10 Minutes with Sam Schroeder, the U.S. Coffee In Good Spirits Champ

Sam Schroeder is co-owner and retail director for Olympia Coffee Roasting Co., and will compete for CIGS on the world stage in November.


Photos by Nathan Hanna/Olympia Coffee

Sam Schroeder is well-established in the coffee community and the coffee competition circuit. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, he discovered his passion for coffee in high school. He competed in both the 2015 and 2016 United States Barista Championships, placing third and sixth, respectively.

Here, Sam discusses his recent win at the 2023 U.S. Coffee in Good Spirits Championship (U.S. CIGS) in Portland, Ore., his work as co-owner of Olympia Coffee Roasting, and the craft cocktails he made for the competition.

Barista Magazine: How did you get started in coffee?

I began my journey in coffee during high school when I secured a seasonal position at a Tully’s location on Alki Beach in West Seattle, where I primarily prepared espresso milkshakes for a bustling line of customers. When the summer came to an end, I managed to secure a weekend job at an independent coffee shop that poured latte art, which was quite rare back in 2000.

My manager, Jared Mockli, who is still involved in the coffee industry in Alaska, played a crucial role in shaping my coffee knowledge and skills during my time at that shop. He introduced me to the distinct culture of Seattle coffee from that era, pulling tiny ristrettos and pouring latte art. As part of the training, we watched a VHS tape of David Schomer pouring lattes to opera music. We then strived to replicate that experience for our customers to enjoy in our overstuffed chairs.

Sam Schoeder works on one of his signature drinks during the competition. there are two liquor bottles on the table, some wooden trays, a jigger and Boston style cocktail shaker.
Sam performing at the U.S. CIGS Championship in April.

Can you describe your role at Olympia?

At Olympia, my role as a co-owner encompasses a diverse range of responsibilities aimed at supporting the company and our team. I closely collaborate with our retail director, Nikki, and training and innovation director, Reyna. I work mostly on improving our guest experience, while also driving new location initiatives, and contributing to brand and business development efforts.

Your background is in education. What career did you want to pursue originally? How has that shaped your coffee career?

In college, my initial goal was to pursue a career as a high school history teacher. My interest in history stemmed from a deep curiosity about cultural contexts and different viewpoints. However, I realized early on that the bureaucracy that comes with public school teaching would have made me miserable. I made a passion-based decision to dive into the world of coffee, abandoning a master’s in teaching program. This shift allowed me to approach coffee with a curiosity-driven mindset and a natural inclination toward education. Throughout much of Olympia Coffee’s history, I have served as a trainer and educator; education is still where I feel most comfortable and fulfilled.

Sam Schroeder stands with other competitors at USCIGS. He holds a glass rectanglular trophy, wears a gray jacket and jeans, has glasses and short hair.
Sam (center) takes first place at the 2023 U.S. CIGS Championship.

You’ve previously competed in other USCC categories with good results. Why did you pivot to Coffee in Good Spirits?

Previously, I participated in the Brewers Cup and Barista competition. When the announcement came that the U.S. was launching a CIGS competition, I eagerly signed up. I have long had a passion for cocktails and enjoy exploring the intersection of different industries. I firmly believe that the coffee industry can learn valuable lessons from the craft cocktail industry, and I see exciting possibilities for collaborations in this realm.

You came in second at U.S. CIGS in 2019. What was different this go-around?

I can’t pinpoint exactly what was different; I believe that all USCC finalists have the potential to win on any given day. In this particular competition, I guess I had a good day on finals. One notable difference in my approach compared to 2019 was simply that I dedicated more time to refining my finals-round drinks and presentation, instead of focusing more on the opening round.

How did you approach drink development for this competition?

My approach to drink development for this competition was based on my 2020 qualifier performance. I had won the qualifier in Nashville for the 2020 competition year, but due to the pandemic, the competition was postponed until 2022. For medical reasons, I deferred my participation in 2022. However, during this time, I constantly had ideas brewing in the back of my mind about how I could enhance my 2020 qualifier routine. In essence, I had three years to contemplate and refine my approach, aiming to make it even better than before.

Two judges look at Sam Schroeder's cold cocktail, which looks almost like an ice cream cone, having a large round bubble on top and a rainbow colored cone shaped cup on a stand.
Sam’s first drink at the 2020 U.S. CIGS Championship: the Kenya Crush, featuring an aromatic bubble.

Can you describe the drinks you made? What made them special to you?

I showcased coffee from Kenya’s Ichamama Factory in my competition drinks. The selection of this coffee was based on cupping evaluations, and I designed my routine around the flavors discovered during cupping. In the opening round, I presented two drinks that highlighted the coffee’s profile at different temperatures experienced during cupping.

The first drink, called Kenya Crush, featured an aromatic bubble that you break to release a representation of the coffee’s aromas, reminiscent of breaking the crust during cupping. Beneath the bubble, there was a layer of pineapple lime egg white foam atop a chilled espresso base mixed with Patron Reposado Tequila, balanced by sweet vermouth and Campari.

The second drink, named Hot Mama, incorporated brewed coffee combined with Patron Reposado, pineapple rum, and maraschino. It was served hot and topped with a cool maraschino absinthe soft whipped cream.

These drinks were special because of the wait. I had been sitting on these for literally three years. With the pandemic and personal issues, there was a period of time where it looked like I wouldn’t be able to carry them forward to the U.S. CIGS competition. After such a long wait and so much uncertainty, it was satisfying that they landed with the judges. They are super delicious. I want more people to have a chance to try them, so I am currently working on N/A versions to serve in all of our cafés. 

Are you looking forward to the World CIGS Championship? Any tricks up your sleeve?

Absolutely—after watching so many routines online, I’m excited to witness the talent and innovation at the World CIGS Championship firsthand. Currently, I’m brainstorming ideas and immersing myself in cocktail books. As I have until November, I plan to prioritize quality time with my family this summer. I will fully focus on developing my routine in September. Hopefully, some tricks will present themselves then.

You can catch Sam at the World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship at the Taiwan International Coffee Show in Taipei, Taiwan, November 17-20, 2023.


J. Marie Carlan (she/they) is the online editor for Barista Magazine. She’s been a barista for 15 years and writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil. When she’s not behind the espresso bar or toiling over content, you can find her perusing record stores, collecting bric-a-brac, writing poetry, and trying to keep the plants alive in her Denver apartment. She occasionally updates her blog.

The cover of the June + July 2023 issue of Barista Magazine featuring Martin Shabaya of Kenya.


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