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The 2014 MANE (Mid Atlantic North East Regional) Coffee Conference took place this past weekend in Providence, RI. This was the 8th MANE conference, and the second one I attended, and even in the two short years since my first MANE experience, the event has grown substantially, furthering its commitment to bringing accessible, high quality coffee education to a wide range of participants. This year, event hosts New Harvest Coffee moved the conference to the downtown Providence convention center, to accommodate the four-hundred-odd people who signed up for two days of education, networking and fun.

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Even by the relaxed, close-knit standards of the coffee industry, MANE has a casual, family-affair feel to it. From the wide range of introductory-to-intermediate-level education options, to the ample equipment available for hands-on exploration, to the constant hum of old friends and new acquaintances conversing in the halls, MANE is a coffee gathering that is focused on concretely enriching experiences that benefit the budding coffee professional.

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One of my favorite examples of MANE’s pragmatic focus is the “Machine Whisperers” class, a somewhat elliptical name for a very simple but surprisingly uncommon idea: a class on the hardware of an espresso machine that focuses on the sorts of things that front line baristas need to actually know. Things like what sorts of periodic maintenance espresso machines need, how to diagnose simple problems like uneven group head flows, and lifesaving tips like how to turn off a broken-open steam wand valve without burning your hand off. This class was being taught by representatives of our partners at La Marzocco, the espresso machine sponsor for the conference.

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The education track included a variety of other offerings, like the “Takes Two to Mango” palate development class led by Todd Mackey, a decaf fundamental course by David Kastle of Swiss Water, origin presentations on Guatemala and Brazil, and a number of hands-on classes on brewing, espresso, and latte art. These hands-on classes were staffed by a rotating group of skilled baristas who gave generously of their time, like J. Park Brannen and Dawn Shanks, pictured below leading a Latte Art II skills workshop.

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In addition to the smaller-format classes, MANE featured a series of panel discussions that brought together experts from many different sectors to talk about everything from collaboration to the effects of roya and other coffee diseases, to the challenges of restaurant coffee. I hosted a panel entitled “Starting A Coffee Business” featuring Noelle Archibald of Lamplighter Coffee Roasters, John Moore of Nobletree Coffee, Eileen Rinaldi of Ritual Coffee, Jaime Van Schyndel of Barismo, and Tim Wendelboe of Tim Wendelboe Coffee. Getting to interrogate such a varied cross-section of coffee business people was a fascinating experience, with the panelists graciously sharing the triumphs and foibles they found along the way to creating their coffee ventures. There’s something very refreshing about hearing revered coffee pros admit to the amount of luck, flexibility, mistakes, and sheer stick-with-it-ness involved in building their businesses.

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Another interesting panel was the “Coffee and La Roya” discussion hosted by Ken Olsen of Barista Magazine. This panel featured Guy Burdett of InterAmerican Coffee, Beth Ann Caspersen from Equal Exchange, Fredy Alexander Perez Zelaya from COMSA Marcala Honduras, Christian Starry from Finca El Xalum Guatemala, Marco Antonio Tzunun from Manos Campesinas Guatemala, and Sonia Mercedes Vasquez Medina from COMSA Marcala Honduras. In this panel, coffee producers related the real on-the-ground challenges of combating coffee diseases in their own words—a valuable perspective no matter what the audience, but doubly so for newer coffee professionals who have not yet had as much chance to be exposed to the origin side of the industry.

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Sam Lipp speaks about integrating quality coffee at Union Square Hospitality Group establishments.

The most personally interesting experience for me at MANE was watching the “Restaurant Coffee” panel put together by Teresa Von Fuchs, from our partners at Irving Farm. Fuchs gathered together Sam Lipp from Union Square Cafe, Tom Sperduto from Krupa Grocery, Chris Yorty from Puritan & Company and Joey Abitabilo from Shelter Harbor Golf Club. Restaurant coffee is of course quite the hot topic these days, with many related discussions going on at events and on the internet, but the more informal nature of MANE gave this panel a relatable, pragmatic feel, with panelists sharing their triumphs with coffee, explaining why their staff can be hesitant to adopt new practices, admitting how far they still have to go in their own establishments, and giving concrete advice on how roasters can better support and work with restaurants.

Particularly amusing was Sam Lipp’s story about the implementation of the coffee service at Maialino: he told how Four Barrel coffee was chosen in a blind tasting by staff, which led to them calling up Four Barrel’s owner Jeremy Tooker and telling him to “hop on a plane and come figure out how to make your coffee taste good here.” This was still the very early days of quality coffee in restaurants, so best practices and requirements were still very much speculative. Setting up the coffee program, they had decided that they wanted to use bottomless portafilters for their espresso service, but said portafilters did not arrive in time, so the morning of opening day, Lipp found Tooker going to town with a hacksaw, chopping the bottoms off their stock portafilters.

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The keynote speaker for the conference was Tim Wendelboe, who gave an engaging talk on his path through coffee, and where he sees it going today. Hearing one of the industry’s leading thinkers talk about how to truly grow as a barista he turned to learning first how to roast coffee, then how to source coffee, and now, in his next project, how to grow coffee, was an interesting counterpoint to the more introductory level of most MANE content. It felt appropriately inspiring—MANE’s goal is clearly to inspire a love of coffee and the coffee industry in its participants, and though they may be more at the palate-training, latte-art-learning stage, giving them a look at the amazing world of possibilities in coffee is very valuable.

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New Harvest Coffee’s Rik Kleinfeldt and Ana Mallozzi

The ongoing success of MANE is a testament to the incredible amount of work New Harvest Coffee puts into this event every year, and the ever-growing need for accessible, quality coffee education. As the next generation of coffee professionals start finding their way in the industry, the value of events like MANE that can bring them together with other like-minded, passionate folks cannot be overstated.

Alex Bernson is the Managing Editor at Read more Alex Bernson on Sprudge