10 Minutes With—2020 U.S. CoffeeChamps Edition: Chelsea Thoumsin—Part Two

We continue our conversation with Chelsea Thoumsin to discuss winning the Cup Tasters Nashville Qualifier, the joy of insects, and much more.


Cover photo courtesy of Bryan Clifton for Sustainable Growers

In part one of our interview with Chelsea Thoumsin yesterday, we talked about her journey in coffee and time spent at North Carolina’s Counter Culture Coffee. Today, we pick up the conversation to go in-depth on her U.S. CoffeeChamps competition experience, which began in the fall of 2019 with a Cup Tasters preliminary event and continued to her first-place finish at the Cup Tasters Nashville Qualifier; next she will advance to take part in the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship in Portland, Ore., in April.

How and when did you get interested in competition? Had you competed in Cup Tasters before this year? Why did that competition appeal to you? 

Until 2019, I had never competed in anything, coffee or otherwise. I was a barista sensory judge (USBC/WBC) for a handful of years, and I always admired (and had a huge amount of nerves for) competitors, but really didn’t ever think about doing that for myself. Cup Tasters seemed like the competition that would make the most sense for me to do. I was, after all, cupping coffees one to three hours a day (at Counter Culture), didn’t have to worry about presenting information during competition, and I only needed a spoon and my olfactory senses. I thought, should be easy, right? Yeah, it’s not easy at all, of course, but I went all in.

Chelsea drew on her experience cupping at Counter Culture Coffee to enter the Cup Tasters competition. Photo by Chris McAuley.

How did you prepare for the Cup Tasters Qualifier in Nashville?

Last August, there was a Cup Tasters preliminary at the CCC training center in Durham. N.C. I thought OK, I’ll try it, no big deal if I don’t move on. I did all right, landing second place. I’d go on to qualifiers. I knew what I needed to work on (nerves, meditation, building practices to stay focused on tasting). I have a couple friends (shout-out to Ben Helfen and Tracy Gill!) who set up triangulations for me each week. I invested in the official cupping bowls, and I try to stimulate what a competition space may look like, with lights, noises, filling the space with people, etc.

The triangulations are super fun, and they’re not just for me. I’d invite whoever was available to do runs, too, and it takes a lot of pressure off of the whole “seriousness” thing that can be palpable in training for competition. Also, we’re all learning, and I feel inclined to say that for me, that’s the mindset I want to stay in. There is no such thing as an entirely individual success in coffee, and any of our movement forward is riding on the backs of the collective.

What was the experience like of competing in Nashville, and how did it feel to actually win and advance to nationals?

Competing at Nashville for qualifiers was intense (surprise!). I utilized all the things I had practiced, but what I couldn’t have planned for was the odd warping of time that seemed to happen in those few minutes. I’m sure I’m not the only person who experiences this in high-stress situations, but wow. I’m already a naturally fast cupper, but I tend to speed when practicing, so much of my efforts was trying to allow myself to slow the hell down for the sake of accuracy. In those minutes, I couldn’t really tell if I was going fast or slow. It was wild. I had to constantly remind myself to stay in my palate. When I lifted the last cup, I didn’t really believe it was correct until Simeon announced it. I was shaking; I certainly had never felt that level of joy/excitement/disbelief all at once, and once I got off the stage, I nearly spilled my quite-full spit cup all over my friends. It was nothing short of bananas, and that experience was entirely different than the quiet environment of a cupping lab.

I competed on the first day, and Cup Tasters scoring wasn’t live at this event. There was a full day left of competition, so I only had a slight feeling I might be in the top few spots. But it wasn’t until it was announced the next evening that I fully believed it (as I’m writing this, I’m seeing a theme here of me not believing things, haha). It was the same wild feelings during announcements as when I lifted the last cup, confirming 6/6 correct cups in 3:43. 

This win came at a time when I admittedly held a lot of self-doubt, I was unsure what coffee really meant to me, and I didn’t know what was next (in an unfun way). Without my support system of friends within and outside of coffee, I can’t say I would have held it together so well. This is just to say, everyone deserves that. I had no idea I had so many cheerleaders who had my back until late last year when I left my job. I’m thankful, and if you’re reading this, will happily be your cheerleader too.

Chelsea in Embu, Kenya, at the Kamavindi Coffee Farm. Photo by Peter Mbature.

Finally, what do you enjoy doing outside the world of coffee? 

I’m a beekeeper and entomology fan, so anyone who knows me even a little bit knows I can (and will) talk about insects forever. We wouldn’t make it without them, and things would be a whole lot worse (see: covered in dead things and debris, and we wouldn’t have a lot of food), so next time you see an insect, thank them before considering smashing them. Or at least research what the insect is and what it does before you smash them. Don’t even get me started on spiders! They’re your friends, or at the very least, deserve your respect.

Beyond that, I work on my side project, @pollinatorproject, an educational platform about pollinators of all kinds, and furthering their access to food through the selling of wildflower seed packets. I also lend a hand to @getchusomegear—a movement to supply coffee people from marginalized communities with supplies they need—with ideas, organizing, and content for the project. It’s been inspiring to witness something so powerful from the ground up start to take form, and I can’t wait to see how it grows. 

About Chris Ryan 263 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.