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16 Jan 2020 | Sarah

Q-Grading and the Origins of Third Wave: An Interview with Trish Rothgeb

Before there was third wave coffee, there was Trish Rothgeb.

Nearly 20 years ago, Trish wrote a brief article surmising changes in the coffee scene where she saw it in Norway, and termed it as a third wave in coffee.

Trish teaching Q Calibration at Bettr Barista.

For those unfamiliar with the term “third wave”, it refers to the industry shift towards specialty coffee. The first wave was mass produced, ground coffee like Folger’s that began appearing as a household item in the 1950s. The second wave of coffee was the rise of multinational chains, like Starbucks or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Specialty coffee, which focuses more on quality, brewing technique, and the intricacies of coffee, is what we’re experiencing in the third wave.

Trish has since helped shape the world of third wave coffee as a roaster, trainer, and Q-Grader. Bettr Barista Coffee Academy is the only place where she now chooses to teach Q-grading, apart from her own coffee company in San Francisco, where her coffee journey began.

How did you chance upon coffee and make a career out of it?

Trish: "When I was a young person in college, I got a job as a barista. I was going to art school. I was in coffee the whole time as a barista or managing a café, just south of San Francisco where I grew up. At one point I learned how to roast coffee because I could make my own hours. I kept working in coffee and teaching art at the same time. Then I fell in love, married a Norwegian, and moved to Norway with him.

So were you also the mastermind behind Nordic roasting there?

Trish: When I got to Norway in 1999, everyone was roasting really dark. All specialty coffee was like Starbucks - really dark. That’s what specialty was. I met Robert William there who was the first World Champion Barista in 2000. He opened a cafe and I asked: Hi, can I roast for you? You don’t know to do this and I do. So he said ok. All my roasts were medium/medium-light. I used a lot more Latin American and African coffees because Robert and I liked them.

How did people react to those new roasts?

Trish: They were very skeptical. Some of them would come around and harass me: You American, showing up here with your ideas! So I asked Robert - do you really want to do this? He said, if I like it and you like it, then other people will too. We started getting baristas and people from other cafes coming in on their off-days. The Italian embassy was nearby the café, so the Italians would come through and drink espresso and tell me: this is not Italian espresso! And I said: that’s okay, because I’m an American living in Norway and this is what I make. They would say, “This is not espresso - it’s very good coffee, but it’s not espresso.”

Whatever you want to call it, they came back and were drinking it. Some people were upset, but then people starting roasting light. I had some apprentices I taught to roast and they started their own companies. Everything started being light roasted after that.

Q Grading includes identifying and analysing green coffee for quality before embarking on roasting.

Coining third wave coffee; I want to know about the process behind it. What gave you the feeling it was going to be a new wave? How did people react and how did it catch on?

Trish: When I wrote a little article about this, I was moving back to the US. I wrote for a small newsletter for the Roaster’s Guild. It wasn’t like everyone read it. Things weren’t online like today. You had to find it. Then Barista Magazine had me write something about it 3 years later, saying: Why don’t you write about 3rd wave in its 3rd year?

Then people started talking about it much more. But it still wasn’t until about 3 to 6 years after that initial article that people started using that term. What I didn’t predict was that people outside the industry would use the term. I never expected it would get through to the mainstream.

In the class here on the first day, one of the students mentioned third wave. I have no idea if he knows what I wrote. I can go into a new café, meet the barista, and they don’t know who I am. Sometimes the barista will say: Do you know this is a third wave coffee company?

I ask them what that means, because I want to know what they think it means, and how they articulate it. They talk about how much they care about coffee. The barista tells me about the different flavours that specialty coffee has and the things their café does to make the experience special. They talk about all the producers and the places of origin. This is all the information that when I started in coffee, I dreamed that someday baristas would have, and be happy to tell it to customers. What we all hoped back then would come true has come true in a lot of places.

How does it feel that something that started out as a seed 20 years ago is now totally mainstream?

Trish: I’m amazed that it’s mainstream. You can read about it in the New York Times and there’s a Wikipedia page out there with my name on it. People will ask me in conversation if I know what that means. I’m like - yeah, I know what that means!

But I remind people I didn’t create anything, I didn’t make anything happen. I just saw things that everyone else was seeing. I know they were seeing it because they were able to adopt the term so easily. If it didn’t have any longevity it would have died long ago. I just put a name to it. Early on, when people would ask me to write an article or give an opinion, others around me would say: No, third wave doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing. I would say okay, let’s see. I wasn’t offended. But why are you insisting on something you don’t even know yet? When I wrote the first article I was just writing what I think might happen.

Trish in the red room for sensory training with students at Bettr Barista.

I’ve heard a few whispers of fourth wave. What do you think that could or should be?

Trish: It’s not for me to name all the waves. For me, the indicator of a wave is if there’s a major shift in the way consumers engage with coffee. I think we’re still in the third wave and I don’t know what the major indicator is next.

There are a lot of things we didn’t accomplish in the third wave. We can do better with the price of green coffee, and keeping farmers with good incomes and livelihoods. We haven’t done a good job of that. We always said that if we found quality in coffee, that the prices would come with it. But specialty can’t save all of coffee. Bigger companies will have to adopt the ways of third wave coffee in terms of responsible buying, taking care of the producer, and making sure the producer sticks around in coffee.

What are your hopes and concerns for specialty coffee?

