We’re proud to bring you, for the fifth consecutive season, this Reluctant Party Report written by Sprudge.com Associate Editor Liz Clayton. Since 2012 Clayton has happily—if with some reticence—embarked on an evening sojourn of the very best parties, shindigs, and happenings on offer in and around the Specialty Coffee Association of America Event. Her findings are peppered with trenchant observations on coffee, society, and the modern world around us.
We join Liz Clayton from the rear passenger seat of a Lyft (or was it an Uber?), zooming around Atlanta…
There was something in the air. The smell of industrially crafted maple syrup on waffles. The sound of paper convention badges flapping in the wind. The excitement of the rapidly approaching ride share car. This was SCAA Atlanta, and I was on my way to many parties.
As in years past, I was here on assignment as Sprudge’s (reluctant) party reporter, a mantle I’ve borne with the grace and dignity befitting even the most novel photo-booth novelty hat. I was in town to cover the nuts and bolts of the annual coffee convention as well, of course—but what’s a 10,000-person industry gathering without a lot of truly dubious social occasions at which to watch one’s colleagues kick back and relax? Please, come. Follow me.
Though many coffee folk had already been in Atlanta for the rigorous Re:Co Symposium, the official SCAA event, and its attendant fêtes, kicked off on Thursday night. There were so many choices on where to begin my social calendar that it was hard to keep track. Beyond the opening ceremonies, which I’m told were very cisgender and theatrical and involved fog, my party choices seemed limited. I opted to steel myself both physically and psychologically for the rest of the convention, and hopped in a car with David Latourell (BKON) to join Doug Palas (Kilogram Tea) and some inside-Atlanta-knowledge coffee people for a cruise up Buford Highway. (Uber driver: Brazilian farm owner and Ben Carson supporter.)
Our first stop was Pho Dai Loi 2, followed immediately, much too immediately, by a trip up the road to El Rey de Taco. Rumors of a rooftop birthday party for Intelligentsia co-founder Doug Zell floated around, but those two tacos more put a soft corn blanket on any party ambitions. Off to sleep to store up for the next three nights of partying hard!
Friday night! I see Friday as sort of like my “weekend” and as such I was ready to paint the town red. After filing a couple of up-to-the-minute news briefs on machines that help make coffee a little differently than previous machines that help make coffee, I snuck a quick dinner watching TV at the hotel bar, which opened up several new channels of thought for me that I’d previously not considered. Has Family Feud always been this risqué? How long has Kevin Nealon been considered a senior citizen with blood coagulation issues? I pondered these questions and more as I grabbed a surge-rate Lyft to the Sprudge/KitchenAid party across downtown.
Now, you might be thinking, since this is a Sprudge party and I am writing this for Sprudge, that I’m not going to be objective, that I’m going to exaggerate. That I’m going to tell you something totally crazy like that the party took place in a gallery-like space with a formally mounted exhibit of barista competition photography, that it included an above-average open bar, that there was a dedicated coffee bar on the ground level serving by-the-cup extractions of nearly a dozen elite coffees, that upstairs you’d quickly be directed to the vertically-arrayed wall of unlimited artisan donuts. But I’d be telling the truth: entering the party’s main space I was greeted (after a long, long staring contest with the donut wall) with a coffee party of a more opulent cut. Dozens of ruby red roses floated, cut down to only inches, in romantically clustered arrays. Candles, mounds and mounds of candles, added ambient romance to the room. Waiters cycled through every ten to fifteen minutes with fresh trays of lobster rolls and lesser canapés. And there was even a live podcast!
For a company whose frozen ice-cream bowls, stand mixers, and meat accessories are already so widely trusted, launching their coffee line with such boudoir panache may have gone beyond the average partygoer’s expectations, but hey—this is how they roll in Benton Harbor, Michigan, I’m pretty sure. Dispatches from the Stumptown/Rogue/Barista Magazine cold brew throwdown across town assured me I was missing a “rager” and that attendees were “in the stratosphere, all hopped up on Toddy”. This seemed plausible but also…confusing, and I grabbed a car home in the emerging rain. (Lyft driver: former Over The Road trucker in a brand-new Mercedes-Benz.)
