Why You Should Dive Into Volunteering at SCA; a Q&A with Brian Clemens from Relevant Coffee

The qualifying round for Coffee Champs were in Nashville this weekend (finalists announced here)!

The U.S. Coffee Championships is a series of three events celebrating specialty coffee in these categories: U.S. Barista Championship, U.S. Brewers Cup, U.S. Cup Tasters Championship, U.S. Coffee in Good Spirits Championship, and U.S. Roaster Championship.

This is all put on by the SCA or Specialty Coffee Association, other wise known as “SCAHHHHH.”

While I was scrolling through Instagram and attempting to not miss a beat through live feeds and other attendees’ post, I somehow got in touch with pacific northwest coffee evangelist, Brian Clemens.

Brian was kind enough to lend his time after what I am sure is an exhausting weekend to give us some insight on his experiences in both competing and volunteering at CoffeeChamps.


Q&A with Brian Clemens, Vancouver, Washington

Hijacked from Relevant Coffee’s  Instagram

Hijacked from Relevant Coffee’s Instagram

1. where are you from and what do you do now? 

I’m from Vancouver, Washington and I run day to day operations for a small coffee roaster, Relevant Coffee (@relevantcoffee). As many in the specialty industry, operations entails wearing multiples hats: roasting, developing procedures, quality control, and most importantly curating an incredible experience for guests. 

2. Why did you attend the US Champs?

I dove back into the specialty coffee industry two years ago after a hiatus working in finance. When I was previously in the industry, I would volunteer at coffee championships as a technical judge or station lead or run/do dishes. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to ensure these events go on without a hitch and it takes a crew of volunteers to ensure it comes together. 

This year was my first time as a competitor. I competed in the Cup Tasters championship, where competitors taste coffees to identify the outlier. Competitors are judged off speed and accuracy, essentially it’s up to your palate to correctly identify the outlier coffee in a timely manner. Accuracy and speed are the name of the game.

Photo from US Coffee Champs;  Learn more about the Finalists here

Photo from US Coffee Champs; Learn more about the Finalists here

3. What would you tell people who are on the fence about attending one of these events?

I would encourage anyone who is on the fence to “dive in”. If you’re too timid to compete, volunteer! Sign up to be a judge! Competition breeds excellence. It brings you to the next level of your career in coffee. It forces you to grow. To excel, you must be good at accepting feedback and implement what you’re learning. I’ve seen competitors grow by leaps and bounds from one year to the next, solely by using the feedback loop provided by judges and coaches.

4. What is one thing you learned this year from this event?

Coffee events are always a whirlwind of activity and events you can be involved in. As someone who often has FOMO, severe congestion forced me to miss out on many of the social parts of the event to take care of myself to ensure I was ready to compete. I went to the extent of buying a humidifier to help clear things up. As a competitor, it’s important to put self care before social activities. 

5. What was your favorite part of it?

Networking! At coffee championships, you have the unique ability to network with baristas, coffee roasters, equipment manufacturers, coffee producers, and many other hands that make this industry a possibility. These events tend to flatten the playing field and creates an environment where you can ask competitors anything you want to know about their coffees, their brew methods. True competitors can become collaborators. 

Old photo from a personal Nashville favorite, Crema Coffee

Old photo from a personal Nashville favorite, Crema Coffee

6. Did you get a chance to explore the coffee scene in Nashville? If so, what café or roastery really stuck out to you and why?

Yes! The coffee scene and service industry in Nashville  is so very hospitable! Crema Coffee was a beacon for good coffee and hospitality. On a bustling Friday morning, with a line out the door, they managed to provide a warm experience, delicious coffee, and an environment in which guests were engaged with each other and not buried in their laptops. We all have varying reasons for visiting cafes - meeting friends, conducting business, or even shooting off a quick email. I’m always impressed by cafes that engage their guests and provide a space that fosters face-to-face conversations over face-to-screen engagement. Props to Crema for making this environment a reality the two times I visited. Also, those chocolate chip cookies!!