Get it Together

By Christopher Schooley, Coffee Roaster, Coffee Shrub/Sweet Maria’s

I remember very clearly what it felt like to walk into my first coffee event. I certainly went into it with some preconceived notions, but of course that all went up in smoke. There was so much tasting, lecture, discussion, and tinkering happening with the tools of our craft, it was impossible to not be completely immersed in coffee roasting. Even beyond the activities we were participating in, the interaction with other roasters was a most rewarding aspect.

I discovered that I was a part of a community. I became more and more involved in this community, and grew to be a more active member through my participation and volunteering—and not just at that first coffee event, but also at other events with access to an even larger community. I also became more involved with my new community through interactions online, but it was definitely the events and the in-person interaction that were the most rewarding and inspiring.

This same idea of access to a community is one of the main driving forces behind the emergence and popularity of latté art throwdown type get-togethers. These smaller scale informal events have truly been a tremendous means of not just tying together the coffee communities in the cities and/or regions where they’re happening, but also in pushing quality standards and expectations in these regions. All of this is great, but in many cases people are asking for more. While these events provide the venue for interaction with other professionals, they’re not necessarily providing a format where attendees can be engaged in activities that test their skills or expose them to new ones, or even to taste something and discuss why it tastes that way and/or how to make it taste another way.

This is what happened with the throwdowns here in Colorado, despite that fact that we tried to incorporate some alternative programming into the existing format. We still wanted something different. If we were going to try to pull such a vast region together, with some people driving a couple of hours to attend the event, then we had to deliver something that was more engaging. We decided to host a tasting and a roundtable discussion. Roasters signed up to participate and brought a coffee that they wanted to share, along with the brew method of their choosing with which to showcase it. After everyone had a decent chance to taste each of the coffees, we opened the floor to the roasters to talk about their coffees, why they brought them and chose their particular brewing method, and then gave the roasters feedback on the coffee. Honestly, this could’ve been the entirety of the event, but we decided to also have a roundtable discussion about standards and expectations, broken into three categories: product, skill, and service.

It’s safe to say that a good number of the attendees walked out of the event at the end of that night with a renewed sense of commitment to how they approach their work. This isn’t necessarily because there were a number of groundbreaking comments made during the discussions, or even because of the direct feedback on one of their coffees. It was because they sat in a room with their peers and articulated what they felt was important. As simple as this sounds, you really can’t ignore the impact that having to explain yourself and your own standards and expectations to your peers has on actualizing them. Your vocalization is as important as the reaction of your peers.

A good deal of thought has gone into how the SCAA can support member-driven events such as this. While promotions of the events through some of the association’s channels can help push attendance, it’s really with the programming where we can be the most help. Working from a template provided by the BGA or RG for setting up a tasting and/or roundtable experience can be a great place to start when planning a small-scale regional event. These templates can also create a means of gathering information about a similar topic from a number of unique regions though roundtable discussions and even tastings that are focused around research, as in the case of the Roasters Guild’s study on product quality stability done for last year’s Roasters Guild Retreat. What we really hope is that these types of programs can be an excellent supplement to existing and already successful regional events.

Part of the conversation surrounding how to create new programming for a regional event here in Colorado was about how, although we were looking to add something new to the mix, we also still wanted to encourage the latté art throwdowns. Maybe, we thought, they could be even more directly local, instead of four or more towns converging, there could be a Denver throwdown and a Boulder throwdown, and so on, and none of them had to shoulder the responsibility of being the “end all be all” event for the region in a given timeframe. The throwdown could just be an excuse to get together. Ultimately, that’s all we’re looking for. We learn a great deal from each other when we meet together.

Just last week, I attended a throwdown in Denver. There was a pretty decent turnout, mostly Denver folks. I was even surprised to run into a couple folks from Fort Collins – my town – who made the drive down. I gave a little presentation and tasting at the beginning of the event, and talked about tasting the difference between two different coffees via two different methods. Then we launched into the business at hand, which was actually a very interesting twist on the throwdown format, with three different barista focused rounds. It was exciting to see everyone get into the contest and test his or her skills. There were plenty of opportunities for whoever wanted to buy in to participate. I was just happy to be there with my community.

Christopher Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Shrub and is the Immediate Past Chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council. Schooley believes that the surest path towards a deeper understanding of one’s craft is through the sharing of knowledge and open conversation, as well as challenging yourself to work outside of your immediate experience.