The Coffee Connoisseur

Lindsey Bolger ‘91 is passionate about brewing great coffee and a better world.

by Carolyn Shea

Lindsay Bolger cupping coffee.

Lindsay Bolger '91 "cupping" coffee.

The art of evaluating coffee, known in the trade as "cupping," is fundamental not only in purchasing decisions but also in ensuring quality and consistency in the final roasted product, developing blends, and training and education. Nuances of aroma (floral? spicy? smoky?), body (thick? watery?), acidity (tangy? flat?), flavor (chocolaty? nutty? bitter?) and finish (long-lasting? fast-fading?) are all methodically appraised during the process.

How much coffee does Green Mountain's coffee director drink? "I make myself a cappuccino every morning and might have a small cup of coffee in the afternoon," Lindsey Bolger says, adding, "However, I taste as many as 300 cups per day."

In the cupping world, Lindsey Bolger '91 is considered a superstar. The senior director of coffee for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, Vt., Bolger is blessed with an exquisite palate and a discerning nose that have earned her both the professional designation of "Super Taster" and an international reputation for her skill in distinguishing the subtlest of characteristics in coffee.

A member of the prestigious jury of the "Cup of Excellence," a rigorous competition that singles out the world's finest coffees, Bolger attributes her abilities to almost 25 years' experience and "a cornucopia of sensory influences as a young girl growing up outside Rochester, N.Y." These included her mother, a great cook who was interested in herbs and aromatics, and mentoring by two older women who traveled the world to build an art collection. "That planted the seed early that there aren't any limits to how far your curiosity and need to explore could take you," she says.

Bolger embarked on her career in the coffee business when she was a full-time student at Evergreen. Starting as a barista in 1987 at Olympia's Batdorf & Bronson ("one of those strange twists of fate and opportunity that influenced the rest of my life"), she says she "became more and more fascinated with roasting and the green part of the business." Before long, she advanced to roaster and eventually assumed the dual roles of roast master and green coffee buyer.

Two yearlong programs she took during this period, Habitats and Political Economy and Social Change, aligned most harmoniously with her work, giving her a deeper understanding of the economics and environmental impacts of the coffee trade. "They allowed me to seamlessly integrate my academic work with my burgeoning professional interest," she says. "The classroom really extended into my career development as I was working closer and closer with suppliers. I can't think of any place where I could do this more effectively than at Evergreen."

After graduating, she remained with Batdorf & Bronson for another decade, working with several other Greeners, marrying one—Alec Brecher '91—in 1997, and becoming the vice president of coffee in 1998.

Three years later, Bolger joined Green Mountain Coffee, a leader in the organic, fair trade and specialty coffee markets. Since then, Green Mountain's sales volume has risen more than tenfold. 2010 was a watershed year for the 30-year-old company: its revenue surpassed $1 billion for the first time. It also bought more than 26 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified coffee, making it the largest such purchaser in the world, according to Fair Trade USA, which linked these purchases to nearly $10 million in community development funds to coffee farmers.

Lindsay training Rwandan Farmers on how to enhance their coffee production

Bolger training Rwandan farmers to enhance their coffee production. Photo by Kim Cook.

Bolger oversees coffee procurement, relationship building, quality assurance and product development. She travels extensively in the world's coffee-growing regions—"one week out of four," she reports—visiting farmers from Southeast Asia and Africa to Central and South America.

Wherever she ventures, she seeks to improve coffee quality and the lives of the people who produce it. Notwithstanding her talent as a cupper par excellence, Bolger's stature and influence in the industry comes in great part from her skill at building relationships with coffee producers around the world and fostering sustainable practices and high quality standards. The Gourmet Retailer named her as one of the 25 "Individuals Who Shaped the Specialty Coffee Industry." A former member of the board of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, she is currently a member of the organization's International Relations Council.

Her impact has helped transform the business nearby as well as far away. Several years ago, for instance, she was involved in convincing McDonald's restaurants in New England—of which there are more than 650—to serve Newman's Own Organics coffee, a fair trade blend distributed by Green Mountain. She also worked with coffee farmers near Gombe National Park in Tanzania to boost the quality and production of their coffee in partnership with Jane Goodall to help preserve dwindling chimpanzee habitat in the region. The result: Green Mountain's Tanzanian Gombe Reserve coffee.

coffee with steam - graphic

Bolger considers her volunteer work in Rwanda a high point in her career and "a reflection of Evergreen's influence to engage as intensely as possible." Beginning in 2002, she was part of a team of experts who made several trips to the country to train local villagers as cuppers to improve the quality of the country's once-marginal coffee, part of an economic development strategy devised by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to move forward from the country's horrific genocide and achieve prosperity. Many of Bolger's protégés had spent time in refugee camps and "didn't have the opportunity to explore a broader sensory existence," she says.

In 2008, Bolger's cadre of cuppers was asked to judge Africa's first Cup of Excellence coffee competition. Their participation was not only a victory for the people involved, but also a dazzling illustration of the turnaround in the country's coffee trade. "The training took an industry completely in tatters as a result of the civil war and helped turn it into a vital and valued coffee origin," Bolger says. In fact, Rwanda is now one of the hottest origins in specialty coffee, with its premium Arabica consistently scoring among the world's best coffees. And farmers there are at last getting fair trade prices for their coffee crops, enabling them to make a living off their land. Green Mountain—and Starbucks and Costco—have lined up as buyers. "I love being a champion for emerging suppliers by bringing a large volume of coffee into the supply chain," says Bolger.

Don't ask her what her favorite coffee is; she's always on the lookout for the next great one. "There's so much yet to be explored," she declares, "lots of frontiers, lots of native species that no one's ever tasted, wild coffees that have not been catalogued—all this great raw material, this potential, waiting to be understood."