After making a name for herself working for some of the top names in the coffee industry, Jen Apodaca set out with "just a fistfull of cash" and the dream of founding her own coffee roaster.
Joined by a growing, passionate crew — including Gozer the Gozerian — Mother Tongue Coffee leads the way in the Bay Area with the skill to roast easy-to-brew, balanced coffees and a pledge to total transparency to make a "real impact in the lives of everyone along the supply chain." We spoke with the team at Mother Tongue to learn how they find the balance in fun and purpose.
Where does the name Mother Tongue come from?
Although Jen is technically a mom, the reasoning behind the name Mother Tongue is in the meanings of the words themselves. A Mother is a guardian and a nurturer and the Tongue (and nose) is the gateway to our senses. Mother Tongue coffee represents the trust that we will always source and roast delicious coffees for you to enjoy.
Tell us about Mother Tongue's team
Since the beginning, Mother Tongue Coffee has been grateful to all of our friends who have stopped by to help fill a bag or hang out while we roast a batch. Jen started the company with just a fistfull of cash while working a full time job running the Oakland shared roasting space, Pulley Collective. On any given day, you may find Jen working with the crew and the whole family in tow, including the kids and our dog, Gozer the Gozerian.
Reconnecting with former colleague Anissa Cisneros has been supremely awesome. Anissa has been in the business for over a decade and her role as Director of Sales for Mother Tongue Coffee is a very exciting development for us. As we grow we can’t wait to make more connections with awesome folx that want to be a part of the work we do.
What is Mother Tongue's approach to sourcing?
Trust is a major theme for Mother Tongue. We chose to buy coffee from people that we have known for years and have the same social and ethical values that we do. Producers like Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian in Burundi, Rosalba Cifuentes in Mexico, Mayra Orellana-Powell in Honduras, and Negusse Debela in Ethiopia all have a firm commitment to improving the financial viability of the people that grow coffee and the greater community.
All of them offer transparency for how much they pay for green or cherry and all of them are committed to making sure that the price is a livable price. These relationships currently make up over 60 percent of the coffees that we purchase. As we grow, we hope to purchase more from these producers as well as create more transparent producer partnerships.
Why is transparency so important?
Transparency is crucial and a central part of how Mother Tongue operates. Today, it is not good enough to be an award-winning roaster that buys high scoring coffees, you need to make a real impact in the lives of everyone along the supply chain if we want this industry to grow.
Mother Tongue signed a pledge to be transparent in the prices that we pay producers and farmers for the coffee we roast and sell. Growing up in a working class family, it was plain to see that the role of unions and good wages for services paid is what brings families out of poverty and into a place with economic stability. We not only pledge to provide those things to folx that work for Mother Tongue, but look to work with producers and farmers that are committed to these same goals. We are all in this together and we cannot do it alone.
How does Mother Tongue name its blends?
Walking down the grocery aisle and looking at the blend names of coffees, it can be difficult to decipher which blend might be the best for you. That is why Mother Tongue decided to make Bittersweet all about taste. The label was even designed to look like a chocolate bar! Bittersweet is a medium dark blend that has a low acidity. The flavor inspiration for this blend is that huge chunk of chocolate in a chocolate croissant.
Mugshots is a blend that tastes like the coffee that Jen could drink everyday for the rest of her life. A light roasted blend of washed Ethiopian coffee combined with seasonal Latin American coffees gives just the right balance of flowers and chocolate. Mugshots is so versatile it can be brewed as drip and put in your mug or it can pulled as a shot of espresso.
Is there a better name than Nebula to describe a dark roast blend from Mother Tongue? A nebula is a star nursery and this particular blend allows us to purchase low-acid coffees that are perfectly matched to a darker profile. Coffees with lower acidity often score lower points, but take just as much labor and effort as their higher scoring counterparts. By purchasing these coffees, Mother Tongue can buy more coffee from our trustworthy and amazing partners all over the world.
Tell us about the Bay Area's coffee scene.
The Bay Area is a unique and diverse place in the coffee world with lots of opportunities to learn and collaborate with other industry professionals. Jen spent several years teaching roasting classes locally and around the world. In fact, it was teaching others that reminded Jen that her original goal was to start her own brand.
After working for some of the top brands in the industry, winning the US Cup Tasters Championship, and travelling the world to teach other industry professionals, Jen knew that winning awards was not enough. Coffee needed to be easier to brew, more accessible to consumers, and — most importantly — it needed to be fun again!
Jen has the skill to find great coffees and to roast them in a way to find the best balance of acidity and sweetness. These coffees are easy to brew and enjoy by newbies and experts alike so everyone can make great coffee at home.
Tell us about #shestheroaster.
Community service is a huge part of Jen’s life, from teaching roasting skills, or offering advice to those that want to get into the professional world of coffee. While serving on the leadership council of the Roasters Guild, which she now chairs, Jen was judging a national roasting competition in the US. All 40 competitors came onto the stage for the ceremony and not a single one was female.
Knowing that there are several well-respected women in the industry, it was crushing to see none of them represented on that stage. In fact, it is the lack of visibility of women coffee roasters that perpetuates the myth that coffee roasting is a “man’s” job. That is how the hashtag campaign #shestheroaster started.
At first it was as simple as posting a photo and tagging female roasters from around the world, then we started to sell shirts and raise money for roasting scholarships. Today, #shestheroaster is a grassroots campaign that hopefully in the near future will no longer be needed, once the idea of hiring a woman to roast coffee is no longer an issue.
What are you most excited about right now?
Right now we are compiling data so we can present our annual transparency and impact report. Can a coffee roasting company grow and thrive without profiting off the backs of others? We sure hope so and we are documenting our progress not just for authenticity, but so we can share the struggles of our journey with others who hope to do the same.
One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about is that coffee is not a charity, it is a business. We believe people should get paid fair livable wages for their products and services. As a small business, our influence may be smaller than major corporations, but everyone we work with is treated with respect and dignity. If you pay people what you should have in the first place, the need to give them a handout for marketing purposes is moot.
How has 2020 impacted Mother Tongue?
Although the past year has been isolating in terms of physical interaction, the role that social media has played during the pandemic has given us a tool to come together in ways that we never did before.
Want to meet and talk to Rosalba Cifuentes of Mayan Harvest, whom we buy our Bella Vista Women’s Group from, you can message her on instagram @mayanharvest. The role that social media has played in making people more connected has really transformed the industry in a positive way. I hope more and more conversations happen on a global scale and the sharing of knowledge and resources continues.