Tonight at Jup’s Coffee in Gothenburg, Sweden. I will be joined by many of the city’s most talented baristas in the Gothenburg version of a coffee industry tradition known as Thursday Night Throwdown. The Throwdown is a latte art competitition that begain at Octane Coffee in Atlanta a few years ago. There are various versions of these events all over the world that aren’t necessarily called “Thursday Night Throwdown” (technically, it doesn’t even HAVE to take place on a Thursday) and the one thing they have in common is that the shared goal of uniting people within the local coffee community.
While the competition in these events are is pretty serious, they are still intended to be FUN. A lot of times a bit of beer is provided to help liven up the evening even more. It should be noted, though, that the competition itself is NOT the focus. It really doesn’t matter who wins or who doesn’t win. What matters is many of us who work as baristas really enjoy being baristas, yet being that we work in coffee shops it is necessary that we all perform dozens of often mundane tasks throughout our work days in order to keep the café operating. So perhaps we don’t have the time in our daily schedules to just do the thing we love the most, make coffee.
This past weekend, I worked with Åre Kafferosteri at a local event. There were no sandwiches to prepare, very minimal cleaning, no dishes to wash. We just made coffee. And I have to say, leading up to today it was a very calming and relaxing experience to just make cup of after cup of cappucinos, lattes and machiattos. Even though everything we served was in paper cups, it was still an almost liberating experience. I haven’t had a chance to just focus on coffee in a very long time. Last night, I went down to Mahogny after the shop had closed and just practiced making drink after drink and again, it was a very liberating experience. I even noticed some kinks in my technique that I didn’t even realize existed.
One of the benefits of an event such as a “latte art throwdown” or “barista jam” is that not only do we as individual competitors get to show off our own stuff, but we get to see how others in our profession do the same thing. We get to take notes, exchange ideas, share techniques and tricks of the trade which, in turn, will raise the overall quality of coffee preparation in the city.
Another thing that jumped out during the event with Åre was that for many people, coffee is just coffee. It doesn’t matter where the beans come from, how they were roasted or even how pretty the rosetta in the latte art may appear. Coffee is coffee. The aforementioned event was a high-end Hi-Fi exhibition featuring super-mega expensive stereos, some of which literally costs as much as a house. We were selling all coffee drinks for just 20 kronor (10 for a single espresso) which is a bargain at pretty much anywhere in town that wasn’t a 7-11 or Pressbyrån. But there was this one customer who complained about the cost of the coffee! First of all, Åre’s coffee is worth WAY more than the 20 kronor we were selling it for, second of all it was a HIGH END HI-FI EXHIBITION featuring million kronor stereos!!!!! Obviously, to this customer coffee — no matter the quality — was just not something he felt was worthy of paying that much money for, even if it was at a ridiculously discounted amount.
People take coffee for granted. It’s just a fact of life. And why not? It is readily available and sometimes it’s just given away. So it can be a bit demeaning when someone gripes about the price of a very high quality coffee or when somebody demands that we provide sugar even if we believe the coffee doesn’t require it (another Hi-Fi Expo tale.) I don’t think a majority of non-industry people even view being a barista as an occupation that come grow into a career — which is a bit odd considering how much coffee is consumed in the world — so it’s important that we have Throwdowns, “Brewdowns” or any other coffee-industry gathering if only to reinforce any doubts that may saunter into our collective psyches about the relevance of our jobs.
From a personal standpoint, if I had never joined the staff at Murky Coffee there’s no way I would be in the position I am in today. My time at Murky and subsequently, Big Bear Café, gave me not only a bankable skill but a high level of expectations for myself within the field. Murky taught me the techniques but it was my job as trainer at Big Bear that really forced me to think about the craft as I had to find a way to communicate what by that point had come as second nature to someone with little to no experience in the biz. Without any of this as a foundation (as well as an endorsement from Nick Cho) there’s no way I would have found work at DaMatteo. I’m not saying that being a barista is the ONLY way to find work if you move to another country but is a highly bankable skill to have in your back pocket, especially in these economic times.
There seems to be a considerable amount of excitement surrounding tonight’s event. I have to say, considering the fact that 95% percent of its existence is due to my own effort I am equally stunned, nervous and relieved that it’s actually going to happen. When I proposed it this summer to members of the coffee community I promised that I’d take care of everything as far as getting this off the ground. However, for this to mean anything it has to be a regular occurence and other people have to help share the workload, there’s no way I can do this all by myself every time. Hopefully the TNT will go well enough to inspire other members of the scene to step forward and help make this thing into a monthly thing. I’ll admit, I have a few ideas already about next months but I’m not going to worry about that right now.
Right now I’m just going to savor the moment and go out there and rub elbows with my brothers and sisters working in the trade. Coffee is not just what we do, it is who we are and we are NOT to be taken for granted.
[For those that would like to follow the event, I have created a channel on Ustream and will be streaming the whole thing! Here's the link.]