When the Greenville Thursday Night Throwdown Series (GVLTNT) was first formed, leaders Jonathon Sepulveda and Alex Medina wanted to help grow their coffee community and empower local baristas. This crowd-gathering venture wasn’t Jonathan’s first. A Southern California transplant, this lively, seasoned coffee professional had spent the past decade overseeing the startup and growth of the Orange County TNT series. “The coffee scene in Greenville reminded me of the coffee scene in SoCal six years ago, ready to boom and grow, with just as much potential to be put on the map.” he said. After moving to South Carolina to begin work with Ally Coffee Merchants and Due South Coffee, Jonathan was inspired by the passion Alex Medina, a long-time Greenville barista and committed coffee educator, had for his coffee community. Combining their creativity, resources, and know-how, these two joined forces to create the GVLTNT, which hosted its first latte art throw down last week.
The evening began as most local TNTs do: with beer, pizza, and a whole crowd of excited baristas. Inside the Ally Coffee headquarters in Taylors, S.C., over 30 coffee professionals signed up to compete. The evening’s winners would be sent home with generous prizes from Harpo, La Marzocco, Espresso Parts, Due South Coffee, Ally Coffee Merchants, Joe Everson Studio, and more. But the festivities came with a twist, as the GVLTNT team had partnered with the leaders of the Charleston Coffee Initiative to create a Skype throwdown against the winner of the “Latte Out Loud” competition (occurring simultaneously at Kudu Coffee in Charleston, S.C.), all for the title of “South Carolina Champion”.
The competition was fierce, with baristas from all over South and North Carolina showing up to compete. Among the shops represented were Methodical Coffee, the Village Grind, Bella Latte,Due South Coffee, The Daily Press, Not Just Coffee, and more. Despite the naturally-occuring competitive tensions, baristas were friendly and welcoming with one another. Individual shops didn’t stick to their own: baristas cheered for each other, clapping for every pour, encouraging those competing regardless of their affiliations.
At the beginning of the evening, Alex could be seen by the front door, making introductions and helping newcomers mingle outside of their social circle. This, I later found out, was a strategic move on the part of the GVLTNT crew, and it worked. “The second wave is full of secrets and bullshit. The third wave needs to be about family!” said Jonathan, “And what better way is there to get a family together than over drinks, food and friendly competition?”
By the time it came down to the final three—Micah Sherer of Tandem Coffee taking first place, Alex Medina of Due South/Ally Coffee in second, and Caleb Sherer, an independent barista, in third—the room was filled with the heady energy that only copious amounts of caffeine, beer,Drake songs, and post-competition exhaustion can produce. The Skype video chat beamed up on the big screen and coffee fans hooted at and waved to one another from miles away. The pouring began with a barista’s choice design into six-ounce cappuccino cups, with Micah competing against Collective Coffee Company barista (and “Latte Out Loud” champion) Diego Alejandro Castro Oliva.
Judges (three from GVLTNT, three from Charleston) and spectators watched as their baristas poured and laid their cups beneath the cameras connected to the Skype broadcast. The playback was lagging, and as the judges chatted amongst themselves, the crowd began to speculate. The GVLTNT crowd was confident that Micah’s pour was the winner—that is, until the judges revealed that each city had voted for their own barista: a tie! Frustrated cries of “Re-match!” could be heard on both sides of the screen as onlookers demanded another round, and the judges consented.
The competitors re-poured, this time into macchiato cups. A discernible tension filled the Ally HQ while the judges deliberated amongst themselves. Much to the dismay of the GVLTNT throwdown attendees, the judges once again voted for their respective city’s “team.” Shocked baristas hollered at the screen as Charleston judges wagged their fingers in disagreement, while the competitors stood quietly in their respective corners sipping their macchiatos and watching the scene unfold. It’s pretty rare to see a room full of baristas recently knocked out of their rounds cheering on the guy that just beat them, but that evening proved that it does, in fact, happen. “MI-CAH! MI-CAH! MI-CAH!” hollered the GVLTNT crowd, united and unanimous. Vocal throwdown attendees expressed their anger and frustration. Even the GVLTNT leaders seemed frustrated by the stalemate, tossing their hands in the air and disconnecting from the Skype broadcast.
But who was the “South Carolina Champ”? Ultimately the evening would end in a draw, as both the GVLTNT judges and the Charleston judges stood firm that their barista was the true winner. Alex later joked that an unspoken (but friendly) new rivalry began brewing that night between Greenville and Charleston.
Learning from its rocky finish the first time around, the GVLTNT crew is enthusiastically moving forward and organizing future events. Says Alex, “By continuing these TNTs we hope to foster a community of mentorship and collaborations for existing and new baristas. We want to bring something fun to the area where baristas, coffee lovers and even your mother can come out and play.” With five more latte art competitions planned over the coming months, Alex, Jonathan, and their newest GVLTNT partners, Nathan Mylander and Connor Granville, have big plans to continue to encourage growth in their ever-expanding coffee community. Or, as Jonathan puts it, “Greenville is ready to whip and nae nae!”
The next GVLTNT will be hosted at Methodical Coffee in Greenville, SC on September 17th. Baristas from South Carolina and beyond are encouraged to attend and compete. For more information and updates on the GVLTNT series, follow them on Instagram or on Facebook.
This article was originally posted on the Barista Magazine blog.