More laid-back events surrounding trade shows and industry events, please. The landscape of coffee parties around industry gatherings has undoubtedly changed over the last decade-plus, and I am thoroughly enjoying this shift.

I remember my first throwdowns; they were often the only coffee event in a city. Instagram had recently introduced a set of filters, and Twitter launched a mobile app. The baristas were hyped up to compete for the big cash prize pool, and everyone was excited to cheer them on. Kegs were tapped to keep the beer flowing. For one of the events I attended, you had to shotgun a beer before you steamed your milk and poured it, and while I was not competing, I wondered how someone who didn’t drink would be able to do this. Would they chug a glass of water or Topo Chico?

I’ve gone to, and even helped organize many throwdowns since then. It was rare for anyone to get completely trashed, but it was also rare for anyone to abstain from drinking.

Once upon a time at Expo and World of Coffee trade shows, there might only be a handful of big parties. I’m not here to point fingers. Big names hosted big ragers; some were even officially tied to the industry show. I’d see people the next day, bleary-eyed and hungover, asking, “Did you hear what happened at the party last night?” They’d recount how someone blacked out or how someone crossed a line. The whisper network was in effect, but no one was ever punished. When you mix alcohol with the casual atmosphere of the specialty coffee industry, the professional-personal lines get blurred.

I went because these were one of the only options for socializing outside the convention center. After all, networking and creating lasting relationships are important in coffee. I rarely made a connection—it was too loud to hear anyone, and I’d immediately lose my voice over the noise.

I completely understand why one would want to dance the night away after a stressful weekend. But there weren’t many other options for those who wanted a quieter place to connect. And so, in 2017 I decided to take matters into my own hands and host a board game night. You could purchase alcohol or bring your own, but it turned out that no one did. It was, hands down, the most chill public “party” of Expo weekend.

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I was not the only one who noticed the bounty of alcohol-centric events surrounding trade shows. Noah Namowicz, COO and partner at Cafe Imports, has organized a sober morning run during Expo for a few years. He explains, “The sober meetups basically were created to offer some support to anyone choosing to test this lifestyle out or enjoying long-term recovery, knowing full well that some folks’ lives depend on it.”

I did not grow up around alcohol, and my high school friend group was quite straight-edged. I was also SO anxious that someone would find out about my underage drinking that my first sips were in New Zealand, where the drinking age is 18, and my first actual drink was on my 21st birthday. Can you imagine going through undergrad at a Big Ten school and not drinking? People thought I was too good for them or that I was too restrained. US drinking culture equates a good time to alcohol, but you’re not an alcoholic until you’re out of college.

After a bit, I learned about how I was missing vital enzymes that process alcohol. Unlike some of my peers, who could combat their “Asian flush” with antihistamines, that never worked for me. Post-graduation, it was still a strange time to avoid drinking. Going to a bar seemed like the most acceptable social activity, and while I was not against that, I got tired of sipping Sprite with a slice of lime. I’m not sober by choice but by genetic design. I’m also not fully sober; I’ll have a sip of something to taste it, but I can’t have too much more. And no, it doesn’t matter what kind of drink it is. If it has an OH alcohol compound in it, I can’t process it.

People can get weird when you don’t drink. They’d ask me, “Are you okay if I have a glass of wine?” or “Are you going to judge me?” Then there are snide asides like, “I don’t want to drink by myself,” or, “You’re not fun.” I wouldn’t be in a bar if I couldn’t be around alcohol. With time, I learned that their response was more about their relationship with alcohol than about me not drinking.

This also carried over into coffee when no alcohol was involved—specifically, at cuppings! Someone posited that a coffee tasted like hops, or there’s a hint of red wine, and if it was one of three notes: “red wine, bergamot, apple,” what the hell was I supposed to do with that? Not only did I not know what bergamot tasted like (tasting notes are subjective), but I also went to college in Michigan, where loads of wildly different apples are grown. It was no coincidence that this was the peak of the snobby, hipster barista stereotype.

jenn nathanael
The author and Nathanael May at the Pacific Foods HQ sober social in 2023.

I’m fortunate to feel much more confident in my (lack of) drinking habits. Perhaps because of the higher attendance rate or more people wanting quieter moments, there are far more events than ever surrounding Expo. At my last count, there were around 45 public events at this year’s Expo in Chicago, the highest number I’ve seen yet. We’ve gone from about four loud bangers to a wide variety: panel discussions, movie screenings, a pitch competition, meet-the-producer talks and cuppings, and more. There are events with DJs and ones with laid-back vibes. You may still get FOMO, but it’s only because you can’t be in five places simultaneously.

There are many reasons for people to be sober, and I understand why one would not want to mix alcohol with work. Thirty-eight percent of US adults abstain from alcohol, and the most common reason given is that they don’t want to. Plus, NA cocktails and spirits are readily available in many bars and stores. It’s been an adventure tasting the different concoctions, and I genuinely believe that if you consider yourself someone who likes to try new food and drinks, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how good an NA cocktail could be.

It’s about time we started having more events that are not centered on alcohol. Let’s keep this momentum of wider, interesting events going into future trade shows and industry gatherings.

For those who are sober, know that you’re not alone. “There is a great network of sober folks in coffee,” adds Namowicz. “Seek us out and build up that network to strengthen your protective layer going into these events and you are going to be in a great spot.”

Jenn Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.

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