Making connections and getting some freebies are just a couple of the many reasons volunteering at coffee events is enjoyable and rewarding.
BY EDDIE P. GOMEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Eddie P. Gomez
Undoubtedly, volunteers are an integral part of what helps some organizations thrive, and the specialty-coffee world is no exception. Those who sign up to volunteer at coffee events probably shouldn’t go into the experience thinking of rewards, but the fact that some incentives exist—though seldom monetary or even tangible—can motivate the experience. Besides, volunteering feels good and is a great way to give back to the many communities that surround us.
From latte art throwdowns to The Barista League to World of Coffee events, the specialty-coffee industry has plenty of opportunities to volunteer. Here are five of the greatest reasons to join the fun.
1. Professional Connections
Volunteering is a great way to connect with industry professionals. From baristas to producers, coffee people enjoy networking and sharing their career experiences with others. The Barista League, for example, is a worldwide organization that offers volunteer opportunities. It began in Norway in 2015, with the simple aim of providing high-quality content and hosting safe and inclusive coffee events, with barista competitions in a party-like atmosphere.
Cat O’Shea, who volunteered at a Barista League event in Manchester, England, last fall, worked her way through the ranks of specialty coffee from barista to Q Grader. After starting Radical Roasters in Bristol, she wanted to be better connected to her local coffee community, so volunteering felt like a good decision. “Volunteering in The Barista League was unforgettable,” Cat says. ”The atmosphere was totally inclusive. A highlight was definitely meeting new friends and coffee professionals in the area.”
2. Swag & Giveaways
Let’s face it: Free stuff leaves us with a lingering sense of satisfaction. Whether it is a catered lunch, a shiny mug, or a commemorative T-shirt, non-monetary compensation at coffee events always makes volunteers feel well cared for.
After responding to an ad for volunteers at an SCA Cup Tasters event in San Francisco in 2016, I made my way to the Herbst Pavilion, where the Good Food Foundation awards were also taking place. Before too long, the SCA staff welcomed me and carefully explained the Cup Tasters rules, outfitting me with an Urnex apron, a clipboard, and a stopwatch in order to guide me through the very important work of volunteer timekeeping during the competition.
What transpired over the next two days still feels magical for many reasons—one of those being a trunk full of accumulated giveaways. On the last day of the event, some attendees saw me carrying away multiple samples of Verve Coffee and Counter Culture Coffee, some of which they offered to trade for organic honey and jars of marinated sweet peppers. The exchange was enough to give me a fuzzy feeling inside and send me away looking for the next volunteer opportunity.
3. Meeting Lifelong Friends
In the above photo taken at the 2022 U.S. Coffee Championships in Boston, the six of us are all smiles, happily aware in the moment of how rare it is to be among such a diverse group of people from all over the country.
Our group of volunteers helped stage managers with the coffee-tasting triangulations that are the basis for the Cup Tasters competitions; our group featured a roaster from San Diego, two baristas from Brooklyn, N.Y., a coffee-loving tech worker from Boston, and the event’s host, a longtime coffee professional from the Cleveland area.
Before too long, friendships were sealed and Instagram handles exchanged. The most enduring part, however, was listening to their stories of life back home, and learning how the details of how my peers’ daily lives are intertwined with specialty coffee.
4. A Place to Learn and Grow
Often, a volunteer’s trajectory in specialty coffee is shaped by their volunteer experience. As their interests and knowledge in coffee grows, the volunteer jobs they sign up for also grow with them, advancing from setting up to managing a stage to hosting a competition. When speaking with Richard Stiller, World of Coffee Events guild director, we were reminded of the important role volunteers play in getting these events off the ground. “All over the globe people are wanting to connect and learn, and volunteering at an event allows them the opportunity,” he shares.
5. The Best Seat in the House
Volunteers are usually at work, but there is some time in between to get in on the close-up action. Imagine that you are volunteering at the 2022 U.S Brewers Cup helping set up the competitors’ presentation table right before the judges arrive on scene. Elika Liftee, the current U.S Brewers Cup champion—who is about to repeat as champion—quietly prepares for his presentation nearby, nonchalantly coming over to engage in small talk. Minutes later, as the volunteer timekeeper for the competition, you brief him on the timekeeping rules and wish him luck. Then the presentation begins with the words, “My name is Elika Liftee from Onyx Coffee Lab …”
The rest of the volunteers are gathered just beyond camera range. Their only job during the competition is to stand by until the process repeats itself for the next contestant. Often, after a coffee event, you know that you’ve witnessed something special from just a few feet away—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eddie P. Gomez (he/him) is a freelance writer based in Modesto, Calif. When he is not substitute teaching kindergarten classes, he wanders from city to city, perfecting the art of the food and coffee adventure.