Can’t Afford Coffee Competitions? Alternatives for the Cash-Strapped Barista

I love coffee competitions. I’ve attended at least one competition event every year I’ve been in coffee except the very first. I’ve competed, I’ve volunteered, and this year I went just to spectate.

They’re both inspiring and fun, and I’ve met some of my very favorite people while attending. If you love competitions like I do, you’re probably also aware that competing costs a lot of money, and because of that, it isn’t always an option for baristas.

I know a lot of excellent coffee people who are currently putting together amazing recommendation lists and support pools to make competitions more accessible, unbiased, diverse and affordable. But, in the meantime, not all sprofessionals have the type of funds that it takes to compete. Competition entry fees alone totaled over $600 for someone getting to the national level in the 2017 cycle, not counting the price of coffee, travel, lodging, wares, ingredients, and practice time.

So, for all the less moneyed baristas out there who’ve always thought of competition as the only way to put yourself out there and meet new people, here is a list of some other awesome opportunities you can participate in or even create locally for under $600. Not all of these are equally accessible, but I want to show a range of options at all different price levels on a local, national and even global scale.

Judge or Volunteer Instead of Competing

The first, most obvious options are directly related to competitions. You can become a competition judge fairly inexpensively through a webinar and on-site calibration (registration is $60 for non-SCA members). So, if you can afford travel, lodgings, and a small registration fee, you can learn to judge. Judging experience also looks great on a resume.

For those who can afford travel and lodgings but not the registration fee, you can volunteer for a whole range of jobs in the coffee comp of your choice. It’s really enriching to enter a whole new space and work with a whole new team while helping to make competitions happen. A bonus of volunteering is that people you volunteer with will actually be able to vouch for your work experience in a reference should the time come.

Go to Expo

Expo is the world’s largest coffee tradeshow. Producers, roasters, marketing people, business owners, and vendors come from all over the US and the world to learn, teach, sell and have fun. You can experiment with new products, attend in-depth lectures and panels on the future of the industry, and enjoy so much free coffee and swag that you’ll need to leave space in your suitcase to carry it all back.

The cost of a full pass to Expo this past year was $295, which also includes admission into the competition space. You can also volunteer a certain amount of hours and get in for free.

Create a Local Competition

For $600 you could throw a kickass latte art throwdown in your own community. Get some pizzas and a couple kegs, or even make it a BYOB potluck and spend even less. Throwdowns are a great place to make new coffee connections, and no matter how small your scene is, we as an industry have so much turnover that you can always meet someone new.

Host a Panel Discussion and Periscope it

Events like panel discussions are usually centered in major cities, but there’s no reason you can’t host one wherever you live, promote it via social media, and periscope it. Even if you live in a city where there are only 4 or 5 specialty coffee shops, you still have a whole range of baristas and managers with different backgrounds and lived experiences. Once you start a conversation, you’ll find there’s plenty to talk about.

Coffee Tourism

For $600 you could take a weekend in a moderately-priced but hopping coffee city learning about a new coffee culture and making some new friends and connections. This could cost even less if it’s somewhere you can drive or bus to, and especially if it’s a place you can couchsurf. Take lots of photos and share them with your coffee friends back home.

Shadow A Friend

If you work in a city with multiple types of coffee businesses, you can get in touch with someone in a different job than you and shadow them for a day or two. If you work as a shift lead, but your friend works in roasting, they’ll probably be more than happy to let you follow them around for a couple days. As a roaster, I love when people come to learn about our operations, because I love to teach but don’t get to do it for a living.

If you only have coffee shops in your city, you might be able to set up a barista exchange where you switch places with a friend and learn about a new shop’s operations and recipes.

Save For SCA Pathways

If you’ve been lucky enough to be able to scrounge up competition fees on the regular but are questioning whether you want to expend them in that direction year after year, you can hold off for a couple years and then put that saved money toward SCA educational pathways. Unlike participation in a competition, which won’t necessarily go on a resume unless you place, pathway classes and SCA certifications definitely make your resume stand out. They are pricey, so this option only works if you sock away that competition money and are lucky enough not to have to use it on something else.

Volunteer for Coffee Corps

Coffee Quality Institute has an amazing program called Coffee Corps. You can apply on their website and they will match you with a volunteer project at origin, usually about two weeks in length, based on your skillset and the needs of producers. Obviously for this you’d have to be able to afford two weeks off of work, which is tricky in places with super high housing costs (like Oakland, where I live), but a worthy investment for those who can afford it.

Educate Outside Coffee; Take Local Classes

One of the best things about competition is how much you learn, and while that’s incredibly valuable, education outside the direct scope of the industry itself is also crucial and often much more affordable.

If you have a little bit of spare money you want to spend on education, you can look into classes at your local colleges, restaurants and trade schools. For very little money you can take cooking, sewing, and arts classes. Bodywork, foraging and herbalism classes from various organizations can also be very affordable, and all of these skills make a lot of sense and can do a lot of good in small coffee communities where resources aren’t always abundant. For a little more money, you can take classes on agronomy, business or writing that make sense on an even broader scale in the industry.

Lots of volunteer groups teach valuable skills that can apply indirectly to your job, like home and bike repair, for free. Other organizations coordinate language exchange programs, where you can partner up with someone from a different country and learn each other’s language, a skill that’s useful in any context but especially in a global field like coffee.

Competitions are Still Important, But They’re Not Everyone’s Road to Success

Competitions push the highest level of the industry higher. They generate new tools that help to make the absolute best cups of coffee, and they showcase the upper limit of how engaging and creative a barista can be. They also provide valuable hubs for engagement around coffee, equity, and access, even for those who can’t afford to compete.

When I was a barista in what used to be a tiny coffee city, competitions were the only option I was aware of to get my name out there and meet new people. In truth, the options on this list are only a starting point for all the ways that baristas can creatively engage with their communities on a local, national and global scale.