In Its Third Year, Cherry Roast Becomes More Inclusive

The third-annual Cherry Roast competition took place this week, and crowned Abi Forgath of Loyal Coffee as its champion. We take a closer look at this year’s competition, aimed at being more inclusive and bringing in a larger swath of baristas from all over the country.


Photos by Colorado Coffee Zine

When you walk in the door of Commonwealth Coffee, the host of the third-annual Cherry Roast competition in Denver, you are immediately greeted with cheers and hugs. It’s loud and the music is blasting. There’s someone in the corner handing out themed drinks. Someone else is rooting on their favorite competitor, and fellow competitors are working with each other and handing out high-fives.

This was the vibe and mission of Tuesday’s Cherry Roast—the inclusive coffee competition aimed at bringing in and uplifting folks who are often overlooked or excluded from coffee competitions, particularly women, non-binary, transgender, gender fluid, and gender non-conforming coffee professionals. “It is a competition meant to highlight those who do not entirely feel comfortable competing on a regional or national level, who get overlooked when it becomes time for companies to choose a barista competitor, who are interested in competition but are unsure its for them, but who have all of the skills necessary to be a barista champion,” says Elle Jensen, owner of Amethyst Coffee and founder of Cherry Roast.

Cheering sections were common at Cherry Roast 2017, and the crowd showed support for all competitors.

Over 30 competitors signed up to compete, with the pool thinning as the competition moved forward. The first round asked competitors to taste and identify coffees in a triangulation, with points being given for speed and accuracy. Seventeen competitors moved on from that round, along with a randomly picked wildcard position. Competitors were then asked to choose and brew a random coffee and present it to the judges, test their latte art skills using nondairy milks, and then perform a speed challenge where they had to dial-in and make drinks in a set amount of time.

Melissa Vaiden, one of the finalists, pouring during the latte art round.

The last round challenged finalists Abi Forgath of Loyal Coffee and Melissa Vaiden of Boxcar Coffee to make a signature drink with ingredients that would only be presented to them right before the challenge (kind of like the food competition Chopped). Competitors were given gooseberries, coconut whipped cream, and turmeric popcorn, and 10 minutes to concoct the most interesting and best-tasting drink for four judges. Abi, who was the wildcard competitor at the end of round one, took the top prize at the end and became the third Cherry Roast champion.

Judges during the brewing round. The competition this year aimed at being more inclusive and changing the language of the event to include gender non-conforming, transgender, and gender fluid people.

As competitors were eliminated, it was not with a frown or frustration, but with excitement and joy. “People weren’t there to be competitive, but to support each other,” says Breezy Sanchez, the very first Cherry Roast champion in 2015, who was on hand to facilitate the competition and grab the mic every now and then. Between rounds, you often saw competitors giving each other advice and describing their approach to the next round. “Water doesn’t really get to boiling here because of the elevation,” finalist Melissa said before the brewing round to competitor Jasper Wilde, who works in San Francisco and wasn’t totally aware of the effects of elevation on brewing. “You should try to get your water as hot as possible.”

Alex Littlejohn of Ozo Coffee brews a Kalita Wave during round two and talks to the judges about the coffee.

In its third year, the competition aimed at being even more inclusive, and changing the language of the competition to go beyond just women in coffee. “Looking back, I don’t remember what I ever thought Cherry Roast would evolve into,” Elle says. “I only know that so far it has exceeded my wildest dreams.” This year saw more competitors from all over the country, with some competitors flying in to join the celebration, and many preparing ahead of time for the competition, which was new for Elle. “I was so so impressed with the amount of baristas who reached out for help and training. I so loved getting to know more folx in my community, and I definitely feel like it has made us stronger and opened up some new lines of communication.”

Johanna Hirschboeck, the reigning Cherry Roast champion, passes on the trophy to Abi Forgath, this year’s winner.

Elle looks forward to year four and the promise of bringing in more baristas and providing more support for future competitors. “I hate event planning, it really stresses me out, and this is no different. There are so many details that I always forget, so Cherry Roast is still very much flying by the seat of its pants, but the intention and momentum behind it is keeping it grounded,” she notes. “After year three, I can definitely say that we’ve come a long way, and I hope to be able to dedicate some real time to ironing out the details before year four. I’d like to see the volunteers put to better use, the judges’ calibration be given more time, and more info sessions and practice time for the competitors.”

Abi celebrates the victory alongside runner-up Melissa Vaiden.

Although Cherry Roast is still finding its identity and voice, it’s clear that the competition is meant to foster collaboration and openness. Hugs between competitors were common, and many sat together analyzing their score sheets and asking questions. Cherry Roast is a refreshing, and at this moment necessary, reminder of the diversity of the coffee industry, and how a nod and an effort to being inclusive can help address some of the problems our industry continues to face.

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Ashley is the Online Editor for Barista Magazine. She's based in Chicago. If you want to share a story or have a comment, you can reach her at