Last week’s Queen City Thursday Night Throwdown (#QCTNT) was one for the books. The festivities were held at Not Just Coffee‘s Atherton Mill location, a tall and airy warehouse in the heart of Southend. With its massive garage-style doors hoisted up to let in the cool autumn breezes, the warehouse was open for attendees to “tailgate” with free hot dogs and snacks. While the spectators grouped together to eat, baristas could be found sipping their beers anxiously before the competition began.
Onlookers pressed forward, packing the people in the front against the espresso bar. A few even clambered onto benches to catch a glimpse of the action. Quite a number of baristas ventured out to throw down, representing coffee businesses in Charlotte and beyond: High Five Coffee, BREW, Not Just Coffee, Summit Coffee, The Daily Press, Due South and Ally Coffee, Waterbean and more. In all, thirty-four baristas competed, a number that astounded us all—I’ve attended most of the QCTNTs for the past 2 years and I can tell you that those are really high numbers. It was certainly a full house.
This event was a community effort. Final pours were projected onto a wall via a GoPro rig, courtesy of Junior Hernandez and friends. Pours were evaluated and baristas eliminated by the panel of judges: Matt McDaniel of Counter Culture Coffee, Joel Tracy of Culture Initiative, and Rusty Angell of BUNN. NJC barista and latte art master Steve Lim pulled espresso shots for the competitors, presumably abstaining from the competition to give the rest of us a fighting chance. (Thanks, Steve!)
By Round 2 half of the baristas had been eliminated, with the crowd slightly tipsy and more-than-slightly enthusiastic. This time, the judges chose what design baristas poured and what vessel they would use (as opposed to Round 1—barista’s choice of vessel and pour). The atmosphere was more akin to a rock concert than a low-key coffee shop get-together: thumping music, people sipping on beers, everyone packed together to stay close to the action and fans chanting the names of baristas as if they were rock stars. It was joked that the sharply-dressed male baristas should start a hipster boy band, since they obviously already possessed the ability to make crowds go wild.
The mic-less emcee, Lindsey Pitman (owner of The Daily Press) had to shout at the top of her lungs just to be heard a few feet away in the din, so James Yoder (owner of NJC) and master of the competition bracket Brady Butler (of Stockton Graham and Co.) used their best bellowing yells to help her out. After each pour was judged, Lindsey could just barely be heard shouting “Latteeee! Who wants a latteeee?!” as to-go cups were passed back from the judge’s table. As the night progressed into its final rounds, the crowd thinned a bit but the energy of those remaining was not diminished. The competition was down to just a few skillful baristas and suspense was building.
The judges began to require increasingly difficult feats from the baristas, judging them not only on the symmetry, use of space, contrast, and overall impression of their pours, but also on their pouring speed in Round 3, and the ability to pour behind their back or under their leg in Round 4. Round 4 gave the audience some hearty laughs as we watched finalists hop around and contort themselves to get milk into cups.
In the end there had to be a winner: the grand prize went to Tayslurp (aka Taylor Williams, formerly of Not Just Coffee). She poured a stunning swan and won the pot that every barista had put $5 into—nearly $200!—as well as a hefty selection of sponsor merchandise, including a Hario pour over cone, Rishi tea, and Counter Culture coffee beans, among other things. Second place went to phoenix-pouring Micah Sherer of Ally Coffee Merchants, and third went to Devin Forbes, also formerly of Not Just Coffee, who poured a tulip.
Even after the winners were announced and had received their spoils, the party wasn’t over. Many members of the barista community and their friends stuck around to hang out, clean up, or join in an impromptu dance party next to the speakers. When I left at 10 PM, the NJC side of the warehouse was still half-full and jamming out as if it weren’t a Thursday night. All in all it was a rollicking good time.
If you didn’t make it out this month make sure to come to the next one, date TBA at The Daily Press.