Volunteering in the Coffee Community

The coffee community is filled with events happening weekly around the world: public cuppings, open lecture series and roundtables, competitions of all kinds, and throwdowns galore. Most, if not all, of these events rely on volunteers. While it can be exciting and inspirational to attend a coffee event and discover something new, volunteering is a great way to be even more involved and to give back while still learning and growing. Many members of Ally Coffee’s team are active volunteers. Here they share some thoughts on different volunteering roles and benefits.

Competition Judging

Competitions require lots of hands on deck both during preparations and the competition events. Part of judging involves the prep work to be adequately calibrated and focused to give all competitors full, fair attention. “For US Coffee Champs events, they have a pretty great infrastructure to prepare people who would like to judge,” says Dean Kallivrousis, US Midwest Account Manager, who has volunteered for both Brewers Cup and Roasters Championship.

Account Manager Dean Kallivrousis, active community volunteer.

“Judges are required to read the rules that are publicly shared with everyone, along with watching or participating in a video call that explains what judging will look like, typically a month or so before the competition. Judges meet the day before to further discuss the rules, receive the schedule, taste coffees for calibration, and watch mock routines. Being present, ready, available, and willing to help out are the biggest criteria for judges.”

Based in Riga, Latvia, EU Account Manager Agnija Tilla also volunteers as a judge for competitions. “Here in Northern Europe, our coffee communities are relatively small and I find it very important to keep organizing and supporting different events by volunteering and sharing the ideas. It helps us all grow and see the opportunities the coffee world opens up to us. And it also serves as an example for new generation.

In 2019 so far, I’ve judged the National Barista Championship in Latvia and The Barista League Zagreb edition, and a local Latte Art Competition. Sometimes judging is harder than participating and takes a lot of energy and focus, but it’s fun.”Agnija at the Vilnius Coffee Festival in Lithuania and judging the 2019 Latvia Barista Championship (top left to right) and on the panel of judge for The Barista League Zagreb in Croatia.


Dean agrees, on both accounts. “Judging is a lot of fun but can be stressful but because you want to do the event and competitors justice for the work they put in. Competition has been a catalyst in my personal and professional development; participating in something we all value keeps me engaged year after year. I love who I judge with, the volunteers and competitors who give it their all. Being a former competitor, I want to see current and future competitors thrive. For me, there’s a sense of civic duty in volunteering. Helping with community organized events builds the feeling that we are a collective.”

Competition Management

Judges are on stage volunteers, part of the competition spotlight. Behind the scenes, different volunteer roles are essential to competitions running smoothly, or happening at all. US Southeast Account Manager Sara Frinak is a US Brewers Cup Stage Manager and a World Brewers Cup Assistant Stage Manager. In her many years volunteering for Brewers Cup, she has seen it all.

Account Manager and avid volunteer, Sara Frinak

“For two years I was a timer and a busser. I kept showing up until I became a stage manager. One time, I had to stop the competition until I had enough hands because there was no way one person could be in two places at once and we had to have a timer!”

In the case that you are organizing a large competition, take care not to ask volunteers to do too much. “Be respectful that people are giving their time willingly,” Sara suggests. “The level of engagement can vary. Remember, these events only happen when people step up.” Volunteers should keep this in mind too, not to sign up for a role they don’t think they can fulfill. Some volunteer roles can be a bit tedious, like standing at the edge of the stage as a timer, especially in the middle of a larger trade show with people to see and places to be. As Agnija said, volunteering takes focus, and even simple roles require commitment. It is the little things behind the scenes that make competitions the yearly highlights we all look forward to.

Event Set Up

World Coffee Events has very strict rules for their national and international competitions, and volunteer roles are usually limited in scope to a defined role, stage managing and judging being two examples. Informal local competitions are often less about the competition and more about the social and networking aspects of the event.

For these kinds of friendly competitive events, volunteering can mean taking on anything from designing the flyer, bartering with local businesses to secure food, drinks, or an event space, to picking up the paper towels and trash bags (and then staying to clean up and empty the trash). Small details can make a big difference, and setting up an event from start to finish means volunteers might have to field the unexpected.

Sara organized a coffee events group in Atlanta and also a coffee cocktail competition. When planning events, she suggests things to keep in mind. “Consider if your event will need sponsorships, tickets, or paid promotion. Events evolve as the community evolves. Share clear communication and expectations and make sure you build in time to train volunteers!”

“For the Sioux Falls Roaster Competition in South Dakota,” says Dean, “There was a lot of logistical work that went into planning, with more than twelve volunteers to make everything happen.” More than 500 people attended the event, something that would not have been possible without extensive collaboration beforehand.Dean Kallivrousis, center, with Ally Centrals buyer Bram de Hoog and Colombian exporter Vicente Mejia

Community Involvement

Volunteer-run events really do make a difference in establishing a culture of inclusion and building a coffee community that reflects those who are a part of it. “I’ve been part of two vibrant coffee communities in Kansas City, Missouri and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida,” says Dean. “Community events in both places included throwdowns where people who worked for competing companies came together for something larger than themselves and to celebrate the people who make the industry possible. It raised the bar and shook the monotony of what our roles can be from day to day. Now when I visit other cities, I have friends or friends of friends who can recommend me to their favorite places to eat and drink or something fun that Yelp might not know about.”

Sara spearheaded a local tournament style event in Atlanta that combined ideas behind Cup Tasters, Brewers Cup, Latte Art, and Coffee in Good Spirits into throwdown style format where anyone could walk in and participate. “I wouldn’t have been able to put something like that together if I hadn’t volunteered for other competitions. These events create networking opportunities and show that through volunteering there’s a next step. I got to go to Worlds because I asked. I was able to travel and see a lot of the international dialogue that exists in these competitions and see where US fits in that conversation.”

There is overlap between volunteering for an existing event and volunteering to build a competition or coffee gathering from the ground up. All instances of volunteering, large and small, contribute to what makes coffee a community and not just an industry.

“I take every chance to discuss various subjects with coffee people,” says Agnija. “Working in green coffee, I share my humble experiences with roasters and baristas when we discuss logistics or coffee contracting practices, barista career challenges, etcetera. I believe growth can happen in collaboration and investing in knowledge, not in competition. Volunteering gives me a chance to stretch my limitations, learn something new and also helps to build a network of coffee friends around the globe.”

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