Innovating to Victory With 2019 U.S. Brewers Cup Champ Kaley Gann

Kaley Gann, winner of the 2019 U.S. Brewers Cup Championship in Kansas City, Mo., discusses designing her own brewing device, stepping outside her comfort zone, and how it felt to win in her home city. 


Cover photo courtesy of the SCA

In her routine at the 2019 U.S. Brewers Cup, Kaley Gann’s theme was about challenge. It’s a word rich with meaning; Kaley discussed how she used to shy away from challenges, but has come to embrace them. She also described how discovering new coffees challenges coffee professionals to learn how to best brew them to bring out their full potential.

The coffee Kaley selected for her 2019 routine—a  Panama-grown, natural-processed Gesha called Perci from Ninety Plus Coffee—posed such a challenge, with rich complexity created in part by the intentional uneven fermentation used in processing. To brew the Perci to its fullest potential, Kaley helped create a brand-new brewer that allowed for a higher extraction yield and, in turn, increased flavor complexity.

Kaley Gann is the 2019 United States Brewers Cup Champion. She is the café operations manager for Messenger Coffee in Kansas City, Mo. Photos by Paige Hicks.

Challenging herself paid off for Kaley: In her third year competing in Brewers Cup, she took home the top prize in the national contest at the U.S. Coffee Championships in Kansas City, Mo. Kaley, who serves as the café operations manager for KC’s Messenger Coffee, talked to us about winning in her home city, her approach to this year’s competition, and much more.

Chris Ryan: How long have you been in coffee, how did you come to work in it, and whats your job at Messenger? Also, how long have you been taking part in coffee competitions?

Kaley Gann: I have worked in the industry for almost nine years now, starting with Kaldi’s Coffee in Columbia, Mo. (I was the general manager there.) I was going to school at Mizzou, then acquired a “big girl job” there. I moved to Kansas City two years ago and began working with Messenger Coffee, where I am now the café operations manager. 

This was my third year competing, all in Brewers Cup. My first year was with Kaldi’s—Matt Foster (2019 U.S. Coffee In Good Spirits Champion) was my coach!—then the last two years were with Messenger.

This was Kaley’s third year competing, where she cinched the top spot using a coffee from Ninety Plus. Photo courtesy of the SCA.

For this year’s Brewers Cup, why did you decide to make your own brewer, and what did you want it to accomplish?

This year, I wanted to compete with a brewer that had a very open bottom and a straight-up 90-degree angle. To my knowledge, there isn’t a brewer that exists like that, so I decided to make a design and then have a company (Convivial Production) bring it to life. My goal was to obtain a very quick flow rate so I can grind finer—with that finer grind, I get a higher extraction yield, so more flavor complexity, but that very open bottom keeps the brew crystal-clear. I found that it better articulates flavors and there’s no restriction from small holes, which may lead to dryness or bitterness in the aftertaste. Honestly, I had an idea of how the coffee would taste out of this design, but I couldn’t know until I tried it. I’m happy I pushed myself to follow through because it makes coffee taste better than I could have ever imagined.

A photo of Kaley’s brewer. She designed it to increase the flow rate and grind finer, leading to a higher extraction yield and more flavor complexity. Photo courtesy of the SCA.

Can you talk about the process of designing the brewer with Convivial? Did you just tell them what you wanted and they did it, or was there back and forth with prototypes, or some combination? 

The process was fun. I had a couple of very ugly prototypes that gave me an OK idea of how it would work. I looked into 3-D printing and even asked Melitta and Fellow about working with me. But there was little time before nationals and all those options weren’t going to be able to work in a timely manner. So, I contacted Convivial, a local ceramics company, and showed them what I wanted. After a couple of tests, we nailed down the design and were able to get a few consistently shaped and sized brewers. There are four that exist in the world currently. After Boston, I intend to look into options to potentially sell this brewer or have it manufactured on a more mass scale. Stay tuned …

There are only four of Kaley’s brewers in existence now. Will we see more? Time will tell. Photo courtesy of the SCA.

You’ve competed before; what do you think went especially well this year that allowed you to win?

I went into this competition stepping way outside my comfort zone—I’ve never competed with a coffee like that, much less practiced with one; I created my own brewer, and had very little time between choosing my coffee and competing. So, I went into it knowing that I tried hard, did the best I possibly could, and just tried to embrace the different approach I took this year. Last year at nationals, I was encouraged by judges to be a bit more innovative and find an industry message. I listened, took their constructive feedback, and capitalized on it.

What did it mean to you to win this competition? Particularly, what did it mean to you to win it in Kansas City? 

It felt so great to win in Kansas City. It felt warm and fuzzy. What I enjoyed most was just being able to stand next to the five other finalists, knowing that any of them could have won and I would have still been happy. They are seriously amazing people and they also represent the industry well. Obviously, winning is great; but I don’t really feel like “I” won as much as I feel like “we” (my team, friends, KC coffee scene) won. I am representing our city and the amazing group of people that supported me, challenged me, and mentored me. It’s not “me,” it’s “us.”

Kaley got to win in her home city surrounded by her peers and coffee community, and credits them with helping pave the road to success. Brewing photos above courtesy of the SCA. Trophy photo by Paige Hicks.

How do you feel about competing on the world stage in Boston? Do you expect you’ll change much from what you just did at nationals?

I am excited for Boston! I don’t anticipate many changes to my routine, but I do want to make the speech a bit more accessible to all judges on the world level. I kind of love that it’s so soon after USCC because I still feel the momentum from nationals. I intend to give it all I can, represent my country and team well, and have so much fun doing it.

About Chris Ryan 263 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.