Beyond the Throwdown: Other Ways to Grow Your Coffee Community

Interest in coffee is growing beyond the cafe. Social media influencers like James Hoffman (jimseven) and Morgan Eckroth (MorganDrinksCoffee) have millions of followers—folks eager for coffee knowledge and to learn more about their favorite brew.

Eckroth, who won the 2022 United States Barista Champion in April, proved that as they live-streamed each round to their YouTube and TikTok followers during their winning routine, garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

Eckroth’s historic live stream was the culmination of a video series leading up to the competition. With each new video or short, they brought the world of coffee championships into the lives of their massive following. On their USBC announcement video, Eckroth’s fans left comments like:

“This is so exciting! I just finished my first SCA Barista Skills course and did my first cup tasters competition! I would like to do a Barista competition in the next 3 years and I think this will help me alot!” – Kayla S.

“Rooting for you Morgan! I’m a relatively new subscriber, but I loooooove your content. Excited for the coffee preliminaries! Thanks for taking us along, friend!” – Amber S.

This heightened attention means more customers are interested in joining in on our caffeinated fun.

Mobile Food Monday at Curiosity Coffee Bar

When local coffee communities gather, we tend to default to throwing a latte art throwdown. While these events are an exciting way to hone barista skills and network with industry pros, the high energy, loud, and competitive nature of throwdowns can be a slightly overwhelming introduction to the specialty coffee world for interested enthusiasts and new baristas. Latte art throwdowns may not be an enticing event for those looking to learn more and join their local coffee community.

Fortunately, coffee is such an expansive and creative industry that there’s room for every type of gathering. If you want to grow your coffee community, there are several ways to do so beyond a latte art competition.

Coffee & Sensory Education

In the last two years, consumer behavior shifted toward brewing coffee at home, and sales of home brewing equipment increased as a response to global crises. Realizing they couldn’t replicate the sweet caffeinated nectar found at their local coffee shop, customers were forced to expand their coffee education and sought help from social media influencers like Eckroth and Hoffman and local coffee experts.

Bringing curious customers and industry members together through educational opportunities builds a coffee community rooted in shared knowledge and connection.

Piyapat Lapteerawut (Flook) teaching the author’s husband how to do latte art.

Consider hosting educational events such as:

  • “Ask a Coffee Pro” — Invite attendees to ask questions to a panel of local roasters, baristas, importers, and other coffee experts. Cafe Imports’ “Stump the Roaster” event brings a panel of roasters together to chat about various educational topics and answer questions from guests. The Barista League’s virtual “After Hours: Meet the Roasters” panel offered guests a similar inside look into the life of a coffee roaster.
  • Hands-On Classes — Plan interactive learning experiences like palate training, latte art techniques, and “Barista 101” classes to expand the coffee knowledge of your community. If possible, offer courses online to extend professional development and educational opportunities to those who may not have physical access to your shop.
  • Coffee Tastings — Public coffee tastings are a great way to bring customers and industry pros together for an experience filled with flavor, education, and fun. If hosting a coffee cupping event, be sure to adhere to proper protocols for the health and safety of all participants.
  • Palate Calibrations — There’s nothing more rewarding than watching a new barista discover a specific flavor in their coffee. Palate calibration events are a great way to bring this opportunity to customers and industry members. Ask a local grocery store to sponsor the event and donate ingredients for a full flavor spectrum.

Coffee Challenges

After hosting several sensory experiences for your coffee community, let them put their newfound knowledge and talents to the test with fun challenges.

The best part? These challenges can be whatever you want them to be. 

Take some inspiration from these unique coffee activities:

La Marzocco’s Crush the Rush events invited barista teams to work together to prepare a series of espresso drinks in the fastest time, with some other fun elements thrown in along the way. The events focused on bringing the coffee community together for light-hearted competition and learning experiences.

Coffee Project NY held a Valentine’s Day Coffee Marathon with coffee enthusiasts working in pairs to solve hands-on coffee challenges like triangulation, green coffee sorting, and two-person latte art. 

The author and her husband at Coffee Project NY’s Valentine’s Day Coffee Marathon.

Glitter Cat Barista’s DiGi-2-TiON brought marginalized coffee pros and enthusiasts of all skill levels together for a 100% online coffee competition focused on celebrating community, creativity, and coffee.

To get the ball rolling for your coffee community, host one of these coffee challenges in your town:

  • Coffee Trivia — Let participants flex their knowledge of the coffee industry with a trivia challenge. 
  • Triangulation — One of these things is not like the other, and attendees have to figure it out! Showcase the gamut of coffee flavors and characteristics by hosting a triangulation challenge for all to join.
  • Signature Drink Competition — Grow your community by inviting bartenders, mixology enthusiasts, and baristas to craft a creative coffee-based beverage — alcoholic or not — with a signature drink competition held at your coffee shop.
  • Beginner Latte Art Challenge — Put a spin on the classic latte art throwdown and invite customers and home baristas to showcase their best work. This fun twist on latte art competitions allows enthusiasts to be a barista for a day and gently enter the specialty coffee scene.

Coffee and Creativity

Coffee is an inherently creative industry filled with mesmerizing stories, music, and art. Pair the two together, and you’ve got yourself a fun community-oriented event.

Couplet Coffee recently held a well-attended Queer Art Show & Open Mic Poetry Night, bringing people together for a night filled with coffee and the arts.

Humans of Haiti brunch event at Lakou Cafe. Photos by D&R Photography.

Previously, the Bay Area Coffee Community (BACC) would regularly host events like free yoga classes and storytelling nights, while the Portland Coffee Social Club held a weekly book club.  

From art shows centered around specialty coffee to movie nights for coffee documentaries, you can’t go wrong when you invite customers and industry members to an event filled with coffee and creativity.

Collaborate With Others to Expand Your Coffee Community

It’s easy to think of coffee communities as solely those who work in the industry. In reality, those who make up local coffee scenes extend far beyond the area’s baristas and roasters.

Artists, bakers, content creators, athletes — anyone who loves coffee — all play an instrumental role in expanding each city’s coffee community. Collaborate with these communities and other local organizations to host coffee events in your neighborhood. You’ll slowly grow and strengthen your area’s coffee network with each event.

From public coffee tastings to thrilling coffee challenges, there are many ways to build a coffee community through engaging events. Be creative, find the right partners, and host an event that invites everyone to explore the specialty coffee community in your area.

Anne Mercer is a freelance writer specializing in helping brands and individuals carve out their space in the specialty coffee industry. She is also the co-owner of Victus Coffee, based in West Hartford, Connecticut. Visit her website at annemercer.com