A Spirited Competition: Sonja Grant on the Early Days of CIGS

Sonja Grant, one of the founders of the World Coffee In Good Spirits Championship, discusses the competition’s early days and evolution. 

BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Cover photo by World Coffee Events

Since 2005, the World Coffee In Good Spirits Championship has challenged competitors to make delicious beverages combining coffee and alcohol. In this series on Barista Magazine Online, we get to know the competition and talk to some of the organizers, champions, and others who have helped bring it to life. Check out more stories in the series here.

This week, coffee competitors from around the globe are gathering at World of Coffee in Berlin for the World Coffee Championships. Among the competitions taking place in Berlin is the World Coffee In Good Spirits Championship, in which competitors battle to make the best coffee cocktails. (Read a preview of the Berlin event here.)

Coffee In Good Spirits, better known by the acronym CIGS, has come a long way since its debut in 2005. Sonja Grant was part of the team that created CIGS, and has watched the competition grow over the ensuing years. We talked to Sonja about those early days, unexpected drink creations, and much more. 

Sonja Grant (center) with the judging panel during the first World Coffee In Good Spirits Championship in Greece in 2005. Photo courtesy of Sonja Grant.

Chris Ryan: Can you explain how Coffee In Good Spirits came together and when it launched? 

Sonja Grant: The first Coffee In Good Spirits competition was in 2005 at the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe show in Greece. There were not many participants, but the first CIGS World Champion, Demitri Kostifacos, was from Greece. 

The Coffee in Good Spirits Championship was created to save the original recipe of Irish Coffee, one of the oldest coffee cocktails in the world. The recipe was starting to be washed out by all kinds of weird creations around Irish Coffee, so we wanted to preserve the original recipe. To this day, competitors still have to create two Irish Coffees as part of the final round of CIGS. 

The other purpose of creating CIGS was of course to connect baristas more to bartending. Also, at that time the only coffee competitions we had were the Barista Championship and the Cup Tasters Championship, so we wanted to reach a broader audience and to make coffee professionalism also more fun.

Demitri Kostifacos (right) of Greece, winner of the first World Coffee In Good Spirits Championship in 2005, with Stefanos Domatiotis. Photo courtesy of Sonja Grant.

Can you tell me more about the earliest CIGS competitions? Did competitors immediately embrace the concept, and did it always have more of a sense of fun because of the alcohol?

From the beginning, CIGS has always been fun. In the early days we had a problem with balance in the drinks—there was always too much alcohol, so the judges had a hard time focusing. The competitors were all baristas with a limited knowledge of mixology, so the drinks were simple and sometimes in two parts, where the coffee was separated from the alcohol. To be a judge in this competition you had to have a strong tolerance for alcohol; between the alcohol and also all the cream in the Irish Coffee, it was sometimes a challenge!

Also we had a stupid rule that if you finished the performance 15 seconds before the time was up, you got awarded by getting extra points. This rule was written so the competitors would use the whole competition time. 

Sonja (center) and judges during the 2007 World Coffee In Good Spirits Championship in Antwerp, Belgium.

Can you describe how you’ve seen the competition evolve over the years? 

In theory it hasn’t changed much: Competitors are still mixing coffee and alcohol in a competition format and having fun. But the competition today is more elegant, and all the drinks are in balance. I think baristas and bartenders are talking a lot more to each other now, so there is more creativity and a better understanding of mixology that is reflected in the competition.

What’s the most interesting drink creation you’ve seen in the competition’s history?

I could never answer this question! There have been so many interesting combinations in this championship. We had all kinds of smoked drinks, and all forms of standard cocktails like Negronis and whiskey sours. We even had coffee oysters! The combinations have been endless.

Judges award scores during the 2007 World Coffee In Good Spirits Championship. Photo courtesy of Sonja Grant.

Is it surprising to you that CIGS is still such a relevant competition, and that it’s still spreading to new countries, like the USA this year?

I don’t think CIGS has peaked yet—the competition is becoming more professional every year, and continues to expand to new countries.

I’m of course proud of how CIGS has grown since we started it in 2005. It has been interesting to see how it’s developed and changed over the years. It has helped a lot that mixology has become more popular and that our rules specifically say that mixology is a skill we are looking for in a champion. We want them to be superheroes—great at brewing coffee, with strong mixology skills, and with the skills to create cocktails on the spot in a presentation. But competitors are able to accomplish this in impressive fashion. I foresee that this championship will continue growing and will crown champions that reach even higher levels of skill and professionalism in coffee and cocktails.

About Chris Ryan 233 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.