So You Wanna Host A Barista Jam?

1069428_659307684098480_1347334999_n

I’m always excited at this time of year, because it’s when Nathan Howes of Billings, Montana, contacts me about the annual Montana Barista Jam he coordinates. I remember the first time Nathan emailed me—it was few years ago, when he was putting together the second Montana Barista Jam.

But let’s rewind to the first jam: it was 2009, and the first-ever Montana Barista Jam was being hosted by Off the Leaf Coffee Bar in Billings. At the time, Nathan lived across the state of Montana from Billings, but he made the drive, had a terrific time getting to know comrades in coffee, and checking out some different shops. But when the manager of Off the Leaf moved on, no one picked up the reins and put on another one.

Lucky for baristas across the Big Sky state, Nathan Howes—pictured here with Montana Barista Jam posters from over the years—made it his business to carry on the tradition and celebrate coffee and baristas each and every year.

Lucky for baristas across the Big Sky state, Nathan Howes—pictured here with Montana Barista Jam posters from over the years—made it his business to carry on the tradition and celebrate coffee and baristas each and every year.

That is, until 2011, when Nathan moved to Billings and started working there, and his wife encouraged him to take over organization of the second Montana Barista Jam. And he’s kept it going annually since then. The Montana Barista Jam has grown into a highly-anticipated, annual coffee community gathering and educational session that people travel to from all over the state, as well as the region.

Nathan Howes.

Nathan Howes.

Nathan is a humble guy—he wouldn’t admit he’s become an actual expert of how to put barista jams together over the years. But he is. He’s learned year by year what works, what doesn’t, where focus should lie, what can be cut if time is short, and how to ensure that the event is not only full of fun and comradery, but lots of opportunities to learn about coffee, equipment, bar techniques, and retailing.

He’s hard at work planning the 4th Annual Montana Barista Jam right now—it’s scheduled for September 13 and 14th—but Nathan was able to take some time to chat with me about what he’s learned and his approach to putting together a damn fine barista jam.

Because the truth is, anyone can do this—you just have to have some time, lots of enthusiasm, a passion for coffee, organizational skills, and a few friends who you can really count on to help with the last minute details. Nathan’s the master though—I’ll let him tell it like it is…

Sarah: In your original vision when you started planning the second jam, what did you hope it would be?

Nathan: I envisioned a few people from all the main towns in Montana, and a handful of local people attending—20–40 people total. [We would be] cupping awesome coffees to develop palates, have guest speakers to expand our understanding, [and throw] latte art extravaganzas. I also imagined lots of discussion on form and format of different shops.

Nathan (in pink bandana) at one of the highlights of the 3rd Annual Montana Barista Jam in 2012: a tasting of fruits, nuts, chocolates, etc., along with coffees, to determine a successful pairing.

Nathan (in pink bandana) at one of the highlights of the 3rd Annual Montana Barista Jam in 2012: a tasting of fruits, nuts, chocolates, etc., along with coffees, to determine a successful pairing.

Sarah: As you started to put it together, what challenges did you face?

Nathan: Our main challenge every year is finding an available and adequate espresso machine. Every year there is a plan, a decent machine in the wings, and sometime before the event it falls through. Our shop hours are until midnight or 1 a.m. every night, so our machine is unavailable as it is always being used. Luckily, a local bakery has always been extremely accommodating in letting us use their space and machine at the last last minute. The other challenge is finding the pockets of people that are passionate [about coffee] enough to come to the event. They’re there, but sometimes it takes some talking and searching to find them.

Sarah: What do you wish you had known about putting on a barista jam the first time you did it?

Nathan: Sponsors in the coffee community are super awesome. Most of these equipment and roasting companies are jazzed to send you their stuff when you’re putting it into the hands of passionate baristas.  They want to be seen, and most of them are also just really generous people. Also, I figured every town would have a some really interested baristas if I could just get the information to them. A lot of them though are just doing it as temporary or college work, unknowing or uninterested in pursuing coffee careers.  Montana is a big state to travel across; I think that also dissuades a few people from coming.
Nathan was happily surprised to learn just how willing coffee and equipment companies are to sponsor jams and barista gatherings. All he had to do was ask!

Nathan was happily surprised to learn just how willing coffee and equipment companies are to sponsor jams and barista gatherings. All he had to do was ask!

Sarah: What advice do you have for other baristas who are considering organizing a jam?

Nathan: I am absolutely including myself here, but baristas can be a bit… relaxed sometimes.  If you want to make sure something gets done in planning and prep work, and you plan on delegating it, be a constant encouragement to whoever you delegated it to. People are great at offering to help but they need your guidance and motivation. Also, have a couple people around you who know how to spur you on when challenges or disillusion get in the way.  For me, it’s my awesome wife. Jams and events are totally worth all the time and work to pull them together if you’re just excited about sharing coffee and time with some other rocking baristas. Don’t force too many expectations on them, let each year be its own unique experience. For me, the Montana Barista Jam is inspiring, informative, and just an awesome annual celebration of why we do what we do. Hopefully it will continue to become a hub for uniting and spreading high standards for coffee around our state!

Thanks, Nathan! It’s always great to get advice from folks who have experience before jumping into the organization for the first time. Hopefully these words of wisdom will inspire other baristas to start planning jams for their communities.

Look for coverage of the 4th Annual Montana Barista Jam right here on Barista Magazine’s blog in the first few weeks of September!

About the Author

Sarah Allen is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.