By Andrew Gomez
“It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!” These are the infamous last words from Calvin to his pet tiger Hobbes as they walk into the endless whiteness of freshly fallen snow. Bill Watterson’s comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” has always held a special place in my life, and, as I grew and became more involved in the world of coffee with the planning and organization of local community coffee events, these are the words I recall when searching for inspiration about what’s next. If you are familiar with the comic strip, you know Calvin always had an adventurous spirit when it came to life and venturing into the unknown. I would like to think I apply some of those same overarching ideas when it comes to the world of coffee, specifically to growing and strengthening our community at a local level, whether city, county, state.
One could argue that the current movement in coffee–third wave, craft, whatever you prefer to call it–has some roots in a paradigm shift starting at the coffee shop level and slowly working its way into what are now some of Coffee’s biggest players. As the world of specialty coffee grows, so, too, does the desire for knowledge, education, and creative outlets for baristas, roasters, and customers. As someone who has volunteered with the Barista Guild of America (BGA), as well as been an organizer of events in Los Angeles and Orange County, I’m always looking to explore new ways to bring coffee lovers together. As one of the lead organizer for the group OCTNT (Orange County Thursday Night Throwdown) in Southern California, I found myself stuck in an endless train of latte art throwdowns. There is absolutely nothing wrong with throwdowns. They consistently produce the biggest turnout and we always get great feedback from them, but I found myself looking for other ways to engage with my colleagues and customers, and, at the same time, I was getting countless suggestions from TNT attendees who were open to other types of events beyond latte art. As a volunteer and judge at past WBC’s I got to see, first hand, the fun and excitement behind the US Coffee Tasters Competition. The idea of instant scoring feedback and competing based on one’s ability to taste coffee really appealed to me. So, OCTNT took a risk and diverted from our regularly scheduled programming and tried a mini version of the Tasters Competition. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
The reason I am sharing my story is because I want to push those who may be thinking about organizing events to go ahead and do it. If you have a crazy idea of some type of event that could bring together coffee friends… make it happen! Three years ago OCTNT even tried our hand at a “Barista Olympics” where baristas competed to see who could be the first to assemble and calibrate a Mazzer Robur and then pull a shot. We once had a latte art event where we paired experienced baristas that were expert latte artists with people who had never poured latte art before to see who would be able to teach someone how to pour a heart first. All of these are designed to offer something different and challenging to the community as a whole. Don’t underestimate the impact these events can have on your community. OCTNT has also had the privilege of hosting benefit throwdowns for baristas struggling with financial and major family issues. Seeing baristas drive hours to come hang out, pour latte art, and give $5-$10 to help one of their peers is truly heartwarming.
Sometimes it is overwhelming figuring out where to begin with the planning process, but, if you gather some friends and talk to some shop owners, I think you will be surprised at how excited most people are to help you and get involved in the process. There are more resources than ever before to ease the nerves of planning an event. Social networks put us all within fingers’ reach of each other, and the BGA website now has a map feature to help you find other guild members around you. Use these tools to connect with other members in your area or, better yet, reach out to an executive council member and they will gladly get you in touch with people that can help and point you in the right direction. On that note, I would like to put myself out there as a resource for anyone who has questions or needs help getting the ball rolling. Pro tip: it helps to have food and drinks (especially beer).
These are just a few examples of how to take small steps outside of your comfort zone to explore something new. Recently I have been seeing more and more creative events across the country and it really excites me to see what other ideas the community can dream up. Larger contests like the Coffee Masters Competition, which will be held in New York this year, show the innovative and fun ways we can use existing practices and tools to create something exciting and new.
I hope reading this article will inspire curiosity in baristas across the nation who wants to organize a coffee event in their neighborhood, but are afraid to go forward with their ideas. I encourage you to just go ahead and do it. Maybe you love Aeropress and want to have a brew off with your friends, or maybe you just want to get together and be like those Irish baristas and have a coffee throwing competition. Whatever it is, just have fun and explore the possibilities. Engage with your community, get out there, have fun, and get messy!
Andrew Gomez is in charge of Specialty Coffee Sales and Training with Wilbur Curtis Co. He is a BGA Level 1 Barista, SCAA credentialed instructor, and past U.S. Barista Competition Judge.