Trish: I think people in specialty don’t need their minds changed because they know the truth: climate change is a problem and that the price for green coffee is a problem. You don’t need to convince us in this sector. It’s the bigger coffee world.

For example, at my shop in San Francisco we just raised prices since the cost of our labour went up 20 percent with an increased minimum wage. We also pay for their insurance. It costs a lot to employ people. Then, there’s the green coffee I want to buy at a good price to keep those farmers in business. I’m paying more than ever for green coffee and for my employees.

The question is: Does the consumer believe in me and are they okay with the price of their coffee going up every few years? I think they are, but if they’re not, then it’ll become a luxury even more so than it is now, and people will consume less of it. Either way, it will become more expensive for the end user. The hard part is that it’s a race to the bottom. If my shop is raising prices, then those gigantic multinational coffee companies will take a race to the bottom, borrowing the words and marketing and concepts from specialty, but delivering something very low quality.

A few questions about the Q grading class. People are of all different backgrounds, some are coffee professionals, and it’s 6 days long. What happens during those 6 days?

Trish: It’s a pretty basic but rigorous class. We ask the students to keep up. If you have some experience of coffee you can come and do well. It’s based on the idea that there’s a taste aptitude for everyone. It’s just about developing it for coffee. There were people in this class who aren’t yet coffee professionals but want to be since they taste coffee all the time in their private life and enjoy it. We ask people to focus on the taste, the aroma, the acidity levels, and differentiating between different regions. How is African coffee different from Indonesian coffee, for example.

For someone considering taking a Q grader course, what kind of doors would this unlock?

Trish: It’s never guaranteed, but it would be that piece on your resume that says: I know how to do this. If there’s a job opening for quality control or head trainer, you could say I know this much more about the coffee product. I give away a scholarship every time I teach a course. I used to travel everywhere. I teach courses only in California for myself and in Singapore now, at Bettr Barista.

Why is that?

Trish: Partially it’s because I’m on the committee that approves other Q instructors. I’ve spent a lot of time the last few years approving other teachers, so now I’ve made myself redundant everywhere. I used to go to Australia all the time. I mentored some people in China. There are a lot of people I’ve approved, so I don’t have to go to those places anymore.

What do you like or find unique about teaching here?

Trish: It’s one of the best coffee educational centers in the world. There’s so much happening and such great training here, it’s world class. The staff here - and not just Pam and Jean - also Shaun and Gloria who I work with regularly, they’re always interested in learning more to bring it back to their students. They’re very active in keeping up on things. Jean is very interested in the science and all the new machines out there, grinders, etc. Shaun is interested in the processing world and green coffee. He’s educating himself and learning more to bring back to this campus and school.

Everyone is going out there and keeping themselves in it so they can bring it back to the students. The structure here is world class. Everything is really well presented, organised, and planned. Everyone is well taken care of here and I appreciate it.

As you’ve been in the industry so long, you know it’s fairly male-dominated, but now you have this partnership with Bettr Barista, which is a very female-driven company – how do you see the industry becoming more inclusive along the entire supply chain?

Trish: Across the world and across the board in almost every country, you see women running farms. Whether or not they get to own it or get credit for it is another question. Women’s hands are on the green coffee, constantly. There’s still a lack of training and education for them. In the tasting, roasting, and cupping room – where I am exclusively in my job as a roaster and taster of coffee - those places are still very male-dominated. That’s where big decisions are made. That’s where money decisions are made.

In this course I’m teaching now, there’s a majority of women and only two men. It wasn’t like this before. It might have to do with people feeling welcomed into the classes at Bettr Barista, and having no issues with being the only non-male in the class. In other places it’s still hard to get women out to fill roles they’re not used to seeing themselves in. If you go into the cupping room and if you see only men there, and you’ve seen them there your whole life; do you feel like you belong? Do you see representation there?

We’re seeing that change more and more. I see more women in importing, cupping rooms, and roasting rooms than ever before. And if people see it, they know that they can belong there.

Once one becomes a Q Grader, what would you say are the guiding values to be the best coffee professional you can be?

The influence of Q graders has been seen over the last decade and has changed the course of specialty. We have standards we can rely upon, and it’s important that Q graders are honest and truthful in their assessments. When you’re nice about things with a coffee, that isn’t that good. You’re not helping anybody. You have to be truthful, accurate, and objective. That’s really where Q graders do their best and most important work. That gives producers a real indication of what they’ve got on their hands, so they have a full assessment of what their work has produced, and what they can do better.

If a coffee falls below specialty one season, you have enough info going forward then to bump it up even 10 points and get a better price the next season, just from the feedback that’s trusted and relied upon. That’s what Q graders are.

How do you see your role continuing to evolve within the industry, as you’ve influenced it so much already?

Trish: The underpinning for me is having a coffee company of my own. Whatever I want to see in coffee, I have to do it first myself. The behind-the-scenes motto at Wrecking Ball is: can we deliver on the promise of specialty coffee? Everyone wants to say: I have the best cup. But am I delivering that? It means more than tasting good in the cup – what feeds into that? A good staff that’s taken care of, a viable company that doesn’t have financial problems. Can I keep the farmers feeling good about working with me? My role moving forward is to be the example. Kind of like how Bettr Barista is a great example of what I want to be. It takes a lot of work, and I have dreams of becoming a B Corp too.

If you enjoyed hearing Trish’s thoughts and experiences, check for updates on the upcoming Q Grader course with Trish Rothgeb in 2020.