Aubrey Mills: The Sprudge Twenty Interview

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Aubrey Mills – Dapper & Wise Roasters of Portland, OR (Photo by Graham Doughty)

Our coverage of the Sprudge Twenty interviews presented by Pacific Barista Series continues this week on Sprudge. Read more about the Sprudge Twenty and see all of our interviews here.

Nominated by Tyler Geel

Aubrey Mills is the Director of Wholesale at Dapper & Wise, a coffee roasting company with locations in Beaverton and Portland, Oregon. In her role with the company, Mills has avowedly championed the disparity in cost of production across the specialty coffee chain. She’s made public education her goal, focused on educating the public for the need to pay more for quality coffee and address wage instability for coffee producers. These issues were addressed at a recent forum hosted by La Marzocco USA in Seattle, Washington during a Dapper & Wise cafe residency.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

What issue in coffee do you care about most?

The cost of production crisis weighs heavily on my mind. The first time I heard that many farmers are receiving less money for their green coffee than it costs them to produce was a little over a year ago. I had already been in coffee for four years prior, so finding out that this has been a massive issue for decades was shocking—I felt I should have at least heard about it. It’s not just morally wrong for an industry to be built up on the financial oppression of others, but these are people we call PARTNERS. This doesn’t sound like a partnership to me at all. Even if you look at this issue from a logistical point of view, it’s unwise business for, arguably, the most essential portion of our industry to have the greatest financial insecurity. I know this is common in other industries but I expect better of us in coffee.

What cause or element in coffee drives you?

Coffee is for everyone. I have heard someone say that there is the perfect amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee to bond with someone in conversation. I have no idea if this is scientific fact but I have been in that moment before. If coffee is for everyone and has the ability to facilitate connection then that is something I want to help grow.

What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?

This is a hard question, but I would say that I would like to see more leaders in our industry providing tangible ways for people to be involved in solving issues apart from discussion. I don’t think I am the only one who hears about all of the problems we need to solve but have a hard time of figuring out where to start. It could be as detailed as providing intellectual resources to host an event and raise money for a cause, or it could be simple directions for how to break down these large concepts into conversations that can be had with customers and the public. If people are able to see where they can be useful in a cause and feel empowered to act then I think we will start to see actual change.

What is the quality you like best about coffee?

The smell of coffee is my favorite. Even garbage-tasting coffee usually smells great.

Did you experience a “god shot” or life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your career?

The first time I tried a naturally processed coffee I was blown away. It was an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe that tasted like a blueberry muffin and I remember asking myself, “If coffee can taste like this, what else don’t I know?”

What is your idea of coffee happiness?

When we work as a fluid team from a place of strength not desperation.

If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?

I don’t have a specific job in mind but I would like to do more things like the panel event I hosted about the cost of production. I loved hearing different perspectives on the same idea and figuring out how to organize that information so the audience could get the most out of it. I am a value-driven person so I love being a part of solving big problems and building meaningful relationships. I don’t think these ideals are specific to a single job and I am starting to feel like the glass ceiling is only in my head.

Who are your coffee heroes?

To spotlight one, Junior’s Roasted Coffee is, in my mind, one of the strongest examples of value continuity in business. Mike & Caryn [Nelson] began Junior’s with the cost of production issue at its center–starting a dialog with customers and staff in every way shape and form. I kid you not, their wifi password is “askmeaboutcostofproduction”. On top of that, they are genuinely kind people who have invested themselves in our Portland community as well. HEROES.

If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Other than my dad, Fred Rogers was my childhood hero. He always kept his values in the forefront of his work and had the ability to address major societal issues in a way that a child could understand. If you haven’t watched his documentary (I recommend it) you’ll see moments of his fury communicated with boldness, compassion, and logic in order to change minds. I’d like to be more like that in my work and relationships.

If you didn’t get bit by the coffee bug, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I played soccer for a majority of my life and believe in the impact that the teamwork mentality can have on a community and an individual. I would probably be trying to work for Adidas in team-centric programs for local communities.

Do you have any coffee mentors?

Not officially—but I do have the benefit of working closely with some really incredible people. To call out one person in particular, Michael Ryan is one of the wisest and most patient human beings I’ve ever met. I have gone to him countless times to help me brainstorm problems I am trying to solve or personal goals I want to refine. He listens more often than he speaks and when he does—it’s always thoughtful (and usually profound). I likely wouldn’t be looking at coffee as a long-term career choice had it not been for working alongside Michael for the past five years.

What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?

Don’t wait for permission or dwell on qualifications. 
Honestly, the very event that led me to this questionnaire was an emotional battle for me. I worked my ass off on that event and to understand “cost of production” as an issue but knew I was entirely out of my league to try and communicate its complexities (on stage, while being recorded). But I found a lot of comfort in the fact that it WASN’T ABOUT ME and that I was certainly qualified to ask pre-planned questions to highly intelligent people. All of this to say, I may have started taking risks earlier had I not been silently waiting for someone to give me the nod, and I don’t even know who that person is.

Name three coffee apparatuses you’d take into space with you.

I would take an AeroPress with an Able Brewing disc filter, obviously, because I would love to swim in a room full of thousands of tiny coffee bubbles. My second option would be espresso with a bottomless portafilter. I don’t totally know what would happen but I am trying to find out. My third option is a Voila packet because NASA might actually approve it coming on board.

Best song to brew coffee to:

Gary Clark Jr.’s “When I’m Gone” for a happy morning kind of situation.

Look into the crystal ball—where do you see yourself in 20 years?

I honestly have no clue, but hopefully I am still working with people I love and respect and contributing to something bigger than myself.

What’d you eat for breakfast this morning?

A protein shake. I have two very young dogs to tire out in the morning so the faster I can get calories into my body, the better.

When did you last drink coffee?

8:15 am

What was it?

Drip from the FETCO–Colombia Edilma Piedrahita.

Thank you. 

The Sprudge Twenty is presented by Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2019 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty

Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge. 

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