Ken Selby almost didn’t compete this year—but now he’s the United States Cup Tasters Champion. In this interview, he talks about his strategy, how he found motivation, and what pushed him to fight for the title.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Jake Olson for the SCA
Over the next few weeks, Barista Magazine Online will present a series of interviews with the winners and top finishers at this year’s United States Coffee Championships, which took place in Seattle in April. You can see a full list of winners along with a rundown of the first and second round of the barista competition, as well as a livestream of the competition.
The first time was the charm for Ken Selby: Taking part in his debut competition in Seattle, the 28-year-old Seattleite won the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship. In the cupping-oriented competition, tasters receive eights sets of three cups—or triangles—where two cups are identical and one is different. The competitor who identifies the different cup the most times—and in the shortest amount of time—wins. Over several rounds of the competition in Seattle, Ken had the superior palate, ultimately coming away with the win and the chance to represent the United States at the World Brewers Cup in November. We talked to Ken about his coffee background, the tears he shed upon winning the competition, and much more.
Chris Ryan: How long have you been in coffee, and what have been some of your different jobs in the industry?
Ken Selby: I have been in the coffee industry for six years in total. I started at Starbucks while I was an undergraduate in Grand Rapids, Mich. Although I worked for Starbucks, really my coffee love started with Madcap Coffee, and much of who I am now is owed to them as a company, though they probably have no idea who I am. Frequenting Madcap taught me to appreciate and enjoy the pleasures of specialty coffee, and once I moved to Houston to attend a graduate program in philosophy, I knew I wanted to keep working in coffee—but for a specialty shop.
After four years of meandering in Houston as a barista and then a manager and finally a consultant, I never had that experience to work for a specialty-coffee roaster and company, so I decided to try to get it in Seattle. Jill Killen was the first individual to take a chance on me in Seattle right away, and I worked as a barista under her tutelage at Royal Drummer. Last summer was the first time I had ever been exposed to the process of triangulations and sensory development, and that is all due to Jill. It was at that point I knew I didn’t want to continue being a barista and enjoyed the idea of working with quality control, roast development, and wholesale.
CR: Had you competed in any coffee competitions before? Why did you decide to do Cup Tasters this year?
KS: I have never competed in any event until this year. Prior to competing in Cup Tasters, I had talked about it with Dawn Loraas, who’s the owner of Visions Espresso (where I used to work) and also owns a coffee company here called Vashon Coffee. I expressed my interest in competing for the first time and to represent Vashon Coffee in the Brewers Cup. I wanted to use this awesome Ethiopian she had from the farm of Daniel Miju that eventually won a Good Food Award earlier this year.
Due to the controversy in the fall with the Deferred Candidacy Policy, some people dropped from the competitions and a couple spots opened for the Cup Tasters. I wanted to maximize my competition experience, so Dawn thankfully agreed to register me on behalf of Visions into the Cup Tasters at the last minute. I really ultimately wanted to do Cup Tasters because I am not much of a performer, but Cup Tasters is harder to get sponsorship for because there’s limited representation and advertisement for a company that would decide to sponsor you. So I am just thankful an opportunity opened up and I could compete.
CR: What was the experience of the competition like for you? Which round was the most difficult?
KS: The experience was really invigorating, and in all honesty, personally reassuring on so many levels. I did not finish my Ph.D. work in philosophy, and so coming into the national stage and competing and being in a position to obtain some form of credentials—and participate in another community of like-minded, competitive though friendly folks—was enlivening! The hardest round in some some sense was the first, since I was in the second-to-last heat to go and the announcer let everyone know prior to slurping that we needed to identify all eight cups correctly to even qualify for semifinals. What really put the moment into perspective for me was the fact that I was competing against [a cupper from] Madcap in my round, and we were the only two at the tables. So it was a full-circle moment for me for sure.
The second round was, in my mind, the most daunting, as I was sitting between Jon Ferguson from Arbor Day Foundation and Sam Demisse from Keffa Coffee, who had I believe 14 years of combined competition experience. The final round I didn’t know what to expect, but I told myself prior to going in that it’s just another day, and in true Russel Westbrook fashion, I thought: “Why not me?” I do think it’s a bit funny for folks to watch Cup Tasters because it’s just watching and listening to people slurp and spit coffee while staying on edge trying to figure out what is going on in the competitors’ heads as we just go about our business. It’s very different from the Brewers Cup and barista competitions, yet I love that it’s the only objectively evaluated competition. There’s no questions, no bias—nothing that can hinder or prohibit you from winning.
CR: What was the experience like to actually win? Did you have a sense it could happen, or was it a shock? How does it feel knowing you now get to represent the U.S. at the world competition?
KS: I cried. Three times. I knew I won after I got my sixth red dot call because I had the fastest time and the other two competitors couldn’t obtain either six dots or a quicker time, so I just stood shocked. I did not expect to win at all. I was just happy to be in the top three, no matter what. But my girlfriend, Lizzie Johnson, who also competed in the barista competition, was not at all wanting me to lose. She kept pushing me to win and not to be satisfied with the top three. She has been hugely supportive and complimentary of me, and has always trusted my palate and opinion—she wanted me to win so that others could see what she has seen in me all along.
So to be honest, to win the Cup Tasters, and for me to know that I have tried so hard to just have an opportunity to showcase my abilities—whether I firmly believed in them or not—was deeply satisfying. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and event, and I only hope I can bring home the win come November.