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Volunteering at Coffee Events: The Best Way to Progress in Your Career?

Do you work in coffee and want to learn more, acquire new skills, meet new people with the same interests and travel around Europe, potentially the world? Do you seek a career in coffee? We all do! Let’s have a look at one way that can help you get all those things, and more—volunteering. Drawing on Annemarie Tiemes’s (SCA Coordinator) piece of advice, you should: “volunteer and put yourself out there.” We decided to give you a little intro into volunteering.

We asked a few skilled professionals, coffee enthusiasts, geeks and coffee lovers from diverse areas about their experience with volunteering. All of them have been learning this way and have gained from it immensely. Where can volunteering take you? Read on.

The Filter volunteers, photo – The Filter festival

Why volunteer?

Volunteering in the speciality coffee industry is a unique way of gaining access: to knowledge, community, education. It gives the volunteers a chance to introduce themselves to the wider community of like-minded coffee people. It helps them discover diverse coffee scenes. It serves as a door to further interest, and potentially further career options in coffee if that is what they seek. It is one of the best ways to becoming a part of the community.

Let’s hit it off with a piece of advice from Kim Staalman, the SCA Community Representative: “One of the most important things in our industry is to be active in the community. Being open, honest, hard working and real is definitely something that people appreciate and will recognise you for. Volunteering will 100% get you really close to where you need to be, all you need to do is engage and run with it.”

Kim Staalman, photo – Jordan Sanchez Photography

New skills and perspectives

As a volunteer, you will acquire new skills and perspectives. Jessie May Peters, Head of coffee at Ten Belles, Paris tells us: “I have learned that you must be adaptable. There may be moments, particularly at the larger events, where help will be needed to make sure something happens fast and to time. Volunteering has made me better understand the importance of teamwork and delegation.”

Gaining an access to opportunities

Giving a helping hand at industry events, you will show your willingness to learn, to participate and work hard. It shows that you are committed. There is no better way of showing that while gaining so much.

Jessie and Kim are both a shining example of where volunteering could take you. In her role, Kim attends all the events she would normally volunteer at, while sometimes also sitting in a judging seat during competitions. And the volunteering positions also look great on her CV!

“I think it says a lot about someone’s commitment and willingness to learn. Being known by the National Chapter gave me the opportunity to judge for example. Not sure I would’ve had the courage to do this without being supported by my local community,” explains Kim.

Rudy Huemer & Jessie May Peters, photo – Jordan Sanchez Photography

Jessie has been able to visit SCA events as well, and in June, you will catch her during WoC in Budapest, where she will be emceeing the Brewers cup competition. The opportunity to chat to some of the best brewers in the world does not come to everyone!

Building a community

Jessie and Kim both believe that the community-building is an important aspect of volunteering. Whether you keep it local or aim for bigger events, there is an incredible potential and a large number of doors that can open to you personally, and within your career.

Jessie says: “The network I have today is largely based on the friendships and connections I have made at industry events, so if you make it a moment to work hard, and meet people it is incredibly rewarding.” And you do not have to travel to the other side of Europe in order to participate at an event as a volunteer.

Natálie Marečková (left), photo – The Filter festival

Natálie Marečková, nowadays a barista at Cafe Mitte in Brno, the Czech republic, has experienced how empowering being a part of the community can be: “When The Filter [a festival celebrating filter coffee] was over the organisers stayed in touch with us, volunteers, thanks to workshops and pop-ups where we brewed filter coffee from European roasters. All this was for free and in their free time. The organisers are great and I like the way they take care of us and want to get some of their know-how to coffee geeks.”

The forward-thinking of the organisers has obviously paid off. The whole team has become tighter, they are now best friends and are coming back to volunteer again.

Where can you volunteer?

There is a countless number of small and local festivals, as well as bigger, national and international ones. Some of them happen once a year, bi-annually, but some might be seasonal. Coffee people like to have fun and gather around anything tasty, so they are always up to gathering the community to do so.

Alexander Nagy from Dream Cocktail & Academy is an example of a volunteer who has progressed from helping at a local festival in Bratislava, Slovakia, the Standart Fest, onto judging at the SCA events in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. His last gig was as a timekeeper at the WoC 2016 in Dublin.

Alexander Nagy (left), photo – SCAE Slovakia

When searching for an event, look up latte art throwdowns in popular cafes or at your local roastery. In London, the UK, some of the active ones are Climpson & Sons or Kaffeine. But you can also go for the bigger events, for example regional championships, especially in bigger countries such as France or the UK.

In case you are confident in your skills under pressure and during events that require a motivated, skilled and self-sufficient person, aim high and apply for a national championship or a World of Coffee event. This year, WoC comes to Budapest, Hungary, and you can still secure your volunteering spot. You will be rewarded with 2 or 3 days in the company of a great bunch of people with the same interests as yours.

What skill set do you have to have?

Be prepared to be expected to do a hard work. That is probably the only real expectation on the volunteers. Kim believes strongly that: “Besides being in control of your standard issue coffee professional magical skills there are no extra skills needed. So there’s literally no excuse to not volunteer!”

Espresso bar, London Coffee Festival

Jessie has done some of the hectic events though, so take it from her when she says: “These three examples are roles given to volunteers who can ensure that the event runs smoothly at its final stage because of their previous experience: running the espresso bar at WoC, preparing large scale cuppings at Roasters Guild of Europe, assisting in the Intermediate Sensory Skills Diploma. For those, who have not acquired that level of skills, there is always a way of getting involved. At least by making it known that you are interested in learning, and potentially prepared to do so on the job.”

Responsibilities of a volunteer?

It may sound as if the job of a volunteer was all about filling in the gaps where needed. And it sort of is since you have to start somewhere. It has got a great plus side though: you learn as you go and take on more and more responsibilities as you do. Timekeeping, running around with cupping bowls, or perhaps entering the barista competitors’ scores from the judges’ sheet into an excel sheet. There are numerous tasks for many helping hands.

cupping, photo – Jordan Sanchez Photography

“The more I have volunteered, the more responsibility I have been given. Volunteering for me has become a way of adding more experience to my career in coffee,” adds Jessie on the subject.

As you can see, the diversity in tasks has no limits.

Volunteering is worth your time!

Alex summed it up really nicely when he said: “Volunteering is absolutely worth doing, for the contacts, the experience and the knowledge you acquire during the event. You always get to meet so many people who are fully dedicated to their work in coffee, many of them know more than you and have a more intense connection to coffee than you. They can be very inspiring, encouraging and even advise you.”

Alexander Nagy, photo – SCAE Slovakia

Alex would always be in touch with the latest industry trends while judging. It must be incredibly inspiring to see the competitors’ approaches. “During these events, I would always realise how happy the coffee industry makes me. There are amazing people that are a part of it, it is easy to make new contacts, friendships and business relations,” sums it up Alex.

Kim took away a humble feeling from the big events: “It was eye-opening to see how much work goes into producing excellent competitions. How many people run around like ants behind the scenes. The biggest lesson for me was the power of networking. Every year would be more fun because of the friends I gained.”

She would agree that networking is key: “There are coffee professionals all over the world and events are where you meet and befriend them.”

Volunteering team at Barista Camp

If all that has not convinced you already, take the last piece of advice with you and we will see you around Europe at one of the great events, perhaps volunteering, but first of all meeting the community, sharing and learning from each other!