Talking with Steve Moloney, Founder of The Barista League, has us very excited for the pulsing energy and connection that coffee events can bring. From our conversation, though, it is clear to see that creating this type of environment comes from careful planning, and a lot of thoughtful intention that keeps community, accessibility, and sustainability top of mind (not to mention a dedicated team that spans the globe)! Read on for how The Barista League got its start, what it takes to run a global event company for the coffee industry, and how you can get involved online and in-person.
Photo: Milkdrop Studios
What is The Barista League and how did it come to be?
The Barista League is an event company for the coffee industry, we produce a bunch of different events but are most well known for our competition also called The Barista League. I (Steve) put the first TBL competition together back in 2015 in the south of Sweden. I had been running some small throwdowns and before I got into coffee I worked with music and event production, so basically it was an excuse to do something more event management related while still in coffee. Around the same time, I was competing in Swedish and World Barista Competitions and feeling like there was a bit of gap between what was possible to do in the industry (origin trips, big competitions, travel etc.), and what was accessible and available to everyday baristas. So, from the very beginning, the concept was to put together a competition that anyone could just show up to and have an amazing time regardless of how long they had been in the industry, what resources they had access to, and how long they had to train. Since then, we have grown quite a bit and done events all over the world, including mystery vacation trips, a bunch of parties, a YouTube series (Battle of the Beans) and of course our main competition: The Barista League.
Photo: Ane Noss Bystadhaugen
Can you tell us more about the team behind The Barista League and where you all are located?
So, right now we are eight people – Anna (Project Manager) and I are in Gothenburg, Sweden. Aashifa Hussain (Project Manager) and Hannah Davies (Relationship Manager) are both in the UK. Angela Ferrara (Communications Director) is in Baltimore and May Chook (Project Manager) is in Toronto. And finally, our editing and production team for Battle of the Beans, Caro West and Patrick West, are both located in Melbourne, Australia.
We have always been a remote team, but suffice to say we are now very aware of different time zones and how to manage projects with people working and sleeping at completely different times during the day.
Photo: Liv Omsen
How has The Barista League maintained its community-centric approach as it has grown globally?
This is a great question. I think it’s kind of a two tiered approach. The first tier is that global community that we are a part of – kind of the Instagram community, and something that comes from having done events all over the place and running online projects like Battle of the Beans and High Density. We love doing these because it allows us to more closely connect with people all over the world and maintain friendships from previous events and competitions. At the same time, whenever we do a physical event, we spend a lot of time making sure we have buy-in from the local community. And having project managers all over the world actually helps a lot with this. But essentially, we do a lot of outreach to people we know in those cities to make sure we are being deliberate about who is judging, who we invite, who is competing and volunteering, and by the time the event comes around, we hope that it is almost impossible to miss the event and that everyone they know is invested in and excited about coming to the event.
Photo: Ashley Day
Can you tell us more about the different types of events The Barista League hosts and where you host them?
So, now that physical events are a likelihood again, we will be running a few events later this year that we've listed below, as well as our Battle of the Beans series that is being released over this summer on YouTube.
Going into 2022, we will be running ten The Barista League competitions all over the world. That is the main competition that we have been running since 2015 – 12 teams competing in 3 rounds over one night all wrapped in a big party with lights, a DJ, beers and a bunch of great people.
We will also be coming back with High Density early next year, which is our online and free conference that we premiered this year. And then on top of that there will be some parties and a few other special projects that we can’t announce just yet.
The Barista League: Copenhagen: 11 Sep
The Barista League: Barcelona: 9 Oct
The Barista League: Manchester: 6 November
Photo: Liv Omsen
How do you make sure to diversify your events and offerings so that you have something for everyone from the brand new barista to the seasoned coffee professional?
