We talk to Kaldi’s Coffee lead barista Jalen Kelly about competing in Coffee In Good Spirits and more.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo courtesy of @hawkeyejohnson
Editor’s note: The 2020 U.S. Coffee Championships season is in full swing. In the next several weeks, we’ll continue to interview some of the competitors who have already qualified for the national competitions taking place in February and April about their coffee careers, approach to competition, and much more.
One positive outcome of coffee-competition routines is that they have the potential to inspire others, either to be better coffee professionals, try competing themselves, or maybe to another goal. For Jalen Kelly, seeing Polish Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska compete—and win—at the 2018 World Barista Championship provided him with all the inspiration he needed to enter the competition scene. After judging Barista in 2019, Jalen—who works as a lead barista for Kaldi’s Coffee in St. Louis— started competing this year in Coffee In Good Spirits (CIGS). He took part in the Glitter Cat Bootcamp for CIGS, then finished in third place in the competition at the Nashville, Tenn., qualifier, advancing to the U.S. Coffee In Good Spirits Championship in Portland, Ore., in April. We talked to Jalen about his coffee background, his inspiration, and much more.
Chris Ryan: Please tell us a bit about yourself!
Jalen Kelly: I was born and raised in St. Louis and I’ve lived here all my life. Outside of coffee I’ve had a love for all things creative, and when I’m not making coffee I freelance graphic design and photography work.
How did you start working in coffee, and what do you like about it? What’s your role at Kaldi’s and what’s your day-to-day like?
I started working in coffee at a shop on a local college campus, where I started to fall in love with the science and the art behind coffee preparation. I love that coffee has a way of bringing so many different people together. Having coffee as a common interest helps connect people of varying backgrounds, and it’s honestly such a beautiful thing. I work as a lead barista for Kaldi’s, training new baristas and keeping my café’s coffee program within standards.
How and when did you get interested in competition? Why did you decide on CIGS rather than the other competitions?
I was interested in competition extremely early in my coffee career. I was watching videos on coffee when I came across Agnieszka Rojewska’s 2018 routine. I had no idea there were competitions until then, but I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. I decided on CIGS after judging Barista last year. I initially wanted to judge Barista, learn the ins and outs, then try my hand at it. I started playing with signature beverage ideas and eventually that led to an interest in cocktails. One day my boss said I should try my hand at CIGS and then I just dove headfirst into it; being able to transform, highlight, and accentuate the flavors of coffee with spirits was an eye-opening experience.
Can you talk about why you applied to Glitter Cat, and how your experience prepared you for competition?
I applied to Glitter Cat because I always felt like an outcast; there was an assumption that I either didn’t belong behind the counter in cafés or that there was no way I could be interested in coffee past a caffeine buzz. I felt that my background could paint a different picture on the coffee industry and on competition, but there was no one willing to see it. Glitter Cat helped me see that there were other people like me; people who felt ostracized, who dealt with similar issues as me, people who had their own stories to tell. The Glitter Cat instructors were amazing; all of them were from diverse backgrounds and their knowledge of coffee and spirits helped all of us grow as competitors and professionals. I was able to come up with one of my drinks at the bootcamp thanks to help from each instructor. My fellow Glitter Cats are now like family; we laughed, cried, partied … we just lived in the moment, and it was such an amazing experience.
What was the experience like of actually competing, and how did it feel to advance to nationals in CIGS?
I barely ate the entire weekend in Nashville. I was so stressed out that my appetite would vanish as soon as I started eating. Once I got on stage, things changed. I called time and let the words I rehearsed flow as naturally as I wrote them. I moved with purpose and made each drink exactly like I practiced—everything felt natural. I was honestly shocked to place third; I watched the other competitors and I was just like, “There’s no way I’m topping that.” As soon as I heard my name called, all of my stress just turned into adrenaline. I was buzzing with energy and couldn’t stop smiling. I’m sure I made roughly 20 laps around the event space.
Finally, what are some of your interests outside of all this coffee stuff?
Outside of coffee I love to cook and write music, and I hope to release a full-length album sometime soon. Also coffee-competition season blends right into parkour competition season, so when I’m not making coffee cocktails I’m running and jumping on obstacles eight feet in the air.