Welcome to the Sprudge Twenty interviews presented by Pacific Barista Series! Read more about the Sprudge Twenty and see all of our interviews here.
Nominated by Elizabeth Chai
Will Frith is a career coffee professional working to “change the way the world sees Vietnamese coffee.” Frith has roots in the American Pacific Northwest, working for companies including Batdorf & Bronson, Olympia Coffee Roasting Company, and Modbar. Today he is based in Ho Chi Minh City, where his work includes training and education for the city’s booming coffee scene, the development of his own concept cafe project, and a wide-reaching green coffee initiative built around introduction arabica varieties to a region traditionally known for robusta. Sprudge has covered Frith’s work in Vietnam since 2013, and we spoke with him digitally for this Sprudge Twenty interview, presented by Pacific Barista Series.
What issue in coffee do you care about most?
I care most about addressing the inequities throughout the supply chain—what people are paid for their work; access to information, resources, and community—and customer experience (also throughout the supply chain).
What cause or element in coffee drives you?
Caffeine and flavor are the elements in coffee that drive me! But seriously: fairness, developing potential, and sustainability.
What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?
The fact that the people are the most important element, at every step, involved in producing the coffee experience for the consumer. It only takes one misstep, bad actor, or flippant comment to ruin the entire experience.
What is the quality you like best about coffee?
It brings people from many levels in society together. The enjoyment of good coffee (not limited to specialty or “third wave”) is something that anyone can access.
Did you experience a “god shot” or life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your career?
Coffee and my passion for it revealed itself slowly over the course of many smaller great experiences. I can’t really narrow it down to a single beverage or time. The people who supported me, provided guidance, and shared their experience all worked together to provide a long-term, ongoing series of revelations that continue to inspire and drive me.
What is your idea of coffee happiness?
A quiet, slow morning with a cool, light breeze and a great view. A warm cup of filter coffee, nothing too fancy. Could be something great, could be something mediocre, as long as the moment itself is great.
If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?
Coffee Idea Person, a job where people come to me with coffee problems and I help to solve them, and I have a team of people to design and produce any gadgetry that I think up. It would be sort of what I do already, without all the hardest stuff. I really like what I already do, I just wish it was easier sometimes.
Who are your coffee heroes?
If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
My maternal grandparents, who passed away a few years ago. Before they died I hadn’t had a chance to master their language sufficiently to really get to know them. They both had incredible lives, lived through war, poverty, migration. They were rice farmers with a typically huge family in the Mekong delta. I really would just want to know what their lives were like, what kinds of things they thought about when they weren’t immediately concerned with survival.
If you didn’t get bit by the coffee bug, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Renewable energy and water reclamation are two subjects that have really captured my attention, but I haven’t made the kind of time needed to really dive deep into those things. I find them just as compelling as I do coffee, and if I spend the rest of my life in the coffee industry, I know I’ll eventually learn more about them. But my interest in these things definitely came as result of working in coffee…
Do you have any coffee mentors?
My heroes are also sort of my mentors (whether they volunteered to be or not). The people I’ve had the most formal mentorship-like relationships with have been Oliver Stormshak (Olympia Coffee) and Quang Nhat Trang (La Viet)—but these have been sort of co-mentoring relationships as well.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?
I think people might have even told me, but I was too immature to listen: slow down, focus on one thing at a time, and don’t try to do everything all at once.
Name three coffee apparatuses you’d take into space with you.
A duffel bag full of tasty instant coffee, a way to make ice, and a way to heat water.
Best song to brew coffee to:
Silly Love Songs, by Wings.
Look into the crystal ball—where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Using my experience in coffee growing areas to help other coffee growing areas address climate change. I’ll know my way around robusta as well as I do arabica, and will have been able to apply that learning to the problem of the climate crisis. Also it would be really cool to figure out how to grow robusta that tastes really great in the United States, because in 20 years our time may be up as an industry focused on special, far-away coffees cultivated with cheap labor.
What’d you eat for breakfast this morning?
Coffee. I’ve been playing with intermittent fasting (intermittently), and today was a fasting day.
When did you last drink coffee?
This morning, about an hour ago.
What was it?
An arabica blend from “Uncle” Son, who grows, processes, and roasts coffee in Dalat. I made an iced pour-over.
Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge.