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Origin Story: Jeremy Raths

June 5, 2024
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“It’s been an amazing, amazing career in the coffee industry.” So started a conversation with Jeremy Raths, Coffee Quality Institute Q Instructor, owner of The Roastery in Minneapolis Minnesota, and long-time coffee professional. This year Jeremy is retiring from his role as an educator with CQI, so we took the opportunity to capture a little of what he has seen in coffee during his tenure with our organization.

Connecting with CQI and the beginning of the Q

Raths’ first connection with CQI was as a Coffee Corps volunteer. The program harnesses the power of industry professionals to share their coffee quality knowledge with communities who might benefit from it.

“When I started working with CQI it was firmly established, so this was maybe 2004 or 2005. At the beginning of CQI it was kind of cool because it was going to be four pillars of different activities, really focused on scientific research. That was their main mission at that time,” said Raths. “And then lo and behold, around 2003, 2004 the Q started to form, and education became a huge part of CQI.

And that's kind of when I got into it. We had a really cool Roasters Guild Executive Council meeting out in Long Beach at the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) headquarters and it was 2003. I'm kind of sure that was the year, and it was the Executive Council and on that Executive Council was Peter G (Peter Giuliani) and Shawn Hamilton and Paul Thornton, myself, Boyd Gildner. Trish (Rothgeb) was on that and Mané (Alves.) Ted (Lingle) was also there, just starting to formulate the different units to use in the CQI course, the Q. They talked a few of us into staying a couple more days to act as guinea pigs. And you know? It was great.”

The people at that gathering couldn’t know at the time, but their discussions solidified what would become the Q. The foundational course designed to endow its participants with a global language of coffee quality.

An exciting time in coffee

The days where the Q was vetted amongst coffee professionals were intense and generated some unpredictable results. And the Q wasn’t the only thing happening, not by a long stretch.

“You know, they were trying all of these different modules that that some of us had never heard of or seen before or tested on,” Raths remembered. “So it really it blew up my cupping confidence for at least five years.

· This is terrible.

· I'm not a great cupper.

· I'm horrible.

They just threw out any kind of feelings I had about cupping, that's for sure, but it was great to work with that Council, and there were several things going on at that same time.

The world barista competitions had gotten started few years earlier and Australia was kicking everybody's hinder. COE (Cup of Excellence) was just getting going, George Howell’s love affair with coffee created that as a thing that we could all enjoy, and then the Q Program alongside the Roasters Guild. All of this stuff was bubbling up right around that time.

You see the same people at the same places. So it's kind of cool, you know. You go show up, you're in. And you go over there and there's Jeff Watts and you go over there and there's Peter G. It was a bunch of people trying to figure out how we can make Specialty Coffee even better and then more importantly, how we can share information about Quality up and down the chain, and then how that can help everybody up and down the chain create a living.

The whole Q is all about information and then training people to be able to access that information and make a determination about the quality of coffee. So it was a very powerful tool and coffee started to get better. The Q really started to create this idea that here's a certificate for number one: people. We were able to certify, these people were able to do these functional skill sets, and then it also was to certify coffee, and I'm not sure how much coffee gets certified and sold to the little people like me. I know that there's people around the world who know how to identify good quality coffee any moment, and if they are at a mill or if they're on the farm, or if they're out of an exporter, then that gives them information regarding the value that coffee and how much it should be price at so hopefully, hopefully, hopefully it'll keep spreading.

The SCA cupping form is what you want to use, as far as teaching that skill set, that was very powerful because it just improved my cupping every time I taught a Q course.”

Speaking of teaching a Q Course…

How did Raths get into teaching coffee quality? As an assistant and chief bottle washer.

I remember talking to Kelly Peltier (Amoroso), who at that time was doing a lot of Q courses in Eastern Africa on behalf of CQI, the beginnings of the Q were starting to roll out to Rwanda and Uganda.

She was talking to me about how to become an instructor, because I was an assistant at that time. I would just volunteer and do dishes or set up the courses as part of Coffee Quality Institute, Coffee Corp. We also did the taste of harvest stuff.
I don't remember exactly saying ‘Sure I want to be an instructor,’ but then all of a sudden I got sent to Malawi to teach a Q course. Kelly was keeping track of stuff as you know, because I had to teach certain modules. But back then, it was like, OK, you'll teach this module, OK?

