Welcome to The Sprudge Twenty Interviews presented by Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2021 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty.
Niki Tolch is the creator of Not Caffeinated Enough, a growing multi-media project that includes events, video podcast, Twitch stream, merch and Patreon. Tolch’s submission to the our annual Halloween Fiction series was a major 2020 highlight, and this interview is more proof you should be following her on Instagram. A “Jane of All Trades” whose past work includes marketing management, nonprofit management and coordination, and HR, Tolch brings a broad range of experience and expertise to the coffee industry, where she works now as a coffee shop management consultant and barista trainer. Read on!
When I think about the future of coffee, I think of people like Niki Tolch. Through her videos and interviews, she is not only taking up space but creating a whole new space for Black coffee professionals. She not only highlights the talents and knowledge of her guest but gives them the space to freely talk about their experiences. It is kinda of the perfect combination of coffee geekery and personal stories. They teach us all a little about coffee, a little bit about allowing space for experimentation, and gives us little nuggets about creating a better space for everyone in coffee.
Nominated by Alyssa Bell
How have the challenges of this last year informed your work?
I’ve seen the well-meaning White person (the one who believes identifying as an ally to minorities is “enough”) come out in full force last year. Navigating the White road of good intentions (like Black Lives Matter signs), no real action (like hiring all-White staff), and excuses for the incongruity (like “there are just no Black people!”) has been a different sort of challenge within the familiar struggle of systemic racism.
What issue in coffee do you care about most?
Being open-minded and recognizing your biases when it comes to assuming that non-White males don’t know anything about the industry. I often face the assumption that I don’t know what an AeroPress is or don’t know how to brew a pour-over from people that know I work in coffee. And I get tired of seeing and hearing of other women and other minorities face the same issue. When we keep an open mind about what others can teach us no matter their gender or color, we only make coffee better.
What cause or element in coffee drives you?
Community, science, and craft. If even one of those was missing, I’d probably be on my way out the industry in search of something else.
What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?
Letting everyone in the industry learn and grow beyond their specific role. Knowledge of other aspects of the industry can help folks see the industry in new light, allow for more opportunities to grow and help to better inform their decisions in their current coffee role. I’m a believer in sharing knowledge. Call it an aggressive anti-gatekeeping.
What is the quality you like best about coffee?
Extraction and, more superficially, the aesthetics of the bloom. So cool.
Did you experience a “god shot” or life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your career?
Goodness no. I don’t worship coffee. I just think the vast room for both scientific and artistic experimentation is fascinating.
What is your idea of coffee happiness?
A coffee conversation where thoughts and ideas can flow without filter, amongst people who all see each other as equal, regardless of race, gender, or years of experience.
If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?
Coffee Shop Consultant & Barista Trainer. I’ve always enjoyed and had a natural inclination towards working with others to develop their strengths. This trait has different names, I suppose: teaching, training, mentoring, consulting. And I’ve tried out some of those roles in other fields, but I keep coming back to coffee. Aside from my personal connection with coffee, there’s something about helping to get a fellow barista to the skill level where they want to be that just warms the ole heart. And I like helping them get there. I also want to help coffee shop owners and managers in creating a cafe that fits the needs of their community. I also love helping to craft a blend or dial in a recipe.
Who are your coffee heroes?
Is it bad that I don’t have specific coffee heroes? I know there are some dope coffee folks out there doing some dope coffee things. I just don’t like idolizing folks in coffee. Nothing wrong with giving props where due, but naming heroes always makes me think of all the folks that don’t get recognition for their work, passion, and bad-assery. I guess put another way, all the folks that work to support and highlight other folks that otherwise don’t get much support or recognition.
If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
My Dad. My maternal grandmother. My paternal grandmother. They passed away within a couple years of each other a few years ago, and I still had so much to learn from them. I’d give up quite a bit to talk with them about life and such over a cup of coffee.
Do you have any coffee mentors?
I have trouble asking for and accepting help. Always have. I feel like that’s how I would acquire a mentor—by asking someone. Plus, I often give off antisocial and “I don’t need help” type of vibes, so no one’s been like, “Hey, I wanna help you succeed. Need a mentor?” I have no idea how often that type of thing happens, but I’ve heard stories.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?
It’s possible to assert yourself and still be friendly.
You’re the first barista on Mars. What’s on your brew bar?
If I was also the bar owner and the trendsetting type, I’d trademark a special oxygen-infused espresso machine that get its oxygen from straight from the .13% of oxygen found in Mars’ atmosphere. It wouldn’t really be any different, but it’d be all anyone asked for, so I’d save the rest of my gear for my bar at home.
Best song to brew coffee to at the moment.
Imma cheat and give two because it’s a toss-up depending on my mood.
“Freeze Tag” by Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, Kamasi Washington & Dinner Party (feat. Phoelix)
“Dragonball Durag” by Thundercat
Where do you see yourself in 2041?
Oh man, I’ll be in my 50’s! Wouldn’t it be dope if I could retire by then and we had free healthcare and I could do whatever the hell I wanted? I’d be in the countryside somewhere, but not too far from the city. Sipping drinks on my patio, teaching folks about coffee from home and letting them bask in my wealth of knowledge.
The Sprudge Twenty Interviews are presented by Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2021 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty.