10 Minutes With Carolina Ibarra Garay, 2018 U.S. AeroPress Champ

Carolina Ibarra Garay is your 2018 US AeroPress Champion! We talk growing up around coffee, quitting jobs to find coffee, and how to keep it simple.


Photos courtesy of Alvin Kim

Carolina Ibarra Garay has a deeply felt connection to coffee—a bond formed through her childhood growing up in a coffee-producing area of Colombia. While she pursued many potential career paths in her early professional life, she eventually felt drawn back to coffee and the satisfaction that only it could provide, and she currently manages Café de Leche in Southern California.

This summer, Carolina decided to take part in her first-ever coffee competition, the Los Angeles AeroPress Championship. Though she went out in the second round, her interest in coffee competitions was sparked. When an opportunity to compete in the U.S. AeroPress Championship opened up at the last minute, she seized it, and the rest is history: On September 29, Carolina won the U.S. AeroPress Championship, and she will now compete at the World AeroPress Championship November 17 in Sydney, Australia.

We caught up with Carolina to discuss her background and passion for coffee, her thoughts on competing, and much more.

Chris Ryan: How did you start working in coffee?
Carolina Garay: Coffee has been in my life since my first memories. I was born and raised in a very small town in Colombia called Quimbaya, in the Quindio Department. Back then there was coffee all around in Quimbaya. I remember the smell of the coffee workers’ plastic boots and muddy clothes in the bus that I would ride to school—they would always sit in the back. I didn’t find it that interesting at that time, only because I would literally see it every day.

Carolina is originally from Colombia, and grew up around coffee. Only later, living in Los Angeles, would she reconnect with coffee and find her path.

My childhood was surrounded by so much coffee-related stuff, but I decided to get out of that small town and do something different. When I finished high school, I applied for universities far away from Quimbaya. I moved to Bogota and started law school, then dropped out after a year. I also started veterinary school and dropped out after a year. Then I decided design school was my thing—I went through it for four years, finished the program, and worked in advertising for one year.

That was when I decided to finally leave Colombia and moved to Los Angeles—yes, one more thing I decided quit. At that point I was already feeling like a shameful quitter. But something one day just clicked in my head … actually, it’s more like it clicked in my heart: Coffee. Why? I don’t know; it just happened. It felt like reconnecting old roots, and it was the right time and place for me to do it. I went back to Colombia and took classes on cupping and tasting. My friends who had a coffee shop taught me how to pull espresso, and all of a sudden I felt like I belonged. I was obviously scared of one more failure, and I asked myself a million times if this was that one thing that I was meant to do. But truly, time is the only thing that could answer that question for me.

I used to believe I was never good at anything, and yet somehow I felt like I was good at coffee, and I felt like maybe I could be better through coffee. This also goes back to my belief that your destiny will find you. My attempts to be a lawyer, a vet, and a graphic designer were never a waste of time—they were part of the path I had to go on to get here and to let coffee find me. It was always there—in my family, in my friends, in my life in general—and I feel I am meant to be good at coffee, whether as a barista, coffee education, manager, leader, or another role in this beautiful community.

Carolina (right) credits the bumps along the road to shaping who she is. None of the pathways she chose were mistakes, she shares, but instead part of the journey she needed to take to find coffee.

CR: What’s your current job?
CG: Currently I am the manager of Café de Leche, a 10-year-old family-owned (mom-and-pop) specialty-coffee shop and roaster. We have two locations—one in Highland Park and one in Altadena, Calif. This past weekend was my one-year anniversary working there, and it’s probably one of the years I’ve grown the most—professionally and personally—in my life. Shout out to the founders of Café de Leche, Matt and Anya Schodorf, for building community and being such great role models.

CR: Had you competed before in any coffee competitions before the U.S. AeroPress Championship?
CG: My first competition ever was June 21 of this year at the Los Angeles AeroPress competition. My good friend Adam from Unity Sourcing & Roasting encouraged me to participate. My boss Matt signed me up and there I was, in my first competition ever. I passed the first round and got eliminated in the second round. I think just passing the first round was a great success to me! I felt happy and accomplished. It was such a fun event, and being surrounded by the coffee community was amazing. It was fun and loud, and just generally a good place to be at that moment.

Two months later, on the last week of September, I was in Colombia visiting my family and I got a Tectonic newsletter announcing the National AeroPress Championship. I clicked to see where and when it was going to be—and it was near me in Los Angeles! I saw there were some spots still open to compete and I was like, “What? So I can still compete even thought I lost in the regionals?” I asked my boss if I should compete and his response was: “Done!” He got signed me up for the nationals. I had a second chance to see if I actually could make an outstanding cup of coffee with an AeroPress.

Carolina originally competed in the L.A. regional AeroPress competition, where she made it to the second round. For the national competition, she relied on her palate and tried not to overthink her coffee.

CR: What was your approach to competing? Did you practice a lot, or did you approach it more as a fun thing?
CG: I did not practice a lot! I brew AeroPress mostly for fun because it allows me to taste what specific coffees are supposed to taste like. So maybe I practice with each cup I make for fun, but for competition I tried to take it easy. I believe in my taste buds and my ability to make good coffee, so I allowed myself a day or two before competition to make some cups of coffee (using the practice beans), have my friends try it, and give me their notes. But even with this it was a fun approach. I do want to win when I compete—I pray in each round to pass to the next one. But even if I don’t pass, I think the winning is in the experience itself.

I would have been bummed if I hadn’t won, but mostly because I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do interviews like this to share what coffee means to me, or I wouldn’t be going to Sydney to represent the USA! I have never been to Australia, and it still feels unreal that I am going in November and hopefully will bring the gold back home. Maybe it’s me! Maybe I am the chosen one! 😀

Carolina when she found out she placed first. Carolina will go on to represent the United States at the World AeroPress Championship in Sydney, Australia, in November.

CR: Do you have any advice for future AeroPress competitors based on the approach you took this year?
CG: Have fun! Keep it simple, believe in yourself, and believe in coffee.

CR: What is valuable to you about competing?
CG: Competitions like this are valuable because they magnify the value of the coffee career. To put so much effort into making these events as badass as they are makes baristas and other coffee people feel like this is a dignified career path. It feels like in such an infinite universe, people care! It boosts the value of the coffee industry. The work of hundreds of people in the farms and mills is presented to the rest of the world at the competitions. To me personally, it’s a great responsibility to make a cup of coffee that truly represents the hard work of producers, farmers, and roasters.

CR: Finally, what do you enjoy doing outside of coffee?
CG: Besides coffee … hmmm, is there anything besides coffee? Kidding, yes! My dogs, hikes, quality time with my boyfriend, exercising, swimming laps at the Rose Bowl, catching waves in the Pacific Ocean, and staying at home. There’s nothing like a day off at home where I don’t go anywhere—just home, cats, dogs, a movie, and bed.

About Chris Ryan 259 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.