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  • Umeko Motoyoshi

DIGITAL COFFEE EVENTS: A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE


MiMo creates a coffee cocktail while competing in The Barista League’s first online season. Still from MiMo’s self-shot video.

Events are key to coffee industry culture. From homespun latte art throwdowns to large-scale conferences, events provide crucial opportunities for networking and professional development. Coffee people also just LIKE events. Do dentists spend their free time competitively cleaning teeth for an audience of other dentists? Nope! But some coffee pros face off in public latte art contests on a weekly basis. The industry flocks to events of all kinds - any excuse to get coffee people together face-to-face.

So at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the cascade of event cancellations caused bewilderment bordering on panic. Soon, however, digital events became the new normal - from brewing classes hosted on Instagram Live to The Barista League’s first ever online competition cycle. Even the annual Specialty Coffee Association Expo, one of the US’ biggest events, went digital. And coffee professionals are noticing something: in many ways, virtual events are far more sustainable than physical events.

From an environmental standpoint, it’s clearly more sustainable to tune in from home rather than hopping a plane across the country or the world. And financially, it’s never been easier for coffee professionals to attend as many events as they’d like without going broke or burning out. Digital events are often free or low cost, whereas large conferences can be prohibitively expensive.

“If coffee events aren’t financially accessible,” says Chris MacAuley, founder of Getchusomegear, “A great deal of deserving folks are left out—especially coffee pros that hold marginalized identities.”

In preparation for this article, I surveyed 52 coffee professionals about their experiences, and interviewed industry leaders forging a new path in the digital events space. Do digital events have a future after COVID? Can this new mode of interacting sustain itself in the future? All signs point to yes, and accessibility is the key.


MONEY, MONEY, MONEY


“I don’t know the exact percentage, but I can guarantee the vast majority of coffee industry workers are underpaid,” says T. Ben Grimm, founder of GlitterCat Barista. She adds that most coffee workers are making minimum wage or even less. “Just because someone has money does not make them more important or more valuable to the industry or an event, yet we frequently see finances determining who gets to participate at coffee competitions … which is usually able-bodied white men.”

“The folks most negatively impacted by financial barriers are primarily tipped and hourly employees,” says Adam JacksonBey. Adam is the founder of GoFundBean, a nonprofit committed to uplifting and supporting hourly coffee workers. “Within that group, people of color are heavily represented so they are hit pretty hard—disproportionately so.”


Adam JacksonBey, founder of GoFundBean. Photo by Vlad Tchomplav.


My survey data supports this: despite having similar amount of industry experience, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) coffee professionals were nearly 4x more likely to be baristas – typically the lowest paid employees in the industry – than white survey respondents.

While small coffee events like latte art throwdowns typically are free or cheap ($5-$15) to attend, large conferences typically require travel and several days’ lodging. Many coffee workers also lose pay if they take time off work to attend a conference. These costs, combined with the entry fee, can total upward of $1,000. And employers often do not cover costs, even when an employee is representing the business. Out of 52 respondents who had attended at least one coffee event, only 49% had experienced an employer paying for even part of the cost.

With employees shouldering the financial burden of travel and tickets, the lowest-paid coffee professionals inevitably are often left out, causing a racial divide in the attendance of in-person events. White survey respondents had attended an average of 7.4 physical events while BIPOC had only attended 4.3, despite having worked in the coffee industry for the same length of time. Neither group had attended many digital events. But when physical events were replaced by digital, the attendance gap virtually disappeared. During COVID, BIPOC have attended an average of 2.9 events while white respondents have attended an average of 2.96 - all digital.

Angela Ferrara is Director of Communications at The Barista League, whose events have always been free. The Barista League has also published a recent book on event organization. “The average barista,” says Angela, “Shouldn’t need to qualify for a scholarship or go into debt in order to attend an industry event. All people are inherently deserving of growth opportunities and access to events.”


WHY ARE EVENTS SO IMPORTANT?


“The greatest professional advantage to attending a coffee event is networking,” says Adam. “Going to events gives you the opportunity to meet other folks, put a face to the name, and potentially be able to utilize them as a resource when you want to make a forward or lateral move in the industry or when you have any questions or concerns.”

Events also provide invaluable professional development via lectures, classes, and workshops, and provide opportunities to stay up to date on the latest products and industry developments. Attendees can participate in a range of experiences from sensory exercises to trying out new equipment - and of course, lots of coffee! Says Omar Maagaard Hossain, a coffee educator in Copenhagen, “I connect better with people in a real life face-to-face circumstance. Being able to have a conversation ... allows me to have a more connected experience.”

