Flying High as a Kite with Aubrey Mills

Aubrey Mills’s entrance into the coffee industry was fueled by a passion for connecting people with all the aspects of what make coffee so layered, nuanced, and special. After working for years both front and back of house at Portland’s Dapper & Wise Roasters, Mills has settled into a new coffee role as a QC taster for, and as a Marketing Coordinator in a new, but equally plant-centric industry, of cannabis.

In this interview, we cover this career trajectory, the importance of community in coffee; finding solace in bike trips, music, and winding runs; and a pup named Soy. We recommend pouring yourself a cup from your favorite roaster, and snuggling with your pet, while reading through Mills’ inspiring journey. 

We’d love to learn about your coffee journey! How did you first get acquainted with coffee, and then ultimately how did you find yourself working in the industry?

Like most people, I started out as a barista. When I was in college I found myself at a coffee shop called Insomnia on a regular basis to study and to chat with friends. When I started looking for a new job, it was the first place I thought of that actually sounded like a fun gig. It was the classic situation of being in the right place at the right time; Insomnia had just started a roasting operation called Dapper & Wise, which also provided a great deal of coffee education and training. About a year into my baristaship, I was offered a position working in the Dapper & Wise tasting room and helping launch their wholesale program. Working for a roaster and a slower style of service not only allowed me to feel more in touch with the coffee but also put me in a position to help interact with customers on the things that make specialty coffee so beautiful. 

What parts of the coffee industry do you find most interesting and/or important? 

For me, coffee is all about the people. Specialty coffee in particular is such a beautiful story of a lot of people relying on each other to play their part well. Every person who comes into contact with the coffee is equally important; the person who grows or roasts the coffee serves just as much of a purpose as the person who prepares and enjoys it. I am certainly not a fan of the mentality that "the customer is always right," but I do think it’s important to appreciate that the customer purchase justifies this beast of an industry. Some people aren’t going to appreciate it for all it’s worth, and I don’t think that has to take the wind out of our sails. 

I love seeing the way the industry has settled into all of the knowledge / education we have access to. I see it being used to invite people in (when they are interested), as opposed to elevating the person educating. Maybe it’s just me, but there are a handful of cafes that have done a great job at integrating into the Portland community -- making it less of a show and more of a service. The new designs people are creating (like Ratio) to make excellent coffee more accessible to people on a daily basis are endlessly fascinating to me. Products that are both exciting and useful will never go out of style. 

Are there specific things that you love, and others that you find most challenging, about working in Portland’s coffee scene?

You know, it is interesting, even though I work in coffee and live in Portland, I don't necessarily consider myself to be working in the Portland coffee scene. On a working level, I rarely chat with other coffee professionals aside from the occasional email to the roasters who offer their coffees on our site, many of whom are scattered throughout the U.S.. My affiliation to Portland coffee these days is entirely based on the cafes I choose to visit as a customer. I am loving this vantage point of Portland coffee though; to be able to still explore and enjoy, but connect with baristas about other life things without wondering if I should tell them that I’m also in the industry. 

Our Portland coffee community is gorgeous -- just full of people who care a lot about a lot. As the pandemic turned our coffee scene completely online, I found the role of social media to be particularly challenging. I found myself regularly wondering to what degree my engagement in these complex issues was performative. I can't tell you how many posts I created and deleted, deciding that I was posting more for the people who agree with me than for those who don’t. I have people in my life whom I am invested in, who don’t agree with me, and I would much rather set those difficult, direct conversations up for success by only initiating when I can say more than a few sentences and ask questions. I have witnessed some people manage these conversations in the digital space well, but in my experience, these conversations are far more fruitful in person. 

After working for Portland’s Dapper & Wise Roasters for many years, you found yourself in the cannabis industry. Can you tell us more about your new role, and any overlaps you see between the coffee and cannabis industries? 

My role at Wyld is Marketing Coordinator, which is essentially a project manager for the Marketing Department. A nice mixture of operations, relationship management and creative projects. This has by far been the most challenging job to date. Wyld has high standards for just about everything, so it’s been an incredible opportunity to learn so much in a really short period of time. Even when I feel pushed to my limits, I find it really gratifying to work for a company that shows up for their values and doesn’t wait to be asked to do the right thing. Wyld is setting high standards for a young industry right out of the gate. 

Because the cannabis industry also revolves around a plant, there are lots of crossovers between coffee and cannabis. You can take a deep dive on quality and overall experience in both flower (the bud part of the plant that is dried and smoked), or the oil that is extracted from the plant like we use in our edible products. Most of the experience comes from terpenes; we even talk about them really similarly to the way we experience coffee flavor. The terpenes that we use are botanically derived and can make you feel excited or calm, which isn’t all that different to our association of fruity coffees as exciting or chocolatey as comforting. 

I would say that cannabis, similar to coffee, also has a massive education gap with most consumers. Cannabis has a significant social/political stigma, however, I think the derogatory term “hipster coffee” points to an intentional dissociation to specialty. For both industries, the solution is the same; to make the information approachable and applicable to the customer. 

