Trish Rothgeb, co-founder of Wrecking Ball Coffee and credentialed Q instructor (among other things), started into coffee just like many others in the industry – through pure necessity.
“I went to college at San Jose State, south of San Francisco, going to school for art. I got a degree in painting and drawing and then I got a job as a barista – as you do.”
At one point in her barista career, she decided that she wanted to learn to roast, mostly out of curiosity, but also because she wanted more flexibility in her days. As she described, “I still say that was the best time of my life because I was so young, and everything was wonderful – in the morning I would ride my bike over to the roastery, work roasting, get on my bike and ride out to an elementary school to teach a bunch of kids art, then by 3pm I’d be in my studio and be painting all night. It was pure heaven.”
It wasn’t until Trish moved to Norway in 2000 and began to work with Robert Thoreson at Mocca that coffee really struck a chord with her, "My boyfriend was Norwegian and we decided to get married, but he wanted to move home - so we moved to Norway and that's when I decided that I was a coffee person, because it took over my life and became infinitely more interesting than art to me. And it's stayed really interesting my whole life, it kind of hasn't let me down at all - it's a different expression to art, but it's same in that I like making things."
At Mocca, Trish made the conscious decision to take a different approach than other roasters, "I started roasting for Robert, and told him that I wanted to roast everything a little bit lighter - so I started roasting lighter and all the Norwegian guys were a little bit weirded out by it. No one else had done a small roaster like that for maybe fifty years in Oslo – once upon a time you’d have a general store with a roasting company and roasting machine in it and it was a normal thing, but not in modern times.”
While in Norway, Trish was headhunted by Taylor Maid Farms and made the move back to California before moving onto work at Zoka in Seattle. When, post-divorce, she was living in Seattle, she became an item with longtime friend Nick Cho, eventually moving to the East Coast together to start up Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters (since then, they have subsequently relocated to San Francisco). As with any small business, it’s been something of a struggle, and due to a number of reasons, Wrecking Ball Coffee has been a long, hard, labour of love so far, as Trish summed up, “We’ve come not only from nothing with this business, but below nothing, so we’ve needed so much time to make up our stride.”
Throughout her illustrious & diverse career, Trish has also been closely involved in the development and execution of the Q Grade program, an internationally recognised coffee professional certification.
The formative stages of the Q Grader program all began a little over ten years age, when the Specialty Coffee Association of America [SCAA] developed a system for grading specialty coffee, alongside the Coffee Quality Institute [CQI] – originally a charitable trust of the SCAA.
“CQI did things that SCAA couldn't do under their mission statement, like go into producing areas. So SCAA created all the standards, like the cupping form and the grading and everything - this was before they had a very active education program of their own - CQI took it and created something called Q.”
Trish’s involvement with the Q was brought about due to her participation with the Roasters Guild, “I was elected as part of the executive council at the time – and we were the first batch of people who went through the Q for guinea pig testing in 2003. I took a lot of tests, then they changed a bunch of them but it was really interesting so I stayed in and got my Q about two years later. Q was originally just supposed to be only for producing countries, not for anyone else, to help connect them with the market for their quality coffee. I was the first woman in the United States to get Q, and only the 7th person, but before that there were people in Colombia and Japan... then I started using it more when there was an opportunity to become an instructor.”
Over the last twenty-four years that Trish has been in the business roasting, developing, and teaching, she believes that a lot has changed, “So much that it’s unrecognizable. I feel like I straddle two different generations – my entrance to coffee was learning to roast everything black, and we used ok quality but we didn’t really do a ton of quality control before we bought green coffee… we were a mess on the coffee bar, and it was just not that great, but that’s because people didn’t really know very much. Then there was the whole revolution in Seattle when David Schomer starting doing all that stuff across the bar that was different.”
“So I’m from that older generation, but I know how to speak new stuff too, so I understand where the gaps are - the mentors who are supposed to be mentors aren’t really stepping up to those obligations, then the young ones don’t really trust the older people, so they tune them out. What I wish could happen is that there would be more communication and more openness.”
“I just think that the younger guys need to be a little bit more open to some of the stuff that’s already been written down – don’t immediately reject it just because it came thirty years before you. It kind of falls into that category where you need to learn all the rules before you go ahead and break them because that stuff does exist for a reason and it has the potential to help a little bit – you just need to finesse it.”
As a prominent woman in the largely male-dominated specialty coffee industry, Trish has had a couple of barriers to her progress, but believes that it’s important to maintain a healthy perspective of those experiences, as she explains, “I think that obstacles that I’ve found are the same that other professions would have for women. Females in the consuming coffee industry don’t have the problems that women in, say, Ethiopia have. They can do all the work on the farm, but it’s still owned by their husband – he can drink all day while they’re doing everything, but they still don’t own the farm.”
“That’s the real situation with women in coffee, and that’s why we as women in a consuming country – where we have more of a power position – have to show up, we have to travel, we have to be examples and say that ‘yes, I am the buyer for my company’. You don’t have to be anything other than yourself, but you do have to show up and mentor younger people.”
When you discuss gender as an issue in any professional industry, it can be a controversial topic - broaching the differences and issues can often come across as ‘man-bashing’ if the tone isn’t carefully considered. In this, Trish believes that the discussion needn’t be emotional or accusatory, but more about the facts.
“Sometimes we kind of have to point out that if the money goes to the women in a farming nation, it goes right back to the farm or to the community – whereas if you gave the money to the guy it can somehow evaporate into nothing, and it doesn't feed the community. There are studies upon studies to prove it, and I'm sorry, but that's just how it is, I didn't make that up to offend anybody, and it's certainly not an indictment against the men we know..."
“I was at this big meeting about UC Davis (because they want to do a coffee program akin to their wine program), and one person who was a student there who worked on greening up and using technology to make things sustainable asked a very simple question - about how the discarded pulp from coffee processing and if it could possibly be used to generate methane gas. So the guy who was at the podium at the time said ‘oh, we tried that, but what’s happening is that the kind of methane gas is not enough to fuel the parabolic dryers or any of the machines at the mill’, so end of story, right? But that methane gas also has the potential to go straight into the cooking stoves of all the women in the community - just because it didn’t fit into this mold of where most men’s minds would go, you can’t just stop the conversation and say that it won’t work. It may not work for business, or commerce, or production, but guess what, that small amount of methane gas means that the community can cook on their stoves to regularly make hot meals, and make all kinds of other things.”
Having a diverse mix of opinionated, educated people in the wider specialty coffee has benefits that reach far further than equal opportunity for men and women alike – the positive influence has the potential to reach all the way to farm level.
For Trish, it’s important that women take the time to speak up to be heard, as it can have an effect far greater than that one person, “You can build things, but if you’re quiet about it then it doesn’t help people – that’s what I mean, if you show up then there’s a higher chance that that conversation will happen.”
With the progress the industry has made over the last twenty to thirty years, it’s now at an interesting crossroads, with many issues affecting the supply chain and both the producing and consuming nations; it’s a time in which difficult conversations need to be had, especially if we want to make specialty coffee a long-term sustainable industry, as Trish concisely puts, “We have to look at sustainability, gender issues, climate change, and all that stuff because now it’s going to be so much more important – and where you could ignore it in the past, you can’t now because it affects the supply chain pretty devastatingly.”
All photography and articles © Eileen P Kenny