The 2018 Denver CoffeeChamps winner talks about early coffee memories, and what makes the Denver coffee community special.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo by Before the Morning Productions
Sam Neely is the director of coffee for Switchback Coffee Roasters in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the 2018 Denver CoffeeChamps winner. In this interview, we learn more about Sam and how they got into coffee, took up roasting, and how they’ve grown as a competitor from last year’s sixth-place finish at the United States Barista Championship to now.
Ashley Rodriguez: Can you talk about your first coffee memories? How and when did you get interested in coffee?
Sam Neely: I remember when I was about 14, getting a vanilla bean mocha from the café down the street from me—you know, the kind made with “vanilla bean” powder that doesn’t really stir in all the way and leaves you with a mouth full of grit every time you take a sip? I only made it about halfway through the cup before dumping it into the grass, which at the time was a shame because I really wanted to like coffee. Nonetheless, I went back to that café every day because I hate being alone and there were always people there, and, little by little, I learned to like those vanilla bean mochas.
It was actually at this café that I became interested in coffee—although at first, it wasn’t so much the coffee that I was interested in. I left public school when I was 15 and finished schooling online, which was great but also a large problem for me because I love to be around people. It seemed that getting a job at that busy café down the street would be the perfect way to get my people fix, and so I started pulling shifts there as much as I could. It wasn’t until a few months later that I started to get interested in the “coffee” part of my coffee job.
What inspired you to take up roasting?
I tend to have somewhat of an obsessive personality—I never get a little bit interested in anything, it’s always all or nothing. As soon as I began to dive down the rabbit hole that is coffee, I wanted to learn everything that I possibly could about it. And so when I had the opportunity to take up roasting—after about two years as a barista—I jumped at it. Learning the intricacies and connections that lead to the flavors that we love endlessly fascinates me, and every opportunity I get to understand those connections further is exactly what I want to do.
How did you get into competition? What was your first competition experience like?
When I first got into coffee, I would watch every single competition routine that I could find on the internet. To a large extent, these routines shaped that way that I viewed coffee, and to this day I credit them with igniting my passion for this industry. Ever since then, I knew that I wanted to try my hand at it and see what would happen. And so, as soon as I hit the age requirement to compete, I signed up!
My first competition experience was, honestly, amazing. That season was really my first time engaging with the coffee community outside of my own state, and I got to meet so many amazing and inspiring people. Getting to watch people like Oodie Taliaferro take the stage and declare that “coffee isn’t just for white people,” or having Andrea Allen make me cry in person with her routine about legacy and coffee prices, was truly an honor, and reignited my passion for coffee to the level that I had when I was just a baby barista watching competition routines on my phone.
Also, the supportive nature of people during competition, both during practices beforehand and backstage at the competition, further reminded me why I love this industry so much. My own community here in Colorado helped me so much in understanding the rules, laying down a good theme, and making sure that my coffee tasted good. And then, complete strangers backstage were all so collaborative when it came to polishing dishes, lending cups to people that forgot them, or even just giving much-needed emotional support to each other.
How did you think about preparing for competition from last year to this year? What changed?
This year I felt like I had a much better grasp on what I needed to do to do well in competition. I learned a lot last year from talking with my judges, as well as other competitors. I also feel like I have been more strategic this year in my planning. Pretty much immediately after nationals last year, I started thinking about what I wanted to talk about this year, and I’ve tried to carry over a similar theme from the preliminaries, to qualifiers, and again to nationals. This has really allowed me to build upon my routine each time, hopefully getting better and better.
You have a particularly special relationship with La Palma y El Tucan—what keeps you wanting to work with these folks? As a broader question, what as a coffee roaster keeps you connected to the coffees you roast?
I think the thing that I love most about La Palma y El Tucan, and about lots of the producers that I work with, is their relentless passion for innovation, and a desire for change. La Palma has always been pushing boundaries, be it through experimental processing techniques, or the way that they work with neighboring producers to ensure fair(er) wages for everyone.
I love to see things move forward, and so having the opportunity to work with people in very different aspects of our industry to keep things moving forward always gets me going. And as a coffee roaster, I do what I can in my green buying practices and roasting philosophy to make sure, the best I can, that those things keep moving forward.
We’ve interviewed folks from Colorado before, and it’s clear there’s something really special going on there—what do you think makes the Colorado coffee scene unique?
Colorado as a whole has such a tight and collaborative coffee industry. We are always willing to help each other to succeed, and I think that makes us really special. I’ve never seen a community that truly values the idea of community over competition more than right here in Colorado (although I might be biased).
We’re also just really lucky to have so many talented and courageous coffee professionals that live and work here, and these people have put in the work to make our community inclusive and welcoming. Everyone come to Colorado, we’d love to have you!