I think the key is making sure there are different experiences available for different people at the event. So, if you are a competition fanatic and you come to our events, you can definitely nerd out, watch or compete, test all of the equipment and competition, and drink a bunch of coffee. On the other hand if you just wanna come and catch up with your coffee buds, then we have spaces where you can chat, drink some drinks and not have to be bombarded with coffee presentations. Outside of that, one of our mantras is to make sure that everyone walks away from the event wanting to come back. So that means making sure that we have considered the experience of all different people at the event from judges to volunteers to competitors and attendees.
None of our events require any real training or prep, and we provide everything required, which not only lowers the barrier to entry but also levels the playing field so there is no advantage to be had from extra prep or access to specific coffee or equipment.
Photo: Ash Day
What are the key things you keep top of mind to make sure that barista competitions are more about communities coming together, and less about who wins and does not win?
As above, we try to ensure that a volunteer or the person who comes in 10th place has as much or more fun than the winner. I think this is understanding why you are doing your event in the first place. Traditionally, perhaps, the mission of a coffee competition was to crown a champion. Understandably, if this is your focus then you need to prioritize making the competition unimpeachable instead of making the schedule more flexible or spending more time thinking about the experience of a volunteer or attendee. We instead try to remember that we are creating the event for everyone, not just the competitors, which means the stakes can be lower, the vibes a bit more chill and we can adjust some other variables at the event to make everyone’s life a bit easier and a bit more fun.
Photo: Ash Day
We love your focus on the accessibility and sustainability of the events you host as well! What are some of the things you do to make sure these goals are met?
We’re constantly revising our processes, and with the growth of our team to include some new and awesome project managers, our current project is to develop a kind of manual or event planning kit for when we produce a competition. At the same time, we are developing all of the accountability and reporting standards, and it’s fun for us to all be able to push each other and really evaluate where we can do things better. It’s really important for us that our events don’t finish when we walk away from the venue, but there is a deliberate post production phase where we can learn from and improve upon each project that we do.
Photo: Carolyn West
How did The Barista League change and adapt during the height of the pandemic, and what are you looking forward to now that things are starting to “open back up”?
The last year and half has been relatively rough – prior to the pandemic we were 100% reliant on physical events – so it was a steep learning curve for us to develop new projects and concepts that could not only connect the community but meet our partner’s expectations of what a Barista League project is. I think we have managed to do some really cool stuff and have definitely learnt a lot from this experience, so while we will continue with some of those virtual and online events, we cannot wait to get back to what we do best – planning kick ass parties and competitions around the world for coffee people.
Photo: Ash Day
Since you’re a global team, how do you bond and “meet up” for coffee from your perspective locations? Can you share some of your team’s favorite at home brewing routines, and favorite coffee beverages to enjoy?
This is a great question – and with people in four very different time zones, it is really really tricky to get everyone on one call. We actually planned a team building week a month or so ago, and in order to make it work, we broke everyone down into small teams and had them complete different activities each day – so instead of it being one big call or day or lunch, you had more quality time within small groups to hang out without having to stay up until midnight for a work thing. It actually worked super well, and as a bonus, we could group people into teams that don’t typically overlap because they work on different projects. Also, we all love food so we have a pretty active food and recipe channel on teams where we can all share inspiration and ask for recommendations.
We’d love a “behind the scenes” tour of your new office! Can you tell us more about it?
So, our whole team has always been remote – working from home or co-working spaces. But since Anna started full time here in Gothenburg, I felt like it was time we had a bit of space for ourselves and had somewhere central to stash all of our event equipment. We ended up finding a cool, but pretty trashy old storefront space in Eriksberg, Gothenburg. I managed to recruit some good friends with good taste to design and decorate the interior, and they really killed it. We had some fun restrictions on what was possible (read: tiny budget and a crazy red carpet that we couldn’t remove) and they took what was here and with a lot of thrifty second hand shopping we have a really nice space to be now. The craziest part was that we kind of had to move in at the same week as our High Density event. So for that week we had one big table, no chairs, the Ratio Six for coffee (of course), and our phone connections for internet and we were doing last minute event prep at the same time as trying to paint and organize the move. It was a little mad, but a nice trial by fire for Anna, for whom High Density was her first event with us.