Although you’re no longer working “full time” in coffee, you’ve kept yourself in the game as a QC taste for What does this entail, and what does a day of work as a QC taster look like?

This gig is almost too good to be true, if I am being honest. Roasters who we are partnered with, will send me coffees that they upload to our site. The quantity has fluctuated due to Covid, but somewhere between 10 and 60 coffees will arrive at my house for evaluation. Because a majority of our customers are brewing at home on automatic brewing systems, I try not to be too fussy about my ritual and enjoy it from a mug as opposed to a cupping spoon. As long as my equipment is clean, I am using a good grinder and a proper recipe, I feel like I am able to give the coffee a practical evaluation. However, if I end up in the 60 coffee range, I’ll set up a cupping just to get them done with an intentional description. 

Most mornings I sit down at my computer to start my Wyld job, and will go back and forth between scanning emails and writing descriptions for coffees. Because coffees present different flavors and experiences as they transition from hot to cold, I make a point to take notes on the experience throughout the process. The flavors and descriptions that are consistent from start to finish are the ones that I put into my review. Many of our subscribers don't have an extensive coffee background so I try to keep the descriptions approachable and to the point. This feels like a meaningful role to me because I really do believe that the more people who can appreciate specialty coffee and feel confident about their experience with it, the better the whole industry will be. Not just Crema. 

What do you look for in a coffee, and do you have any favorite roasters, brew methods, or shops (locally or afar)? 

Such a great question. I try to be open to all coffee types, but have a difficult time differentiating dark roasted coffee unless it is side by side with others, which is a little less fun. I find myself returning to dynamic coffees; ones that offer just as much excitement as they do comfort. Coffees from Central America are generally my jam because I think they are just so delightfully complex. A few roasters I’ve been really blown away by this past year are: Peixoto (Chandler, AZ), West Oak (Denton, Texas) and Junto (Taylors, South Carolina). I am not even exaggerating, every sample I have received from them has blown me away. West Oak was offering a fermentation flight of coffees, which was really exciting. 

In terms of here in Portland, I probably frequent Guilder cafe the most because they are in my neighborhood and check all of my boxes. I think for any business, it’s good to be able to answer the question, “why your business should exist.” Guilder has incredible customer service, sustainably minded and delicious coffee, an innovative and ingredient-centric food menu, and honest-to-goodness charm. It’s an absolute privilege to have a cafe like this so local, especially with the positive influence they have on the specialty coffee industry at large. 

Tell us more about your pup Sawyer! Do you two like to enjoy a particular morning coffee routine together? 

Oh man, Soy is my favorite. In hindsight, I didn’t totally know what I was getting myself into with a herding dog but I have loved having a little buddy with such a big personality and range of emotion. He is my little shadow and just so engaged and loving.

I always wanted a dog that I could take everywhere with me, which has been challenging because he can be quite the talker. Sawyer is four years old now and I feel like we are finally getting to the point where he can do almost everything. We go to friends houses, the office, camping, road trips... Our next big goal is sit quietly on a sunny patio, long enough to enjoy a beer.

My ideal rhythm is on a weekend when I can start a small pot of coffee and hop back into bed to give him a good cuddle. I’ll usually just jot the notes down into my phone, and we enjoy the quiet as long as possible. 

What do you like to do when you are not working, or tasting coffee? How has this past year of pandemic changed your hobbies, interests, or priorities? 

My hobbies have certainly deepened this past year. I had a lot of life changes outside of the pandemic, so I felt incentivized to do things I’d been putting off or wanting for a long time. I’ve always loved motorcycles and finally got my endorsement, but ended up pulling the trigger on a gravel bicycle, ultimately. There are lots of greenways in my neighborhood so my favorite thing to do these days is put Sawyer in a puppy backpack and ride around, looking at cool houses. 

Music has always been something that gives me big feels, but I’ve always felt vulnerable about singing and playing. I decided to finally get some voice lessons and teach myself guitar this year, which are things that I hope become even more deeply integrated into my life. Portland has such a rich music scene and, pre-pandemic, I used to spend a lot of time going to shows. Alberta Street Pub was able to make some live music happen safely, which I couldn’t be more thankful for. 

Whether pandemic, work, or relationally related, I’ve found myself running in order to reset in times of stress. I will finish work and walk my dog, and be keenly aware of my craving for a chemical shift. Sometimes, I will run just because the weather is gorgeous and I want to juice it, or because I work from home and need a change of scenery. Either way, running has made a huge difference in my overall mental health and ability to manage the way my body holds stress. But if that doesn’t work, I can always shut my brain off and take a deep dive into some Reddit threads. 

What’s one thing you hope to do in 2021? 

One thing that I will be doing for the first time is a bike packing trip. I am so stoked! I’ll be riding my bike on some roads and gravel trails to arrive at a camping spot just about 35 miles out of Portland. This isn’t something I could do by myself; I am such a newbie that all of my gear will be borrowed, but if it is really as fun as it sounds, I am hoping to do lots of it this summer. 

Instagram: aubrey.shmaubrey

Cost of Production Interview: YouTube