Coffee Pros Face Off at Campfire Coffee Cookoff During U.S. CoffeeChamps

As the competitions heated up in Kansas City, Mo., coffee folks from around the country gathered to show their skills in a breakfast-cooking contest.


Cover photo by Ben Helt

While coffee traditionally pairs with breakfast, coffee professionals know that doesn’t just mean a bowl of Cap’n Crunch.

“We, as coffee professionals, are focused on the specialty-coffee beverage, but it’s rare that we enjoy that beverage on its own,” says Ben Helt, education delivery manager for the Specialty Coffee Association. “We enjoy having food that was prepared with the same amount of passion.”

This year’s U.S. Coffee Championships in Kansas City, Mo., paired best with the Campfire Coffee Cookoff, a culinary event held at nearby Splitlog Coffee on Saturday, March 16. The cookoff asked teams, formed of one to six people, to prepare breakfast over an open fire and pair it with coffee made without electricity. This first-time event, coordinated by Ben Helt, combined the great outdoors with an avenue for exploring the ways many coffee professionals bring their refined palates and tasting skills into the kitchen—or, in this case, to the campfire.

The Campfire Coffee Cookoff challenged coffee professionals to make breakfast meals over an open flame and pair them with coffee brewed without electricity. Photo by Ben Helt.

When USCC announced the event would be taking place in Kansas City, Ben and his co-conspirators—Nick Robertson (Messenger Coffee), Matt Murdick (Martin City Brewing), Marty Roe (Workbench Coffee Labs), and Simeon Bricker (Splitlog Coffee)—knew they wanted to engage the coffee community in something outside the sanctioned USCC events, and in an event other than a latte art throwdown.

The first ideation of the cookoff involved BBQ, a KC staple, but the concept lacked a tie to coffee. To create that connection, the designers added a breakfast category. Ben says when he started to tell others about the BBQ cookoff, they thought the idea was cool, but when he told them about the breakfast category, they would get extra excited. With that response in mind, they scrapped the BBQ and went full-on breakfast.

Classic American Breakfast, including eggs, meat, and a vegetable or starch, was one of the four cookoff categories. Photo by Derek Wolf.

“We’ve worked very hard to come up with an event that could be engaging both visually and gastronomically,” Ben says.

As for the competition specifics, each team could compete in any and all of the four categories: Classic American Breakfast, a hearty typical breakfast including a meat, eggs, and vegetable or starch; Breads, Biscuits and Cakes, a baked-good centered meal with an optional side; Vegetarian, a two-item-or-more plant-based meal; and Coffee-Origin Inspired, a category Ben was particularly excited for, featuring a meal celebrating the cuisine of a coffee-growing country.

Another example of the classic breakfast category. Photo by Derek Wolf.

“We really liked the idea of recognizing the supply chain in the contest,” Ben says.

Each entry had to be accompanied by 10 ounces of coffee, prepared from whole bean to final cup without electricity. Ben says of the points available, a third of the points came from the coffee.

Teams had a pre-assigned 5-minute window to deliver their dishes to the judges. When presenting their final products, they had a few moments to describe the meal and coffee, Top Chef-style.

The cookoff was judged by a panel of coffee professionals from around the country: Head Judge Nick Robertson (Messenger Coffee), Greg Carlew (Kaldi’s Coffee), Noah Goodman (Faema USA), Kathie Hilberg (Stumptown Coffee Roasters), Brian Hoggard (Messenger Coffee), Rebecca McNelly (Heartland Tech and Kookaburra Coffee), Scotty Moon (KC coffee enthusiast), Anne Nylander (Epiphany Coffee and Tea), and Dan Pabst (Melitta USA).

Splitlog Coffee Co. played host to the Campfire Coffee Cookoff. Photo by Simeon Bricker.

To make the logistics of open-flame cooking for multiple teams possible, Marty and Tootie Roe of cookoff sponsor Workbench Coffee Labs designed an intricate outdoor cooking arena. Concrete blocks, steel, and a grate-like expanded metal formed the 24-foot long communal campfire. Each team had space at the fire and firewood, a prep table, an oven mitt, one roll of paper towels, two cutting boards, and a 12-inch cast-iron skillet provided by cookoff sponsor Lodge Cast Iron.

Other Campfire Coffee Cookoff sponsors included Messenger Coffee, Splitlog Coffee Company, Martin City Brewing,, and Melitta USA.

Ben says spectators enjoyed a morning of creatively executed unique campfire recipes alongside some incredible coffee. While teams prepared their dishes for the judges only, Seven Swans Creperie, a local food truck selling crepes, was on-site, and free coffee courtesy of Messenger was available.

At the end of the morning, Team B Story Coffee from Three Story Coffee in Jefferson City, Mo., took home the grand championship title. Etched cutting boards were also awarded for the top three spots in each category. Other category-specific winners included The Backpack Brewers from Messenger Coffee; Team Beans, Brew and Quality (BBQ); Parkville Coffee Company from Parkville, Mo.; and Team Brothers Petrehn.

Lauren Miers
is a do-it-all communicator and freelance writer based in Columbia, Mo. When she’s not writing stories or reading a good book, she’s traveling with her barista husband to coffee destinations and competitions.

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