It just rolled into an opportunity to teach the Q and I started out with Coffee Corp teaching in eastern Africa. Even before that, I was teaching the taste of harvest stuff with Chris Van Zastrow and we would go to Kenya and just teach cupping and or we would go to Burundi, Rwanda, or Uganda and just teach cupping for Taste of Harvest. And that was on behalf of Eastern Africa Fine Coffee Association, which I think is now just called Africa Fine Coffees Association. And that is where I met Mbula (Musau) a long, long time ago.

So I always was trying to volunteer for Coffee Corps because I thought it was a great way to give back a little bit of whatever little knowledge I had and at the same time get to see the freaking world.

And it was cool, you know? It was phenomenal. And I was really lucky and very fortunate.”

The story of a lot of instructors

The life of a Q Instructor can be one of extended travel, especially when the program first started.

“A lot of it has to do with my home front because Louise, my dear spouse, has been incredible. And when I look back, I go holy cow. I just took off and did this stuff, you know, and without even realizing, not even being aware of the impact. And you don't make any money. I am not bringing home judge dollars and at the same time I’m running my little roasting business. I'm very, very lucky. Very fortunate so that those beginnings were kind of this, just say yes. You know, like…

· Yeah, I'll go.

· Yeah, I'll do that.

· Sure, that sounds great.

And then I met some of my really good friends during that period of time right after the turn of the century, which seems ancient.”

What about being an instructor?

How does a Q Instructor manage their work? Everyone is different.

“I had my roasting business, so I had to work around that. I worked with Rocky Rhodes so he and I shared jobs that would pop up. This started around 2014 or maybe 2012 and we just kind of worked together because he was getting so many requests, and he couldn't fulfill them. It was perfect for me because I could not make the commitment he could.  I taught fourteen courses in Taiwan at Krude’s place at TCL and I thought thirteen courses in Beijing at Luby's Place at Coffee College of Barista College.

And then as a teacher, my job was to get out of the way. People will succeed and it, and it’s my job to encourage them and the help them up and give them a hand and help them know that they can do it because they're there and they are interested and they want to learn how to cup coffees and the, the scariest students are the ones who were cupping for years and then would show up in the course and just be totally demolished by the first round. It’s kind of like the same thing that happened to me at the at Long Beach, you know, devastated. So and then I needed to get them back into their own comfort zone to where they could taste, because once they start freaking out, nobody can taste or smell anymore. They are just shot.”

‍‍What about before the Q?

Early CQI Instructors were teaching from a place where they were introducing the Q, building a knowledge base, not increasing it.

“The information used to be loaded on the trader side, and then the roasters and then the producers and the millers and the exporters are beholding on the market price.

The Q is a way to interrupt that chain and introduce information along the way.
And when you think about it, the Specialty Coffee Association cupping sheet also was a tool that they use even before the Q to say if, for instance, I was buying from Royal Coffee, I would chat with them a little bit and say, OK, I cupped it, drag out your cupping sheet, let's compare notes. So we would work with the SCAA cupping form, you know, and then go back and forth. And of course, I'm old enough to remember when the cupping form was getting it's many different formations.

With a lot of commercial roasters, commercial sellers, it was buy it/don't buy it, you know. And then the form came along and now you had space to create a valuations of the characteristics, and then you had space to write words, and then the words would go to the marketing department and become the back of the packaging.

So then the SCAA form became the backbone for the queue and part of that is Ted Lingle. He wrote the book using the cupping form, he's also developing the Q course. So it became his tool to hang everything else on it and it and it works. It makes sense when you look at it from that point of view.

It was a nice thing to create all the other elements that would help you define each characteristic.”

How do you get involved?

It can feel daunting to those who are new to the coffee industry, or even sensory evaluation, to enter a world where there are some well-known personalities and established rituals.

“You know, you show up. The conferences were great. There were just 12,000 coffee geeks and the best way to learn about the business was to volunteer. I always volunteered and I always signed up for anything and everything.
And I ended up meeting people and bringing them into the course, or I end up introducing somebody who is going to do a panel or I end up being on a panel or roasting or teaching roasting courses in the roasting tent. You could hang out with some really cool people and set up roasting. I mean the even the putting the whole thing out, laying it out. How are you going to do different things? It's just a phenomenal way to go to a conference - make sure you're volunteering.”

We know that Jeremy Raths will still be roasting and cupping, just for himself and his own interests as he ends his time as an instructor with CQI. We’ll admit to wanting to hear more about that time in Long Beach, there is more story there. Until then we will wish Jeremy well and extend our deepest gratitude for his curious nature and willingness to share his passion for coffee through education.