Building Coffee Community in Rochester, One TNT at a Time

Watching winner Tony Colon pour from the judges' side of the table.
Editor’s note: Wade Reed contacted me through our mutual friend, Todd Mackey at Coffee Solutions, about the Thursday Night Throwdown his company, Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, would be hosting in late May. Wade and Todd knew each other from being heavily involved in the Northeastern barista community, both working to strengthen and develop the area to be a hub for enthusiastic and involved coffee professionals. We at Barista Magazine are always ”seriously, always ”down to support a barista jam, TNT, cupping, or gathering of coffee professionals of any kind (just ask!), so I was all in when Wade asked for a subscription to be donated as a prize. I also asked him to write about the event and send a few photos along, and I’m so glad he did. I was inspired and thrilled to read this acciunt of a fun night for coffee lovers in Rochester that marked a monumental moment in the history of the Northeastern coffee community: it’s here, and it’s here to stay. Bravo to all the baristas, and especially to Joe Bean for getting the ball rolling.
Some changes are so subtle we barely notice them. For instance, watching my one-year-old grow up has been a staggering series of “How did you get so big?” and “When did you learn that?” moments. These are the changes that the daily experience of time sneaks under our noses without even the slightest hint. By contrast, other changes mark time itself, and announce the comings and goings of life with an unforgettable, almost audible roar. Such was the kind of change we experienced in Rochester, New York at our TNT on May 23rd.
Throwdown May 2013 PCard V1 print
First, some context. This was the fifth throwdown that Joe Bean Coffee Roasters has hosted in our continuing effort to develop the culture of specialty coffee in Rochester. The first time we held one, just over a year and a half ago, people kept asking, “What’s a Latte Down?” Previous throwdowns have seen us begging coffee professionals who had come to watch to please, please, please pour so our bracket would be even at 12 or 16 baristas. This is not to say they have been unsuccessful; We have hosted some great parties, but always with the uneasy feeling that we’re just not quite where we want to be, in terms of specialty culture in Rochester.
Competitor Benjamin Woelk wins his first round pour with a beautiful rosetta.
Competitor Benjamin Woelk wins his first round pour with a beautiful rosetta.
For this one,  our partners at Whole Latte Love provided two Gaggia TS espresso machines, and we hosted the event at Smoke Stack Cowork, a wide open shrine to urban rustic design in Rochester’s ailing High Falls District. Everything about this event was designed to increase its legitimacy as an opportunity for community development event. Even the prizes were coffee-related, from SCAA mugs and shirts, to BGA memberships (sponsored by the Rochester Coffee Society), to Barista Magazine subscriptions to tickets to Joe Bean’s next collaborative coffee dinner. With all the help from our friends in the larger coffee community and a venue that created a perfect vibe, I had especially high hopes for the event’s potential.
Competitor Brandon Rizzo throws a good-lookin' tulip on his way to the semi-finals.
Competitor Brandon Rizzo throws a good-lookin’ tulip on his way to the semi-finals.
Slowly, the room filled, and I had my first clue that this event represented a change: the competitors’ sign-up sheet, with 28 spaces, was nearly full. Twenty-five competitors from both Rochester and Buffalo made this, by far, the largest turnout of baristas Rochester has ever hosted. The change was even more palpable once the event began. Being a small and somewhat young specialty community, the quality of latte art at previous competitions was quite varied. Seeing a well-poured drink take down a blob or galaxy was not uncommon. This time, however, there was no telling, through the first
couple of rounds, who would come out on top. The quality of the pours showed us how much people had been practicing since our last event in February, a sign that people were more excited about coffee, and coffee community, than we had previous known.
Twenty-five being an odd number, and being the event organizer, I was tapped to play “I-can-win-but-not-advance” spoiler in a final round. To be honest, I didn’t expect to beat any of the finalists I might have to face. But this gave me a unique opportunity to take in the event from a quasi-spectator role. The message was clear: This is a specialty coffee community with energy and all the potential in the world.
Watching winner Tony Colon pour from the judges' side of the table.
Watching winner Tony Colon pour from the judges’ side of the table.
Then came the most poignant sign of change. For the first time, a barista from Rochester who does not work at Joe Bean took home the grand prize. A ringer from Buffalo took us down a couple times, but no home-grown competitor from outside our walls had yet been able to go all the way. Tony Colon, owner of Fuego Coffee, Rochester’s latest addition to the specialty scene, won with what were some of the best pours all night.  While part of me might rather see one of my coworkers bring it home, the excitement at seeing the larger community take part at such an expert level was pure joy.
Judges Amy Powers, Jeff Ching, and Jon Mervine engage in some intense deliberation over this quarter-final round pour.
Judges Amy Powers, Jeff Ching, and Jon Mervine engage in some intense deliberation over this quarter-final round pour.
On top of everything, this TNT was our second benefit for the school in Las Nubes, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Joe Bean entered into our first direct trade relationship with Gold Mountain Coffee Growers just last year. Since then, we have had the opportunity to learn, first hand, of all the projects Gold Mountain supports in the Las Nubes community. One of these projects, the support and development of a school in the community, caught the attention of our friends at Journeys of Solutions, who have sponsored our efforts to raise funds and awareness for the school on behalf of the Las Nubes community. To date, our two throwdowns have raised $1950 for Gold Mountain in its continuing mission to support growers and their communities.
I know that latte art is hardly the measure of the quality of one’s specialty coffee community, and I have no illusions about what it might take to capitalize on this momentum. But some steps are just bigger and more tangible than others, and this one showed just how much potential we can expect from the specialty coffee community in Rochester as we move forward. I, for one, cannot wait to see where it takes us.
About Sarah 934 Articles
Sarah Allen (she/her) is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.