“A coffee festival offers a multitude of experiences,” says Eilís Barrett, a head barista in Galway, Ireland. “Interacting with new or unfamiliar equipment, meeting peers, attending talks, seminar, workshops and actually tasting new coffees and coffee related foods/beverages.”

An anonymous survey respondent from Saitama, Japan, wrote about the importance of in-person sensory experiences. “Sharing not only thoughts but also the smell and flavor of coffee, and the atmosphere ... is irreplaceable.”


THE BENEFITS OF DIGITAL


While digital events cannot replace all aspects of physical events, they offer a radically accessible alternative for many people.

Physical events spark a lot of social anxiety for me,” says Ren Wheeler, a food and beverage manager in Cambridge, MA. “I would love to use events to network, but find it incredibly difficult to approach folks on my own. I’ve found it much easier to connect with folks digitally.”

Says Brennan Rodriguez, a head roaster and Q Grader in Tampa, “Digital competitions are extremely accessible for disabled folks that might face obstacles in a standard setting when it comes to speech/translation, mobility, compromised immune systems, or even light and noise sensitivity.”

They add, “Digital competitions are also more relaxed for folks that might struggle with alcohol or substance abuse, because in a digital setting you are far less tempted or pressured to partake in activities that you might be trying to avoid.”

Indeed, drinking and partying are considered part and parcel of many events. Sober coffee professionals often face a tough choice: to either attend heavily liquored up parties and feel uncomfortable, or stay at the AirBnB and miss out on networking opportunities. Even for people who don’t identify as sober, digital events offer a refreshing break from the pressure to drink.



Angela Ferrara, Director of Communications at The Barista League. Photo by Cassie Ash.


Angela Ferrara, Director of Communications at The Barista League, believes the online events space will only continue to improve as organizers gain experience. “My prediction is that the coffee world post-COVID will host a hybrid of digital and physical events. Many digital events cost less to produce, are accessible by all time zones, and are open to folks from all locations which are ideals that all coffee events can definitely benefit from.”


PRIORITIZING ACCESSIBILITY


T. Ben Grimm, founder of GlitterCat Barista. Photo by Haley Aurora Sage.


The online format requires attention to details that may be new for event organizers. However, says Angela, “Regardless of whether an event is physical or digital, our main goal is to create something fun, accessible, engaging, and community-driven. It’s really the process that changes in order to achieve those goals.”

What kinds of considerations should be put into place? Because all information is being presented via digital media, considerations like captioning on videos are necessary for attendees to be able to follow along. “Fonts need to be legible and contrasted with backgrounds,” says T. Ben. “Alternatives need to be ready for those who don’t have access to filling out a google form or are visually impaired.”

Overall, the event should be easy for all participants to understand and navigate, without having to meet special requirements. Says T. Ben, “We need to grow into a place of having accessibility not needing to be requested.” It’s a learning curve, but well worth it. To aid in the process of learning and improving, event organizers should provide a clear and easy path for attendees to ask questions and provide feedback.


THE FUTURE OF EVENTS


“The social aspect of a live event is great, but learning and developing through live events is not sustainable,” says Victor Reyes III, a coffee professional in Aurora, OR. “Creating equitable access to knowledge and development is vital to the long-term health of the industry.”

In the survey for this article, coffee pros praised physical events for networking, and digital for learning and professional development. 69% of all respondents said they would like to continue attending digital events after COVID.

At GlitterCat Barista, Eric Grimm and T. Ben Grimm are committed to forging ahead. “Digital events are the future and we’re going to try to make sure it keeps going post-COVID,” says Eric. Before the pandemic, GlitterCat provided free competition training for marginalized coffee pros. Now they are hosting their own online competition, the DiGiTiTiON, for the same demographic. It’s entirely free to all competitors, who will receive the necessary equipment shipped to their homes - including an entire espresso machine.

By offering hands-on experiences and accessible platforms, competitions like GlitterCat and The Barista League hold great promise to expand the possibilities and benefits of digital events. “I have learned a lot this year,” say T. Ben, “And that learning is not over.”


GlitterCat’s 2020 DiGiTiTiON competitors. Image courtesy of GlitterCat Barista.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Umeko Motoyoshi is an award-winning coffee writer and educator. A licensed Q-Grader with fourteen years of experience, they founded coffee sustainability platform @wastingcoffee and authored the book Not Wasting Coffee. Umeko is also founder of Umeshiso.com, an online coffee supply shop specializing in rainbow cupping spoons. Umeko’s mission is to make coffee accessible, empowering, and welcoming for people of all backgrounds and identities.

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