In the days leading up to the United States Barista Championship and the U.S. Brewer’s Cup, we at Barista Magazine are proud to share with you exclusive interviews with the six regional champions in each competition. We will feature the Southwestern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the Northwestern Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Southeast Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Northeastern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the South Central Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; and the North Central Regional Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions on Tuesday. And stay tuned right here on Barista Magazine’s blog all next week for more of our preview coverage of all the exciting events and parties happening in Seattle in conjunction with the SCAA, and reports and photos of all the action every day through the end of this epic week in coffee.
Director of Education
When did you first get into coffee?
My first coffee job was as a Starbucks barista in 2001. I wasn’t into coffee at all, I just thought it’d be a fun job while I was finishing college.
What was your first amazing experience with coffee?
My first amazing experience was a French press of Ethiopia Sidamo at my first day of training at Starbucks. The company had a policy that every meeting was to start with a coffee tasting or pairing. My boss sat down with me and poured some coffee into a little four-ounce paper cup and that was the first coffee I’d ever had that tasted like something other than coffee. It blew me away, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Can you please run down your competition history?
I first competed in the second South Central Regional in 2008, back when there were 10 regional competitions in the U.S. My two good friends were the previous champion and runner up, and I got to train with them and came in third. It was so exciting that I instantly knew that I’d be doing this for a long time. Since then, I’ve competed in 4 Regional Barista Competitions, 4 U.S. Barista Competitions, 3 Regional Brewers Cups, 2 U.S. Brewers Cups, 2 U.S. Cup Tasters, and….I think that’s it.
The coffee scene in Austin seems to be hoppin! How’s the community? Tight?
The coffee people in this city are great. We have regular TNTs, coffee people pint nights, and active participation from the coffee drinking public. Austin is full of amazing coffee shops, and it’s really great to see the rest of the national coffee scene pay attention to what is happening down here. It’s really been a small community for a while, with just a handful of shops and a few roasters, but in the past few years we’ve seen Stumptown, Blue Bottle, and others making a push to be in this market. There is something satisfying about knowing that I’ve been a part of helping this grow as much as it has been a part of helping me to grow.
How did you train for the regional, and how are you preparing for the U.S. Brewers Cup?
I just brewed a lot of coffee, wrote down tasting notes with each slight technical variation, and the brewed some more. Three of the biggest things that have helped me were my refractometer so I could measure my consistency within particular technical variations, conversations that I’ve had with great coffee brewing people like Rusty at BUNN, Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez up in DC, and Jonathan Aldrich with Tweed, and of course, a very worn copy of the Coffee Brewing Handbook.
Can you tell us about the coffee you used in the regional?
Yeah, Guatemala San Jose Ocana. I used this coffee because we go way, way back. I first had a cup in 2008 when I was a shop barista at Caffe Medici, and it was delicious. In fact, it’s more delicious every year. It has this unusual quality about it, so complex, and sweet, almost Kenya-like, even though it’s a red bourbon from Sacatepequez. This was one of the first coffees Cuvee started purchasing under a direct trade model, and like all relationships there are ups and downs. In 2012, Roberto Sanchez and Mike [McKim] had made a handshake agreement to buy that year’s crop and when Mike came down to finalize everything, he was met by Guillermo, his son, and told that Roberto had already sold his coffee to other roasters. Needless to say, we were pretty bummed. Not only because we didn’t have a delicious coffee we’d been selling for four years, but because it felt like we also lost a friend. But this year, Guillermo took over the farm and got in contact with us and voila! Coffee! It’s really beautiful to know that this coffee, and the Sanchez family, are going to be with us for the long run. Sometimes the road gets a little bumpy, but in the end if anything is worth having, it’s worth working for.
Why do you feel competing in barista comps and brewers cup type things are important educational experiences for baristas?
It’s a really great opportunity to get brutally honest feedback on how you make and serve coffee, along with any philosophy you have behind how you roast, brew, or serve that coffee. More often than not, people who you ask for feedback from tend to be kind and overstate what it is you are able to do. But the judges, in either a barista or brewers competition, don’t have to placate you with soft words. That’s not to say that they are mean, just totally honest and transparent, which is extraordinarily refreshing, and if you can take that feedback to your shop, then it will make you a better coffee professional. Aside from that, the other amazing educational opportunity that competitions provide is the time you’re not on stage, the time you get to spend with other dedicated coffee pros talking about whatever coffee geekery you have the time to talk about. I can’t even begin to compile all of the knowledgeable tidbits I’ve learned while polishing demitasse spoons or cappuccino cups.
What do you do when you’re not doing coffee?
Well, I’m married and have a beautiful five-year-old daughter, so I give them as much of my non-coffee time, and quite a bit of coffee time, as I can. I play a lot of board games with friends and family, specifically Scrabble and Risk, geek out about beer and cocktails, and generally try to spend as much time outside in the sun as possible.
Anything else to add?
Not really. I’m just unbelievably lucky in the kind of life that I get to lead. Teaching people how to make coffee, making delicious coffee for myself, traveling all over the world to meet interesting people and see amazing things…sometimes I don’t even know how this all happened, but I’m glad it did.