Erika Vonie on Winning Coffee Masters NYC

Erika Vonie, 2017 Coffee Masters NYC champion, opens up about her experience in the competition and her journey to get there.

BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Photos by Ludovic Rossignol-Isanovic

Earlier this month, Coffee Masters NYC at the New York Coffee Festival brought together 16 decorated barista competitors from around the world for a three-day competition testing them on a range of coffee skills, including cupping, brewing, and executing orders. Emerging victorious in the event was Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Erika Vonie, a veteran barista and multi-time United States Barista Championship competitor who recently began working with Crop to Cup Importers. We talked to Erika about her experience competing in Coffee Masters and the excitement of taking home the top prize!

Chris Ryan: Before we talk about the competition, can you tell me about your current job?
Erika Vonie: I work for Crop to Cup Importers based in Brooklyn and Chicago. I am the newest member of the trading team, and I facilitate green coffee sales to roasters all over the country. It’s a fun and challenging job, where I’m tasked to pair coffees with the roasters that would benefit the most from them. It’s not just trying to shovel product onto people; it’s about listening to the needs of our roasters and understanding their menu curation to best match our offerings to them. It’s also committing to coffees with traceability and quality, both in the cup and on a human level.

Erika Vonie is your 2017 Coffee Masters champion.

CR: How did you come to compete in Coffee Masters?
EV: I’m a perennial coffee competitor, and after having competed in Coffee Masters last year, it wasn’t even a question whether I’d apply again this year or not. Coffee Masters is alluring for a number of reasons, and honestly for me, the $5,000 prize for the winner is one of the lowest priorities. To excel at Coffee Masters, you have to be a well-rounded coffee professional, exhibiting excellence in a number of facets of the industry. Unlike the World Barista Championship circuit, which is half recital and half mastery of one discipline (no shade—it’s VERY difficult), at Coffee Masters you have to have skills at cupping, origin identification, espresso and brewing extraction, latte art, and signature drink creation, as well as practical skills like speed and cleanliness on bar, and the ability to perform under stress and pressure while being pleasant and communicative with the judges.

It’s a well-crafted competition for the working barista, and it’s indicative of the abilities of your whole skillset. I have a crippling obsession with proving my own abilities to myself, so this competition is the perfect gauntlet for me.

Erika has always been drawn to competition, and the skills tested in Coffee Masters intrigued her for their practicality and application to real-world barista jobs.

CR: What was your experience of competing this year?
EV: My experience competing was a wild one. I left a job that would’ve given me a dedicated practice space, as well as financial backing for any supplies I needed. Instead, I competed as an independent, paid out of pocket for every expense, and was able to cull my team and coaches from friends and professionals I admire—a true hodgepodge of NYC coffee royalty. I actually only touched an espresso machine once in the month leading up to the competition. So I entered the Coffee Masters feeling wildly out of touch and nervous at my lack of practice.

CR: Which of the events was most challenging and which was your favorite?
EV: The disciplines that were most challenging were the cupping disciplines and latte art. As a Q-Grader, I place more importance on the cupping disciplines than the others, and achieving a score of 0/0 on the cupping order in my semifinal was an enormous blow to my ego. I’m still surprised that I was able to rally to win the whole round, and by 30 points at that. Latte art is a whole different challenge, mostly because I don’t really care about latte art, and think its validity as a barometer of quality is a farce. That being said, I’m shocked that I beat anyone with any pour, which I did at least once every round.

My favorite discipline is the brewing discipline, because everyone else made Kalita Waves, and I rolled up with a V60. I chose the brightest and most acidic coffee on the table every time, because I knew that my V60 recipe pulls out depth of body and punches up the sweetness, while letting the acidity ride its own glorious wave. Those who doubt the V60 really need to revisit it—it’s an amazing brew method.

Erika struggled at some of the challenges and excelled in others, eventually beating out runner-up Agnieszka Rojewska by .4 of a point.

I also really liked the order challenge, where you have nine minutes to make 10 drinks, but that’s only because I was able to put down all 10 in the allotted time each time the discipline came up in the rounds. Pretty cool.

CR: Did you have any sense you might win? What was that experience like?
EV: I meditate and practice visualization quite a bit. So while I never expect any particular outcomes, I work hard to visualize them and do everything I can to make those visions become reality. After the first round, I had an inkling I would go against Aga (Agnieszka Rojewska, on the cover of the current issue of Barista Magazine) in the final, but it wasn’t until it was announced that I truly believed it. While practicing before the final I kept trying to visualize my face popping up on the screen, and honestly, it vacillated between her photo and mine right up until we went on. It was anyone’s game, truly!

I felt confident in the outcome while we were waiting, but thinking as highly of Aga as I do, I would’ve been quite happy if she had taken the final over me. She almost did! I squeaked by, by .4 of a point. I’m so proud of her for crushing it all weekend, and for being such an amazing force to compete against. I’m truly thrilled it was the two of us that went head-to-head in the final round.

Erika says her 2017 Coffee Masters experience was an immense confidence booster.

The experience of winning has really illuminated the part of my brain that’s been screaming “YOU CAN DO THIS” for years. Candidly, I had a very rough first half of 2017, and I’ve spent an exorbitant amount of effort and time to right the track of my life, and position myself in a place where I can thrive. Winning Coffee Masters is the culmination of 11 years of being a working barista, four-and-a-half months of sobriety, and one month being free from an incredibly unhealthy and toxic work environment. The greatest prize out of all of this is an undeniable sense of self-worth, finally, truly believing in myself and my abilities.

About Chris Ryan 235 Articles
Chris Ryan (he/him) is Barista Magazine's online copy editor and a freelance writer and editor with a background in the specialty coffee industry. He has been content director of Sustainable Harvest and the editor of Fresh Cup Magazine.