The Thursday Night Throwdown—or TNT—is one of the most time-honored barista-bonding traditions. In this two-part series, we recount the history of the TNT through its founders as they tell the oral history of the throwdown.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Throwdowns have become ubiquitous in the coffee community—they are the way baristas unwind and connect with their community. But where did these throwdowns come from? How did they become the raucous events they are? And why Thursdays? We asked some early influencers to tell their stories about the throwdown, and present to you their (mostly) unedited stories and memories.
This is the second in a two-part series. To read the first half, click here.
Sarah Allen: Another American who was influential in shaping the throwdown concept is Ben Helfen, who then worked at Octane Coffee in Atlanta, and now works at Counter Culture Coffee in Atlanta. Ben specifically pioneered the Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) concept. I think people were already having throwdowns (Scott’s concept), and Ben furthered it with the TNT format.
Ben Helfen: M’lissa Muckerman and I started the TNTs in Atlanta after we got back from 2008 Coffee Fest/MARBC (Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition). I had won “Millrock” as the Coffee Fest latte art thing it was called at the time, and there was an awesome throwdown at the Counter Culture D.C. training center that inspired us. We wanted the fun to never end! So we did recurring throwdowns in Atlanta on Thursdays because “TNT” was just a fun acronym and Thursday was a good day for most baristas at the time. We masochistically started doing them weekly but then switched to monthly. We even had a banner with the winners and everything! Here’s the old blog that has some funny old stuff in it.
M’lissa Muckerman: I was at the Intelli smackdown.
I was at the Nordic Barista Cup.
I was photographing the Millrock that Ben won.
Also my face was on the cover of the Barista Magazine that was used to put the lattes on! Ha!
Ben Helfen: I personally didn’t get involved ’til ’08. M’lissa Muckerman and I started the Thursday Night Throwdowns in Atlanta, which were just recurring throwdowns. Scott had the idea for a “throwdown” (probably first use of that word?) at Nordic Barista Cup in ’07.
M’lissa Muckerman: After coming back from D.C. Coffee Fest (that was Valentine’s Day 2008! Ben and I laughed that we’d traveled together and not with our respective boyfriend/girlfriend), Ben really wanted to bring that sense of community back to Atlanta. I think that had been his first coffee gathering and, as we all are, was completely smitten with the family vibes the coffee world has. We decided to put together a latte art competition to start a coffee family in Atlanta. An event to bring anyone who loves coffee to one place, despite company affiliations or position or experience.
Ben and I developed the rules and judging criteria, found sponsors, and spread the word. I had a pretty popular blog at the time (Tamp This on coffeerevelation.com, later moved to tampthis.com), so that helped. We made flyers and a giant banner to put the names of the winners on! As far as the name, I was hosting weekly cupping and tasting events on Mondays, so we thought Thursday was just the best night as far as business and other events happening at Octane. When we realized the acronym TNT we loved it, and then Ben came up with the luchador logo and it was set!
We were overwhelmed with the popularity of the first one, I mean, kids drove from Alabama!! We had initially thought it was going to be a weekly event, but we quickly realized how much effort we were putting into it and scaled it back to monthly. Soon, other shops were asking us if they could throw a TNT and Ben and I were beyond thrilled! CNN did a piece on it even: “Barista Event Turns Coffee into an Art Form” that aired June 2008.
Ben and I never competed in the standard TNTs, only special events. I competed twice (winning both of them!)—once when James Hoffmann was in town, and the other was my last night at Octane before moving out to San Francisco to work for Ritual.
Scott Lucey: The joy of the throwdown specific to the event, to me, is firstly that it is thrilling to see that the playing field is more even that you might think. A newbie comes into the event thinking so-and-so senior barista is going to win because you see them nail it day after day. But to everyone’s surprise, they choke or get edged out by someone else. Secondly—it’s great to get newbies to be just a little bit competitive. They pour knowing that they’re not going to win but sometimes may surprise themselves by beating someone else who was surprisingly worse. Or they may accomplish mini-goals, like to say I only made it past round one last time, this time I have to make it past round two. … I digress, I think you get the point …