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.
Jonathan “Peaches” Bonchak
Wholesale Sales Rep
Counter Culture Coffee
Raleigh, North Carolina
What was your initial foray into the magical world of coffee?
The first time that I got into coffee was in high school. A couple of diners around my hometown helped fuel late night hangout sessions, but once my friend Marty decided to open up a coffeehouse I was there almost every day. During my last years of college at University of Pittsburgh (2004-2005), I worked at a crazy busy Starbucks in Pittsburgh. That was my first official gig as a full time barista and it was a great experience. I trained on a four-group Linea there! What?! #LineaLove
What was your first “a-ha!” moment with coffee?
My first amazing experience with coffee…maybe it’s a trite answer but I still remember the smell of the coffee in the house that my mom would brew when I was young. To this day, I can’t say that there are smells that I connect more memorable experiences with than coffee. When I went off to college she bought me a black plastic Melitta pourover cone for my lonely dorm life existence and taught me how to use it. Thanks, Mom…looks like your little pourover cone class was worth more to me than that English Literature degree! The other super memorable experience I have was the first coffee drink I was introduced to other than black drip, and that was on a date with the girl who would become my wife. Jenny ordered us each a Cafe Au Lait and I don’t know if it was the coffee or her blue eyes, but I knew that she and coffee would be big parts of my life from that point on!
Barista competition history?
The first time I competed at a coffee competition was in the 2012 SERBC Brewers Cup, and I took 2nd place that year. Last year I went for it again, won my regional, and took 2nd at the U.S. Brewers Cup.
Seems like the coffee scene in the southeast region ”particularly in your little corner of North Carolina ”just keeps getting better and better. Why is that?
The coffee scene in the Triangle (the collective name for the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) is definitely growing year by year. It’s an exciting place to live in general. There is a robust economy with folks moving here from all over the country and the world, and bringing with them their own experiences and knowledge. There are also a number of super friendly, creative, and passionate folks who were born and raised here who have decided to stick around to invest back into their community. All of that helps the coffee community grow and evolve, perhaps even a little more than it might elsewhere.
How did you train for the SE Regional, and how have you been preparing for the U.S. Brewers Cup?
My thoughts when training for the regional brewers cup were that I needed to find the best coffee I could, of course, but also to continue to have fun with it. It’s a competition and you need to have the desire to win if you’re going to go through the bother of putting yourself through all of that. But I knew that in order for me to be me, and to have my own connection to it all, I had to have fun with it and try to not take myself too seriously. You have to learn to loosen up when you step up to the plate and start swinging, ya know? That doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous once I got up there, cause let me tell you…! Preparing for USBrC is similar with having fun and picking out the best coffee I can find. But the volume knobs are now turned up to 11 and it’s time to get real. There will be a stage full of the best coffees on earth being brewed by seriously talented people, but everything has to be thought out, polished, and cleaned up.
Can you tell us about the coffee you used to win your regional?
The coffee I brewed and won with in this year’s regional is similar to the coffee that I used to win last year’s regional and take 2nd with at the U.S. Brewers Cup. The coffee I used this year was a washed coffee from the Idido Cooperative, who is a founding member of the YCFCU (Yirgacheffee Coffee Farmers Cooperative). The town of Idido is about 36Km from Haru, which I thought was pretty neat that two of my all-time favorite coffees were from regions so close together. There are a couple reasons why these coffees are great. First off: the varietal makeup of this region, which until recently, we would have simply said was a mix of “Ethiopian Heirloom types.” Researchers have been able to get down to the dominant varieties in this area, which are Kurume, Wolisho, and Dega. I think those varieties and the altitude/climate where they grow, coupled with a double-soak fermentation during the washing process, really gives those coffees an identity. They are more than just a clean, citrusy washed Yirg. These coffees stand out on their own with added complexity of sweet, sugary, sort of melon and peach-like flavors and super thick florals. That distinction and identity of those coffees, to me, is an example of the potential and power of specialty coffee. We will begin to allow specific coffees to have their own voice when they are ready to sing. So we’re no longer talking about “Ethiopian” or just “Yirgacheffe.” We have the chance to tell the story of the exact people and place that these coffees come from by accessing their identity in the cup. This is, obviously, not a new phenomenon. But for me, to actually experience this with friends and customers and help to show exactly what specialty coffee can and does mean, has been the highlight of my coffee career thus far.
Why do you think competing is a good exercise for any barista?
Competing in coffee competitions is hugely beneficial to anybody who chooses to learn from the experience. If you put your all into it, put yourself out there, taste endless coffees, collaborate with people, find out what you can do better…all of those things can benefit you as a barista and coffee professional, and will ultimately help you understand coffee and customer service better. I’m of the philosophy that we should all strive to be lifelong learners and students of coffee. If your job in coffee has you preparing and serving coffee to the public, then competing in competitions should only help you do your job better if you choose to make it a learning experience. In the past few years that I’ve competed I have learned more than I ever expected. I’ve forced myself to be more critical of the coffees I brewed and tasted, as well as how I craft the message and tone of the stories of those coffees.
What do you do when you’re not doing coffee?
When I’m not “doing coffee” (or in my off-time helping my wife Jenny bottle for her company, Slingshot Coffee Co.) I’m going on walks with Jenny and our sweet sweet beagle, Frank. We really love the music scene here in the Triangle, along with all the amazing restaurants, breweries, theaters, and museums. We are hoping to build a bocce court in our backyard this spring, so that will be fun! The beach is 2 hours away and the mountains are 3. This place is completely magical.
Anything else to add?
Anything else to add… well, I love Barista Magazine! Seriously, Barista Magazine is truly an asset to our collective coffee community across the US and I personally have turned to it as a resource for learning more about coffee, the business, the relationships, and people, and it never ceases to inspire. Thanks for all the work you all have done over the years — it’s made us all better coffee people!