar

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