In forming South End Grind one of the first things that stood out was that I have never worked in the coffee industry before. So to go into business with zero experience is a huge leap of faith. After talking with other people who have gone to the Global Specialty Coffee Expo before, I realized this was an opportunity that I could not pass up on. In addition, with the expo being in my hometown, this doubled as a great opportunity to see some family and friends, and do some coffee tourism around Seattle which I hadn't done before.
That was what my first day was all about. The expo didn't start on thursday, but I did. I got checked in and got my badge then headed out to various coffee shops around the city. It blew my mind at how many coffee shops there were within walking distace of the Convention Center, both specialty and commercial. Without ever getting in a bus or car I walked into at least 7 shops, and passed at least another 10 all between 10 am and 1. To reach that same number of coffee shops in Charlotte, I would be walking all day. One of my favorite shops was Victrola Coffee Roasters where I was served this flight of their featured Guatemalan coffee prepared three different ways. This style of preparation and service is amazing because you can taste every single little flavor of the coffee, and also how it tastes when combined with milk. This is a concept I would love to see offered in more shops.
The next day was all about getting my feet wet. I started off the morning by attending a lecture about how to train the staff of a coffee shop to all be all star employees. I had a bit of time after the lecture to explore the main exhibit hall and was blown away by the size of the expo, and the quantity and variety of equipment and accessories all centered around getting you the best cup of coffee possible. Coffee truly is big business, and even though only a portion of the industry was represented at this event, it was still massive.
After exploring for a bit, I was able to watch a little bit of the US Barista Championship, where a friend of mine was a technical judge. Barista competitions are a bit peculiar. Yes the actions of preparing coffees is similar to what a barista might go through in a cafe setting, but the real purpose of competitions is to advance the profession and the industry; to constantly explore the possibilities of making better coffee. Thats why in competition you will often see bizarre pieces of equipment, very advanced techniques, and the rarest varietals of coffee. This is not directly applicable to baristas and coffee shops around the world, but it does help shape our understanding of coffee, and how we can improve it.
Saturday I was not required to volunteer at all, so I had the whole day to explore, attend lectures, and do whatever I pleased. I took the opportunity to sit in on lectures all morning, before exploring the exhibit hall again, and finally breaking for lunch to grab my favorite Seattle fast food spot: Dick's. Seriously, if you go to Seattle without stopping here, you're doing it wrong.
The most transformative part of the day, and perhaps my entire expo experience, was getting to meet and connect with two of my coffee idols, Matt Perger and Chris Baca. Both of them have devoted countless hours and tons of energy to bringing better coffee to the world, and both are continuously publishing awesome content to help step the game up of baristas worldwide. If you are interested in more from these two, check out Barista Hustle, and the Cat and Cloud Coffee Podcast. I attended Chris's lecture on how to introduce consumers to specialty coffee, then stuck around afterwards to shake hands with him and chat a bit. And I ran into Matt by complete accident, recognizing his voice (from the countless youtube videos I have watched of him) next to me in the exhibit hall and taking the opportunity to chat with him and get a picture as well.
Sunday there were no lectures that I was interested in or found applicable, so my father and I were able to take a small tour around some of the other neighborhoods in Seattle to hit some of the coffee tourism stops I didn't make it to the first day. My favorite little shop we hit was Seven Coffee Roasters. It's in a bit of a random location: the middle of a neighborhood with no commercial business immediately around it. Yet it was bustling with activity and full of people on a cloudy Sunday morning.
My advice for coffee tourism: find a local shop and ask the barista what they like making and/or drinking, and have that. It not only gives you a chance to get yourself grounded if you are in a strange place, but also to connect with another human, and get a taste for how the locals like to drink their coffee. If you come into my shop, I will probably make you a 1 and 1: an espresso extraction split in half, with one being enjoyed as just espresso, while the other being combined with a small amount of steamed milk.