Saturday offered a lot to choose from, from a UNIC French wine tasting to a Marco Irish pub gathering to a good ol’ American United States AeroPress competition. I unstrategically instigated a visit to perhaps the slowest BBQ restaurant in town, Fox Bros., where my friends and I waited 80 minutes for a 40-minute take-out order that arrived at varying temperatures and was very difficult to eat in the back of a car. That brisket, tho. From there we were off to the Westside to see what was afoot at Chattahoochee Coffee Co., passing another coffee crowd spilling into the street outside Revelator. Pre-arrival missives regarding the AeroPress gala included disclaimers like, “I have no idea what is going on,” and “we’re leaving now,” but those texts in no way dampened my party’s party enthusiasm, which admittedly was already quite low and in a meat coma.
Upon arrival we found a nominally alcohol-free environment (but which was also offering tattoos: who has a party with tattoos but no alcohol?) with an outdoor competition stage consisting of a large gravel pit and several people milling about making or tasting AeroPress. It was rather windy, well-lit, and there appeared to be a very, very popular line for the bathroom. The Sno-Cone table was not doing great business. I was first greeted by Julie Housh (SCAA), who asked, “Isn’t it a little bit late for you to be out?” and I couldn’t really disagree, since my deadline to solve the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle was going to be up in only an hour. Back to the hotel to reflect on another night of journalistic accomplishment and the delicious afterglow of banana pudding.
There are times in this coffee life where you put yourself right out there on the front lines, and other times when you rely on your friends to do it for you. Let’s just say I had almost every intention of going to the BGA party at Tongue In Groove, which I presumed was a flooring showroom that served as an event space after hours. After the competition finals were announced and booths struck, I grabbed a quick dip in the hotel pool—felt amazing!—while a family of three grilled sausages and hamburgers on the edge of the deck. The weather was warm and idyllic, I was refreshed, and my heart was ready to party! First, off to dinner with some Chicago and former Chicago friends Doug, Paul, and Mike, and Bill-from-Alanta, where my energies were quickly snuffed by the restaurant’s ambitious deep-fryer and its gifts of pimento fritters and mini corn dog pucks.
I checked in with those already in the heart of the action—”this is far better than I was expecting” one source told me—and slowly lost energy. I continued to reach out to others to see if this party could compare to the last two years’ closing night BGA parties at Seattle’s World Sports Grill-E. “Is the floor wet?” I sought to confirm. “Have they run out of alcohol?” I became surer and surer that this report could be done safely from the comfort of my hotel.
While being gratefully driven home by hater of Atlanta driving Doug Palas, I found his 200-seat Chrysler rental mysteriously turning into one last stop: The Varsity. Doug’s insatiable curiosity about the mythologized pleasures (and constituent ingredients) of the Frosted Orange had got the better of him, and we strode up to the counter with far too much confidence—I was full, but opted for a very limp fried peach pie, which tasted OK if you ate it pretty fast. Doug was served an incredibly enthusiastic Frosted Orange, and once he’d recovered, was nice enough to drop me back at my hotel.
A friend on the scene texted from the party that I’d made a “great choice not coming”, and I drifted off to sleep. In the morning I learned that the party’s spirit had carried on for many hours past its 1am ending, concluding at not even Atlanta’s “best” strip club, reminding me yet again that no Sunday night coffeeparty in Atlanta could ever compare to the 2009 post-WBC festivities at Lucky Strike Lanes, involving a storm warning, a random panicked weather spotter, and an exciting evacuation. Poor choice of words. Anyway, memories.
Come morning, I sliced up a delicious grapefruit in well-rested satisfaction. Had I partied hard enough? Perhaps not. But had I partied qualitatively enough? Yes. Yes, I think so.
Liz Clayton is the Associate Editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.
2012 [Portland] — “Liz Clayton and the USBC Afterhours”
2013 [Boston] — “And To All A Good Nightlife: Liz Clayton and the Parties of SCAA 2013”
2015 [Seattle] — “The Reluctant Partygoer: Liz Clayton And The Nightlife of SCAA 2015”