The Milwaukee Coffee Festival Focuses on Coffee Culture and Education
Event organizer TJ Sizemore brings together quality roasters for fourth year of event on November 5th
It’s exceedingly difficult to remember a time before craft coffee shops seemed to decorate every last corner of Milwaukee. Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold refers to the current popularity of craft coffee culture as the ‘third wave of coffee.’ In Gold’s view, the first wave of coffee was the widespread popularity of instant and drip coffees produced by large manufacturers like Folgers and Maxwell House in the nineteenth century. The second wave took place between 1966 and 2000, as popular corporate coffee chains like Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee & Tea started cropping up everywhere like dandelions in spring.
Flash forward to present day and the third wave of coffee, which emphasizes artisan aesthetics and coffee as a complex product. The movement is spearheaded by high-quality and progressive roasters like Intelligentsia Coffee of Chicago and Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland (although both of which were purchased by Peet’s Coffee and Tea in 2015,) The third wave of coffee focuses on education, craftsmanship and sustainability.
TJ Sizemore, founder of the Milwaukee Coffee Festival, first developed an interest in specialty coffee almost a decade ago while working as a full-time barista at Starbucks in Atlanta, but was introduced to the artisan side of the industry when he took a vacation to Europe. “My wife and I took a two month trip to Italy. I went to a café, ordered a cappuccino and saw the barista pull shots of espresso and dump them because they weren’t good enough- whereas at Starbucks, I’d push a button to produce the shot and serve it no matter what. I could tell there was more to the craft that I wasn’t aware of and I wanted to learn more about it.”
So when Sizemore returned home to Atlanta after the trip, he made a point to seek out the city’s burgeoning specialty coffee subculture. He discovered an event put on by a local roaster which showcased the city's local coffee talent. “I discovered the underground coffee movement in Atlanta through a company called Octane Coffee. I attended one of their barista throw-downs, where baristas from throughout the community gather and compete at latte art. It was an eye-opening environment for discovering the specialty coffee industry.”
Years later, when a new job brought he and his family to Milwaukee, Sizemore brought his passion for specialty coffee with him. He was excited to find that Milwaukee’s coffee culture was similar to Atlanta in its popularity and quality. “When I moved to Milwaukee, I wanted to continue embracing specialty coffee culture. I found companies like Stone Creek, Alterra (now Colectivo), and Anodyne, and was surprised that most people I talked to weren’t familiar with them. I knew Milwaukee was a city of festivals, but there was no coffee festival- so I decided I wanted to work to put something together to connect these brands with the people of Milwaukee.” Sizemore felt inspired, and began to compose the initial plans for what came to be The Milwaukee Coffee Festival.
The roasters with the most longevity in Milwaukee’s specialty coffee scene at that time were Anodyne Coffee, Stone Creek Coffee and Colectivo Coffee Roasters (formerly Alterra). The thriving coffee market has since seen the advent of numerous smaller roasters, including Valentine Coffee, Alderaan Coffee and Hawthorne Coffee, as well as an increased presence from Viroqua Wisconsin’s acclaimed Kickapoo Coffee roaster. The common thread uniting these companies is an appreciation for collaboration, education and community building.
Sizemore familiarized himself with the market, but knew it was important to establish credibility before approaching the industry-leaders with his idea for a festival. Finding an inexpensive venue was his first order of business. “I knew I had to find a space before approaching roasters. When I sent out my event pitch to a large list of venues, one of the most positive responses I received was from Jamie Ferschinger from Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside Park Location. When I presented my initial plan for a two-day festival, Jamie thought it would be better to start with monthly tastings in the space. Those tastings were important because it was through them that I built a relationship with the roasters, who were happy to provide coffee for the tastings.
When the tastings went well, Jamie said ‘Okay, now let’s talk about the festival.’”
Steve Kessler, Operations Manager of Anodyne was one of Sizemore’s initial partners during those monthly tastings. Kessler sees value in the opportunity for roasters to present their product directly to their patrons and tell their story in a casual and friendly setting. “When you’re looking at a city like Milwaukee, there’s been a great renaissance of coffee and more and more people are starting to appreciate the intricacies of it as a complex product. I always say that roasters are like chefs- we all receive our raw product and it’s up to us to take it, learn the backstory on it, and consider many variables before roasting to produce a product that we think people will really enjoy.”
When the tastings evolved into the larger festival, Sizemore didn’t want to let the key element of interaction between vendors and their customers go by the wayside. “We’ve found that attendees are really interested in connecting with the vendors directly. People want to hear why the coffee is special and what characteristics differentiate each company. At the same time, we want to give the vendors an opportunity to connect with their customers.”
That approach has been an important facet to the overall success of the event, and public interest has grown significantly with each passing year. The first year’s attendance was over 500 and the second year’s was closer to 700. Last year, Sizemore anticipated a crowd of 1,000 but saw the actual number exceed 3,000. “Last year the crowd was so large that it was difficult for vendors and attendees to communicate. This year, in order to control the attendance, we are selling tickets as opposed to the last three years when it’s been free.” Sizemore also plans to take the festival to a larger space in its fifth year to facilitate higher attendance without diminishing the ability for vendors and attendees to communicate.
Sizemore also has one more big change brewing for 2017. “This year’s event is still called Milwaukee Coffee Festival, but next year we’re changing the name of the event to Pendulum Coffee Festival so that we can take it to different cities. Madison is the next logical city for us to do a festival; they have a number of coffee roasters who have been operating there for a long time. We still want to keep that very hyper-local focus, so if we travel to Madison, we’re not tasting coffees from Minnesota or Seattle, we’re still focusing on the coffee roasters that are relevant within that market.”
Milwaukee Coffee Festival takes place on Saturday, November 5th at The Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside Park location. Tickets are $10 in advance via the company’s website and $15 at the door.