Women in Coffee: Erica Green
Our Coffee Tech Manager on technical difficulties, gender dynamics, and of course, coffee.
Erica Green came to coffee as a barista in her home state of Alaska, but even before she visited her first Blue Bottle when she moved to the Bay Area almost a decade ago, our reputation preceded us.
"Back then, we followed Blue Bottle on Flickr," she says. "This was before Instagram!"
Drawn by Blue Bottle's attention to quality and deliciousness, she pursued a job with us while convinced that she'd never get it. "I probably let out an audible squeal when [Founder] James [Freeman] emailed me back," she says.
From her first role as a member of the Ferry Building's opening crew to her current position as our Coffee Tech Manager, Erica remains smitten with Blue Bottle. "It took months after being hired for the unbelievability of working for Blue Bottle to set in. That realization and pride still hits me at random times, even after nine years."
We met with Erica in her W. C. Morse workshop to talk technical difficulties, gender dynamics, and of course, coffee.
As Blue Bottle's Coffee Tech Manager, what do you do when you're on the clock?
My job is supporting and problem-solving for coffee equipment in our U.S. cafes. This includes tracking maintenance needs, troubleshooting equipment issues with teams in the cafes, arranging visits by local technicians for repairs and maintenance, communicating with equipment manufacturers, and supplying parts to cafes and technicians. There was a time when I and a few other Blue Bottle techs would go around and do this work ourselves, but as we grow, much of my work has shifted toward troubleshooting and supporting cafes remotely. In the workshop at W. C. Morse, I work on espresso machines and grinders that are coming out of cafes, and machines that need more attention or are just stopping in for repairs before heading back to their cafe.
Do you have any advice for women and non-binary people who'd like to break into your particular field, or into the coffee industry in general?
This isn’t something I've actually thought a whole lot about. I just sort of just put my mind to it and made it happen, so I can only really speak from my experiences. I suspect that it may be be easier to break into this work from within the coffee industry. It may be male-dominated, but it's a smallish, diverse industry that seems to be more sensitive to equality. It's worth noting that different industry professionals have shared with me that they often prefer working with women technicians, as they tend not to assume they know everything, which often allows for a more thorough job and better resolution. Of course, this doesn't have to be a gender-specific trait, and certainly isn't a given, but no matter who it is I think we've all experienced how assumptions and ego can get in the way of seeing the whole picture. These assumptions about knowledge probably have more to do with the way we come to learn a skill than gender. It’s generally an expected skill for men, but as women, we tend to have to earn it and prove ourselves again and again.
As for how it happened for me, a couple years into my first coffee job, after being an advocate for the equipment and asking the company technician too many questions whenever he visited, I asked if they would train me to be a technician. I wasn't taken seriously and was halfheartedly told I could volunteer my time in addition to my full-time role as cafe manager to learn. I wasn’t equipped to handle the fight at that time, nor was I interested in working where I wasn’t encouraged to grow. Prior to my apprenticeship at Blue Bottle, I had very little hands-on experience with tools or repairs outside of the basic screwdriver and wrench use. Having a mentor and supervisor who believed in me and taught me everything he knew to build a strong foundation was key.
Experiencing other people's doubt in my abilities because I am a woman in a service and repair field is not that uncommon. Even in email correspondence, assumptions are made, and the “a” often gets dropped off of the end of my name in the reply. It is difficult to not take personally the questions that are clearly directed at my gender and ability. I try my best to turn it into an educational moment and not take offense. Still, sometimes I feel like I have to prove myself on the spot to earn trust, where trust would just be given to a man in my position.
Everyone starts out knowing nothing. Girls and women, unfortunately, tend to be left out of the repair and hand-skills development portion, so we have more to overcome, and are therefore less likely to consider hands-on technical work. It's scary to learn new things, especially when it seems like everyone around you is already a master. My advice is this: You are capable. Learn a thing. Work on weaknesses.
I wish shop classes would have been more welcoming to all when I was in high school. That would have really helped. If you're interested in repairs but aren't sure where to start, I highly recommend taking a basic auto mechanics course at a community college, which is especially helpful considering most of us drive or rely on vehicles. Either way, it's a good place to learn about tools and their applications. The thing about the coffee technician field is it's a niche group, and it's not often expected to hire experienced techs. It does take time to train up someone but my experience is that is the typical route.
What's the most satisfying part of your job? What's the toughest?
I love helping people understand how their coffee equipment works, encouraging ownership, and doing observation and troubleshooting. I'm all about that maintain-and-repair-rather-than-replace philosophy. Finding solutions to unusual or mysterious issues, as well as understanding their causes to prevent them from happening again or improving the resolution for next time, is satisfying to me. I’m generally not comfortable with simply fixing an issue and marking it "case closed" if the cause is unknown. This is where I get to put on my mystery-solving hat and become the Forensic Technician. Burrs jammed in place with a strange gouge in the grind chamber? The curve of the gouge looks like it was caused by a demitasse spoon handle. Interesting. Dust strangely lacking in that area over there? Maybe there was a recent leak or someone else has been in here recently. Funny odor? Smells like that component could be on its way out.
One of the most challenging aspects of my job has to do with dispelling machine distrust and suspicion with communication. A lot of people are afraid of machines because they don't understand them! It’s the same idea as when an unhappy customer tells many more people about a negative experience than a positive one: Bad news spreads. As a technician, it’s easy to breeze by this phenomenon since the physical work has been completed, but when a machine isn't fully understood, suspicion can linger and confidence in the repair can falter. Of course, it doesn’t help that some issues are complex, unrelated, or reccurring.
For the physical side of things, it’s the blood-sweat-and-tears stuff. Crouching and crawling under machines long after closing time with burned and busted knuckles isn’t all that enjoyable, especially when things aren't going as planned and the fear of not finding a solution in time starts setting in. Once it's all said and done, though (and after some food and sleep have happened, perhaps), immense satisfaction for a job well done follows.
How does Erica like her coffee? "Weekends are for siphon," she says. "That or bad diner coffee with copious amounts of cream." How do you brew your morning cup?