The day-long community education and celebration event that followed the Denver CoffeeChamps Qualifier was something quite special.
BY SARAH ALLEN
Disclaimer: I was a presenter at the Pacific Barista Series event held December 3 in Denver called “Small Changes, Big Impacts,” so perhaps I’m biased when I say it was a marvelous, unique, and much-needed event for our coffee community both on local and national levels. And I’ll take this moment high in the story to say that Pacific will host another of these events, perhaps as soon as at the U.S. CoffeeChamps event in Kansas City, Mo., in March, so stay tuned. The only thing wrong with the December 3 event was that not enough people attending the Denver CoffeeChamps weekend had even heard about the Pacific event, much less understood what it was and what would be covered beforehand. So the group that showed up at the fabulous Mile High Station event space in Denver on that chilly Monday following the competitions was small, but make no mistake—they were mighty. Those in attendance were community leaders interested in unorthodox solutions to sustainability efforts in the specialty-coffee community, and due to the high quality of the speakers and activities throughout the day, they left inspired and engaged.
The day included a philosophical discussion by esteemed coffee producer and Onyx Coffee owner Edwin Martinez, who talked about both his business in Bellingham, Wash. (Onyx), and his family farm, Finca Vista Hermosa in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. As a third-generation coffee producer, Edwin has enjoyed great success in the effort to balance old traditions and modern innovations at the farm level, which was what he shared in Denver.
Edwin’s discussion was followed by an inspiring talk by Joe Marrocco of Mill City Roasters in Minneapolis about the importance of integrity in specialty-coffee buying, roasting, and retailing. A dynamic speaker, Joe engaged the audience in considering exactly what coffee means to them on personal and professional levels, and emphasized the importance of maintaining that integrity as businesspeople.
Lunch was, I’ll venture to say, the highlight of the day, as attendees formed an assembly line to put together boxes containing protein-rich cartons of shelf-stable Pacific foods to be donated to a local school attended by kids who come from low-income houses. Attendees laughed and enjoyed one another as they threw themselves into the work, which resulted in three packed pallets of prepared boxes ready to be distributed at the school.
The sessions following lunch were less philosophical in their approach and more hands-on and educational in content. The fabulous Alex Cannon and Sharon Shin, both food scientists with Pacific and developers of the Barista Series Almond, Coconut, and Oat products that are so popular with baristas around the United States, explained the science behind formulating plant-based beverages specifically for café applications—in layman’s terms. Thanks to Alex and Sharon’s engaging and often hilarious tactics for delivering otherwise heady and intimidating information, attendees were glued to the material and agreed that they all left with a much more clear understanding of the products.
Anna Gutierrez of Barista 22, which is a syrups, sauces, and powders company based in Washington, delivered a fantastic discussion about how to approach steaming and pouring of Pacific’s Barista Series line of plant-based beverages. I’ve never seen the practices broken down with such clear and concise methods: Anna was able to formulate for the attendees precise recipes for steam and foam time product by product, from Soy to Almond, Coconut to Rice, and finally, to Oat.
Portland Roasting educator Lauren Lathrop took the stage next with a lively discussion of customer service. Given the high level of expertise of the attendees in the room, Lauren presented her theories on customer service as evidenced through practice and personal experience over her many years as a barista and trainer for a variety of coffee companies. I’ve been writing about customer service in specialty coffee for more than 15 years now, yet I walked away from Lauren’s lecture brimming with new information and perspective, and I know I was far from the only one who did.
The final event of the day was a panel discussion called “How Creating Community of a Grassroots Level Can Result in Mainstream Awareness.” Officially I was the moderator, but I didn’t do much—the awesomeness that this conversation became was due entirely to the well-respected, accomplished, and inspiring panelists assembled to talk about their own volunteer work as community leaders: T. Ben Fischer, founder of Glitter Cat Barista Bootcamp; Brittney Balestra, founder of the Womxn in Coffee Awards; Kat Melheim, founder of the Coffee People Zine; Kristyn Wade, an organizer of Cherry Roast and the incoming chair of the Rocky Mountain Craft Coffee Alliance; Cassie Ash, winner of The Barista League USA Tour and CoffeeChamps competitor; Angela Ferrara, who won The Barista League USA Tour with her partner, Cassie, and now works as the communications manager for The Barista League; and finally, CoffeeChamps Denver’s barista competition winner, Sam Neely, who found themselves thrust into the public eye as a community leader after becoming the youngest ever United States Barista Championship finalist in 2018.
The conversation that ensued between this group of thoughtful, compassionate, enthusiastic, determined, and inspiring community leaders covered the importance of inclusivity in specialty coffee, as well as real-world techniques for finding one’s own place as a community leader. I know at least a few of the attendees left the “Small Changes, Big Impacts” event feeling pretty damn fired up to start something of their own, and enact change for the better in their own communities. Many thanks to the Pacific Foods staff, especially Debra Kaminski, Mila Heller, and Nathanael May, for organizing an unforgettable event.