Interview with Jenny Howell
Can you give us a little bit about your background — where did you grow up, etc?
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston. My mom was a midwife for part of my childhood but mostly a stay-at-home mom of 6 crazy kids and my dad traveled a lot, it was hectic, never a dull moment! I was the shy one out of the bunch but also fearless and independent which probably comes with the territory of a large family.
Before my coffee career, I worked in foster care and women’s nonprofit and graduated college with a degree in social work and psychology.
How did you start working in coffee?
Since I can remember I was always interested in coffee. Many of my school vacations were spent in Costa Rica, on Finca La Minita, where we would swim, hike, and be sent out to pick coffee. My dad started in the coffee business in the 70’s and traveled a lot while I was growing upbringing home souvenirs and stories from coffee countries, similar to the ones I now bring home to my children. His passion is and always has been contagious for me. I loved spending time with my dad as a kid which meant I spent a lot of time in his cafes and roastery sipping on coffee growing up.
It wasn’t until I moved home from VT after college that I was introduced to cupping. In 2002 I moved into my parent’s “in-law” studio where my dad would be sample roasting and cupping most days of the week, it would literally wake me up because it was right outside my bedroom door! It all felt very mad sciencey at the time. I started joining him for fun but it quickly turned into something I enjoyed a lot. I started picking up on the differences there were between regions and countries, defects, and acidity. Little did I know at the time that many of the coffees I was tasting were pre auction CoE samples.
Soon after I started as a Barista at his café, Copa Café. There I was trained by, at the time, cutting-edge European baristas. I liked both perfecting the drinks and talking to and teaching the customer about coffee.
While my dad had a café he also ran a roastery which is where I got involved on the roasting and sourcing side of the business. I started as the jack of all trades, packaging, bookkeeping, helping a small roastery wherever I could. Eventually, I started working closely with the coffee itself, doing QC, sample roasting, and gradually moving into sourcing and becoming the green buyer.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I have always loved the time in the morning before it feels like the world is awake. I like to get up before the sun or anyone rises and have my coffee, it’s peaceful and it’s before the madness of the day begins. Now with our puppy, Banana (my 3-year-old daughter named him), I get up even earlier! My work is sandwiched between being a mom. It’s all about making lunches and getting everyone out the door clothed, happy, and fed. I live in a two-family with my parents, so I usually have my dad chasing me out the door with a cup of coffee he wants an opinion on. It’s chaotic and funny all at the same time.
The roastery is 5 minutes down the street so I spend my days there cupping, working with QC, communicating with farmers, importers/exporters, and writing, among other things.
What’s your involvement with the Cup of Excellence?
I lead the cuppings and make the final purchasing decisions. I have been lucky to participate in quite a few origin CoEs. My first time on the international jury was in Bolivia in 2008 my 2nd origin trip ever. The memory of the intensity of the acidity still sticks out for me.
Who has been a female influence for you?
My mother, Laurie Anne, has had a monumental impact on my life. She taught me kindness, forgiveness, and that everyone deserves to be treated equally. These traits she had were like gifts when I was growing up. She always has had a magnetic force where people are drawn to her for comfort. She still plays a huge role in my life helping me raise my girls.
What kind of challenges have you faced in coffee over the years and how did you overcome them?
We freeze our green coffee immediately upon arrival to stop the aging process. But coffee can age in different stages of transportation or become unstable in different environments and stages of drying. We have spent a great deal of time investing in equipment and procedures to try and prevent purchasing coffees that are aged upon arrival or begin aging once they are frozen. This year I am starting to research refrigerated shipping, one of the main projects I am working on.
What’s your favorite thing about working in coffee?
The coffee, people, enthusiasm, and community. It’s always evolving which I appreciate.
Can you tell us about some projects you’re working on now?
Currently, I am working on palate training and testing for employees and potential employees who would like to work on the QC and roasting side of the business. We are also evolving and transforming our website and labels which I am a part of. And as I said before I am working on a refrigeration project.
What’s the best thing about being an ACE member?
I get to keep up to date with the terroir and new processes coming out of many coffee origins. Connecting with new farmers and creating new relationships. I am so appreciative!
Rapid Fire questions:
- Top 3 foods you can’t live without?
- Habaneros, tacos, and apples, and chicken nuggets because my kids love them and that means I have a night off from cooking.
- Longest time in a cupping apron?
- When I first started as QC I remember the Esmeralda auction coffees arriving and being terrified I wouldn’t do them justice. I sample roasted and cupped every roast, there were at least 30 samples, for like 8 hours, if I took a break, I would sample roast and cup a different coffee 3x in preparation to begin re roasting the Esmeralda. It was intense. And the sample roasts were great
- What’s your superpower?
- I don’t know if it is a superpower or a super curse but I always taste if there is a bad bean/defect in a cup of coffee before anyone else, I can also taste if a coffee is going to age before it ages.
- If you were a process (or coffee drink), what would you be and why?
- Washed for terroir!