Tell us something true: why does representation matter?
In 2012, the founder of Glitter Cat Barista, T. Ben Grimm, took a dive into the sparkling arenas of coffee competition after just ten months behind the bar. During that time, Grimm was married, in college, and fully embracing their cis-white male counterparts. This muffled acceptance into the competition cycle felt lukewarm, and so began the birthing of Glitter Cat, a non-profit resource that’s been raising a paw for the underrepresented, the silenced, and the innovators of our industry, with a splash of color, no doubt.
Glitter Cat evolved from a simple silhouette on Grimm’s notebook during their 2018 competition season. The humble feline served as a reminder of one’s fierce capabilities under pressure, and of Grimm’s cat, Axel, of eight years. The flit of a tail spoke volumes of sass in a space crowded by straight, white men, and Grimm’s team of supporters pushed the emblem to represent their own potential.
“I was constantly told by white, male owners that in order for me to win, I needed to be less of myself and pivot to what they were looking for,” Grimm recalled. “My friends were telling me they wanted to see that cat everywhere, and that I needed to embrace my true self.”
Barista competitions have always maintained a sense of conformity, by definition of what’s accepted and what’s encouraged. The outline of a feline brought about a thirst for rebellion in a cookie-cutter corner of the industry. “By putting this playful cat everywhere, it represented me and my voice,” Grimm said. “The more you can be yourself on the stage, the better you’ll perform!” Firmly rooted in creating space for marginalized coffee professionals and students alike, Glitter Cat also provides bootcamps, workshops, and virtual competitions to all who aspire, like the coveted DiGiTiTiON, which began smashing IGTV in the first week of November.
The DiGiTiTiON is one of many projects aimed at building a platform for inclusivity across all mediums, from roasting and tasting to boozy brews and, of course, latté art. This year marks the debut of the DiGiTiTiON, and it comes out of necessity during the darkest of times.
“We want it to be more than a competition,” Grimm explained. “It’s about finding continued ways to break boundaries... like, we have our own score sheets, based off of the US Championships, but it’s really whatever you want it to be.”
The DiGiTiTiON is fully covered by Glitter Cat, and competitors must simply build their “café” at home or create their space for showcasing their chosen skills live on IGTV. The equipment, tools, and fortitude are all supplied by Glitter Cat. “There’s beautiful energy that develops when you’re in your own space, like with your pet,” Grimm said.
The Glitter Cat coffee community is eternal and sustains a following of dedicated cats long after any kind of Glitter Cat bootcamp or barista competition comes to a close. This year, many veterans of Glitter Cat are serving as judges or mentors for the DiGiTiTiON. “We had over 150 applicants, and only 36 made the final cut,” Grimm said. “It was one of the hardest decisions we had to make.”
Among the near 80 individuals responsible for bringing the DiGiTiTiON to life is Jake King, a former Barista Cat (2020) and founder of GYST Coffee, a training program for baristas in and around Atlanta.
“I’m super excited to help take part in mentoring this cohort of Cats and helping them feel as prepared and supported as I did when I competed,” King said. Gearing up for his sliver of the cycle, King has been moving around some furniture to make space for the coffee and the company needed for judging the Barista panel.
“I’m doing a full bar buildout in my dining room to make space for the Silvia Pro and E65S that are in the mail,” King explained, “And also trying to pace myself with the massive mountain of coffee that’s been sent to my doorstep.”
It’s refreshing to note that while competitions serve the obvious purpose of crowning a winner, the athleticism of coffee pours far beyond that feathered fern. These demonstrations unite the community in a way that’s unique outside of cafés.
“Competitions that tie in with the spirit of Glitter Cat bring people together as a community to accomplish far more than we could on our own,” King said. “We’re all ‘Team Coffee’ and access to education and resources makes us all better for it. Iron sharpens iron.”
Likewise, an open stage invites a slew of possibilities, and in this isolated world, perhaps all we need is a little friendly competition. The annual US Championships were postponed to 2021, with the Specialty Coffee Expo still slated for New Orleans in early April. For many marginalized coffee professionals, these competitions offer a buffet of opportunity to connect with leading figures and harness the power of coffee in its most effective form: igniting conversation and movement. Vehicles like the DiGiTiTiON can take competitors across the country from the comforts of their home, filling the void and sparking some variation of community.
Grimm believes such demonstrations can act as a tool in progressing one’s career, but the grind doesn’t stop at finals. “There’s a misconception that if you do well, then you’re suddenly a green buyer,” Grimm explained. “Competitions can open doors for you, but doing well is less important than simply being a part of the industry. Making those connections can help build career paths.”
A true winner, or Glitter Cat, goes beyond the barista competition circuits, and the parameters set before them. “We want someone who is unapologetically themselves,” Grimm said. “Someone who wants to break the rules! We want people who are going to f--- the system and find ways to go around it.”
In a similar fashion, Glitter Cat has continued to clear pathways during COVID-19 by introducing projects like the DiGiTiTiON, which allows them to engage with the coffee community through a competitive lens. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s revision. The power to pivot when duty calls has never been more crucial to life after COVID-19, and the coffee industry might do well to take some notes. Grimm strives to open the floor for marginalized folks in coffee competition while adding a little color to the cup.
“You can only make space by removing yourself from it,” Grimm said. “You won’t see me on a stage again... I would be taking a win away from someone I’m trying to support. Sit down if you have power, and give those resources to someone else.”
Glitter Cat pushes underrepresented coffee brewers and baristas to the front of the pack, making room for the leaders of the coffee industry to paint the future the way they want to see it. “Look at the companies you choose to admire,” Grimm said, “do you see yourself represented in the top tier?”
Pause for reflection.
The competitive side of coffee awards a myriad of opportunities for baristas, roasters, and junkies alike, albeit the landscape of these sectors is on the brink of change, made mobile by forces such as Glitter Cat. Their team has already covered a lot of ground, from the DiGiTiTiON to their Business Accountability Project. But the best is yet to come, as Grimm whispered the workings of an exciting development just around the corner.
“We’re planning to open a training lab in Los Angeles for marginalized folks!” Grimm reiterated the accessibility of Glitter Cat, one of the organization’s leading values.
“All of our programming is 100 percent free, and we’re going to keep it that way,” Grimm said. “Every year we grow our programs, and we’re not about to start charging people.”
Speaking truthfully, Grimm hopes the training lab will rise to serve those individuals who are planting their own seeds, making their own marks. The idea is to offer another platform for growth and community, fueled by individual fire and the pursuit of good coffee.
“If it turns into a consulting thing, I’m fine with that,” Grimm said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, had a lot of experiences, so I have a lot to share.”
The time for unabashed creativity in our industry is now. Honestly, it was yesterday. Luminaries like Glitter Cat are setting the stage for the next wave of coffee sport, helping to build a network of pioneers that make space and take space, fostering professional growth and serving as stewards of tomorrow’s bean scene, sparkling with clout. The coffee we brew is as unique as the individuals who make it, and that lies at the heart of being a Glitter Cat.
Struck with a passion for coffee at a young age, King recalls his first home brew with his grandfather over a pot of Folgers. “The trick then, and still today, is a little pinch of salt on top of the grounds to round out some of that bitterness,” he said.
— Photo credit: Elizabeth Chai, @chaiamericano