One of the things I most look forward to when I attend a coffee convention is the chance to see friends and colleagues from around the globe, coming together to act a fool at the array of after-parties, after-party-parties, mixers, and throwdowns. We're a strange lot to the rest of the world—to the “not coffee” people—and this awareness always makes me giggle inside. That's why, after wrapping up my work with the World AeroPress Championship (the world's leading more-a-party-than-a-competition competition), I was chuffed to be charged with the business of detailing the World Coffee Throwing Competition for Sprudge.
See, I'd already planned to attend as a spectator when I found myself in Dublin at World of Coffee, with a wide-open weekend calendar I was looking to fill. I learned about the Coffee Throwing from World AeroPress Championship co-founder/organizer, Tim Varney (also Bureaux Collective co-founder with business partner Tim Williams) who was slated to judge alongside Julie Housh (SCAA) and Sarah Allen (Barista Magazine). “It's literally a coffee throwing competition,” he explained. “They throw coffee.”
The posters explained it visually: Competitors launch a bag of coffee like a quarterback would an American football. Or a shotput if they chose that method. Sure. I would go to this—it was not like any other “coffee parties” happening, and I was ready for something unique. I also found my friend and fellow Sprudge contributor, Kate Beard, was registered to throw; she'd gotten in before the sign-ups quickly filled to max capacity, and was excited to have me as a cheerleader.
The night of the throwing, my AeroPress Championship team celebrated the closing of our 2016 season with champagne and dinner before trekking to The Bernard Shaw—a quirky mix of small boxy bar rooms and winding tunnels—one leading though a dystopia of dripping rain spouts into a gravel courtyard tagged with graffiti, and filled with a buzzing crowd of about 100 spectators and competitors. The throwing had just gotten underway with 3FE and Tamper Tantrum founder Colin Harmon directing and emceeing on the mic, and Jenn Rugolo (Tamper Tantrum) keeping track of scoring.
I've never seen a competition like this before in coffee. Basically, it was ridiculous and silly: a clear parody of the formal and serious tone of of events like the World Barista Championship and Brewers Cup. Rules required competitors to provide judges with a napkin (at one point cordially placed like hats upon judges' heads) and “water” which usually came in the form of a beer, a shot, or a plastic cup of Dublin. Each competitor would then wind up and chuck a bag of coffee into the air. If their throw wasn't DQ'ed by exploding coffee beans all over the gravel, the distance would be measured and nonsensical scores added up between the range of -10,000 and “Iceland is HOT.” Nobody was here to win—the point was to have a good time.
I want to tell you about the highlights and the lowlights of this event, and the highlight was definitely the hilarity of the costumes, competitors earnestly describing their (imagined) 90-point gesha to the judges, and the occasional throw that ended up over the fence into a neighboring restaurant's patio (promptly thrown back without comment). But there was definitely a moment of uneasiness surrounding the large box filled with 2lb bags of coffee meant to be thrown. I thought it was surely stale and not-sellable coffee, but I didn't know where it had come from. It was particularly cringe-inducing when a bag landed and exploded on impact, scattering in the dirt and gravel…when we all know each and every one of those coffee beans has been hand-picked by other humans, somewhere far, far away from here.
The evening continued, with a steady stream of traffic and entertaining antics. At the end of the event, the victors were crowned. Celebratory photos were taken. I scooted off to a La Marzocco party that seemed to be in a space double-booked with a wedding reception. There I ran into Stephen Vick (a Sprudgie Award-winning coffee professional based in Nairobi) who shared some thoughts with me about his concern for the way the coffee was treated at the Throwing.
He had walked out of the event earlier that evening. On his Instagram, right there from the neon-lit dance floor, he challenged Tamper Tantrum: “The fun tonight was hard to appreciate above how I felt watching coffee professionals, mostly from the developed and more economically stable parts of the word, throwing and kicking around roasted coffee that was hand-picked by people in developing countries.” He noted that not a single coffee farmer had been in attendance, despite many being in Dublin for the conference. “Progress in the specialty coffee industry depends on being able to see value in our coffees whether expired or not.”
every now and again, i witness events in my industry that are meant to be perceived as "fun" but immediately cause my heart to sink into my stomach a bit. the fun tonight was hard to appreciate above how i felt watching coffee professionals, mostly from the developed and more economically stable parts of the world, throwing and kicking around roasted coffee that was hand-picked by people in developing countries. progress in the specialty coffee industry depends on being able to see value in our coffees whether expired or not. some of us may think differently if we interact with growers more frequently. not a single coffee farmer, however, attended this event even though many are here in town for the conference. food for thought, @tamper.tantrum
I later spoke with Colin Harmon and Jenn Rugolo, to find out if they had considered a response to the concern about waste, which was brought up by many—not just Stephen Vick. It turns out the following day, after the WBC final announcements had been made, Harmon faced similar concerns. “I sat watching the new champion celebrate at the far end of the [WBC Arena] while I chatted with four of our industries' most respected contributors. The conversation very quickly came round to the World Coffee Throwing championships and a lot of the focus was on the criticism that had been leveled at what the event was about,” Colin stated. “Criticism, feedback and debate is something myself, Jenn [Rugolo] and Steve [Leighton] are not shy of and it was probably the highlight of my week to be probed, scorned and praised by this small group of coffee pros. It made me think a lot about Coffee Throwing and where it was going and the reason why it all began.”
The Coffee Throwing was initially borne from a joke Harmon had made, poking fun at how many competitions there were. He joked about going to “the coffee throwing” at the WBC in Melbourne and rumor spread of the imaginary event he had accidentally promoted. “It was now a thing whether we liked it or not,” Harmon said. “If we offended anyone in the past or present then we definitely need to own that. We are willing to take on the criticism and we accept responsibility in its entirety.”
Harmon did want to be clear with me, and with Sprudge readers, about the coffee used in the Throwing event: “[It] was taken from the rubbish bin, literally. It was coffee that was unsellable, under roasted, over roasted, water damaged, trash. We took that coffee from the bin and used it to bring about 100 coffee people together for some fun and raise some money for Grounds for Health, a charity focused on providing cervical screening for women in coffee growing regions.” Harmon also posed a question. “Should I have left it in the bin?”
Rugolo noted “all of the coffee used was coffee paid for at specialty prices.” She also made a reminder that in comparison to coffee used for preparation by competitors at events like the World Barista Championship, World Brewers Cup Championship, and especially the World Latte Art Championship, the competitors in Coffee Throwing were using just 1kg of coffee waste. Harmon echoed that sentiment, telling me, “The irony of all this is that coffee competitions are notoriously wasteful events but without the blunt aesthetic that Coffee Throwing has, it’s often going unnoticed.”
While much of their response was explaining with some countering, both Harmon and Rugolo both seemed to be treating the conflict as a learning opportunity for everyone's consideration. They’ve also decided to stop running the competition. “It was only supposed to happen once but it kind of got a life of its own and took off,” Colin said. “With that in mind we have decided to kill Coffee Throwing and will no longer hold the events from this day forth. We raised some money, had some laughs and made some friends but it's time to call it a day.”
And so it was that a tongue-in-cheek parody of coffee competition culture has thrown its last bag. Wider issues of industry-wide wastefulness are indeed important questions to ask, but for this particular event, what Harmon calls “the blunt aesthetic” of westerners heaving bags of coffee about for fun and glory proved too much to bear. Is the cancellation of any further Coffee Throwing exhibition a victory in the march towards a more mindful, respectful global coffee culture? Or is it a loss for that culture's ability to laugh at and play amongst itself, to take a break from the pomp and self-importance of the bigger events and enjoy a good time?
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