Wake up, Western North Carolina. It’s almost time for the second Asheville Coffee Expo. And since the festival’s inaugural go-round last fall, organizers have been percolating some careful plans for intentional growth.
“We’re superexcited to expand the expo, not just physically, but with two new concepts,” says local food writer and radio personality Stu Helm, who coordinates the festival with Coffee Crate owner Angie Rainey. While the event returns to PennyCup Coffee Co. and Ralph Street in the River Arts District, its footprint stretches this year to include part of Depot Street as well. The additional space will accommodate a Tea Pavilion and Zen Zone at the Eco Depot Marketplace and a Roasters Cupping Tent in the parking lot at Sarver Realty Group.
The Tea Pavilion and Zen Zone is the brainchild of Sara Stender, owner of 3 Mountains Tea and founder of the international wellness- and resiliency-focused nonprofit Africa Healing Exchange. Stender, who describes her career path as “heart work,” partners with tea farmers in Rwanda in cooperation with her nonprofit to source organic, fair trade tea while helping rebuild the country’s economy, which was decimated by its 1994 genocidal civil war.
A yoga enthusiast as well as a tea importer, Stender says the new pavilion is a natural addition to the festival, providing a “nice area to pause and connect” outside of the caffeinated bustle of the coffeecentric activities on Ralph Street. There will be chair massages available, and Hot Yoga Asheville will set up a covered outdoor yoga space by the Eco Depot. In addition, Sunnyside Trading Co. plans to create a peaceful seating area for relaxation. “We’ll have some cushions and some music, and it’ll be a calm area where people can come and chill. Tea and coffee go well together,” says Stender.
In the pavilion, guests can learn about the work of the Africa Healing Exchange and try samples of 3 Mountains’ new product, Silverback on Tap, a ready-to-drink, kegged product named after the endangered Virunga gorillas of Rwanda. Other local tea businesses will be on hand as well, including Asheville Tea Co., AppalaChai, Dobra Tea and Herbiary along with Asheville Bee Charmer and RAD juice café Nourish and Flourish. Root Down food truck will be in the vicinity serving a coffee-inspired brunch menu.
Also on Depot Street, Summit Coffee will host the Roasters Cupping Tent, which will serve as a networking space for local roasters and offer a series of cuppings for the public focused on global coffee-growing regions. Cuppings are in-depth coffee-tasting events that explore flavor profiles and aromas. “It’s usually something roasters do behind closed doors when they’re trying to decide what beans to buy from importers or what roast levels to use for certain beans, so doing it in public is something of a newer thing,” says Rainey.
The expo’s competitions promise to offer another exciting element. Like last year, PennyCup will host barista throw-downs in which local baristas will go head to head to see who can create the best latte art, cappuccino and freestyle espresso beverage. The freestyle competition, in particular, says Helm, challenges baristas to get inventive. Competitors can use any ingredients they want as long as no alcohol is involved — last year’s contest included such things as homemade gelato and rosewater.
“It’s fun for the baristas, and it’s fun for the audience, and it promotes this idea that you can get specialty beverages at the cafés,” says Helm, who says his emceeing duties for the events will include a making a playlist of punk rock songs “to keep things moving.” Space is limited for competitors, so baristas are encouraged to preregister for the events. Baristas can participate in as many events as they like, with prize packages provided by FRS and Coffee Crate.
All coffee vendors at the expo will also compete for the House Cup people’s choice award where attendees can vote for their favorite cup of coffee. Last year’s reigning champion, Dynamite Roasting Co., will defend its title and the honor of keeping the giant coffee cup trophy for another year.
With more than 40 vendors scheduled for this year’s event, coffee lovers will find plenty of familiar favorites like Vortex Doughnuts, Trade and Lore, Izzy’s Coffee Den and Ultra Coffeebar. But there will also be some newcomers like Qualla Java Café and Tribal Grounds Coffee, which both hail from Cherokee, and Kona Kaffee, a West Asheville-based company that grows its own coffee on a farm in Kona, Hawaii. Another new addition is the Audubon Society, which will be there to educate the public about how shade-grown coffee supports bird migration from North Carolina to coffee-growing regions.
Food-wise, aside from Root Down’s brunch fare, snacks will be plentiful, with local businesses offering chocolates, ice cream, doughnuts, baked goods, pretzels and more. Oskar Blues Brewing Co. will also bring its B. Stiff and Sons line of artisan sodas to sell along with its Hotbox Roasters coffee.
Although dogs are only allowed in the Tea Pavilion area (canines are banned from Ralph Street, which will be closed to traffic for the event), the festival is kid-friendly. Buncombe County Special Olympics athletes will again participate in the festival, selling bottled water and hosting family-friendly activities to round out the organization’s month-long Coffee for Champions fundraising initiative. Also, Well Played Board Game Café is expected to bring some large lawn games to add to the fun.
After the festival wraps up at 2 p.m., another new addition will kick off at Burial Beer Co. on the South Slope — an after-party featuring the release of a coffee beer featuring Counter Culture coffee. The party, which is hosted by Counter Culture, was added to give vendors a place to unwind and connect with each other, but it’s also open to the public. Salt & Smoke will have food for sale.
While Rainey and Helm created the expo with the goal of eventually making it a well-known event within the national coffee community, Helm says he also hopes it will help make Asheville’s coffee industry less competitive and more collaborative. “The way the local breweries work with each other was really my model for this,” he says. “I wanted to address what I saw as a need for more camaraderie among our cafés and other businesses — not that it doesn’t exist, just that I felt like it needs to be solidified and really gel around an event that they could all rally behind and where they could meet each other face to face.”