U.S. Roaster Championship winner Shelby Williamson talks about prepping for competition and what she hopes to achieve on the world stage.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo by Paige Hicks
In her first year of competition, Shelby Williamson of Denver’s Huckleberry Roasters crushed it. After winning the Rocky Mountain Roasting Rodeo, a Northern Colorado roasting competition, Shelby went on to compete in the U.S. CoffeeChamps qualifier in Denver and then win the U.S. Roasting Championship in Kansas City, Mo., this month. She’ll represent the U.S. at the World Coffee Roasting Championship, recently announced to take place in Taiwan in November—for now, we learn more about her coffee career and how she trained for this competition.
Ashley Rodriguez: Tell us about your life pre-coffee. What was your first coffee job?
Shelby Williamson: Well, before I worked in coffee, I was a teacher in Moscow, Russia, and that was pretty hot off the trails of college—I went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., for Creative Writing, Technical Writing, and Soviet Studies.
My first coffee job was at a microroastery in Denver called Corvus, which is pretty well-known. I started out as a roasting assistant, which basically means coordinating the roast day, packaging all the coffee, and then delivering it all—you know, all the jobs no one wants to do. I started roasting there under the guidance of Daniel Mendoza, who remains one of my closest friends today.
Have you ever competed in any competition before? What made you decide to compete in the roasting competition this year?
This is actually my first year competing. I did our local competition, which was mostly Northern Colorado roasters (called The Roasting Rodeo), but that was in early fall, I believe, so all the USCC competing came pretty quickly after that. I hadn’t really thought much about competing before our other roaster and green buyer, Kevin Nealon, asked if I was interested in competing in the Rodeo. I ended up winning that one, so Huckleberry entered me in the qualifier and I have just been riding that since.
How did you train?
Training is a little tricky for roasting. What I do every day, in and of itself, is training. What scared me the most with this competition was roasting on machines I had never touched before and green grading a sample under 30 minutes. I was lucky enough to have the support of #shestheroaster and Huckleberry, who sent me to Minneapolis to be able to have time with Mill City’s 3-kilo roaster. As far as the green grading goes, I timed myself grading our in-house coffee as much as I could and tried to make sure I was under the 30 minutes. At the end of the day, I still ran out of time and wish I had prepared a little more for that, so that’s still something to work on.
This year’s competition was different in that you had to conform strictly to the world roasting rules. How did that inform the way you practiced—it seemed so much more intense of a competition!
I had to do everything on-site, so that was a little terrifying. There was no shutting off the roaster and trying again the next day if I had a bad day. As roasters, I think we all really enjoy our warehouses. We like being tucked away from the public, so green grading and roasting while people are hovering and watching you definitely added a little stress to the situation. There was also very little time to research the coffee since we didn’t know what we would be roasting until we all arrived. I was worried about going over time more than anything, so I did a lot of timed practice as well as research on the equipment we would be using.
How did you adapt and change your approach to roasting from the regional competitions to the national one? Did you get any feedback or advice that really motivated you?
The regional competitions were both more relaxed and more stressful. I got to roast at home (and by home, I mean at Corvus on their Huky sample roaster), so that part of it wasn’t overwhelming like in Kansas City. However, I had to give a much more formal presentation that was scored, and I have pretty severe anxiety when it comes to public speaking, so that was much more stressful than turning in a paper that had my roast plan on it. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions” and “question the norms” and “it doesn’t matter if your profile is pretty if your coffee tastes bad” have been some of the best pieces of advice I have gotten for roasting, both for the competition and just for my job in general.
Do you think there’s any one thing that cinched it for you? What do you think helped you stand out above the rest?
My cupping score definitely saved my butt. I ran out of time on my green grading, so I rushed through it and scored a lot lower than I would have liked, but I did get almost full points for my roast plan as well as an excellent cup score.
How will you prepare for the newly announced world competition in Taiwan?
Well, I am definitely going to work on my green-grading routine to try to do it a little faster and a little more effectively, and I will probably try to find the make and model of the roaster that is being used in Taiwan (though I hear it’s a Giesen, which is what I roast on!) and try to get a mini-crash course on it.
What do you want people to know about you? What does your championship mean to you?
Oh, that’s tough. I think I work in a warehouse so very few people know much of anything about me. I get to be the little dark horse hiding in the shadows of the roastery. I would maybe let them know that I am pretty open when it comes to discussing roast theory and am always happy to talk shop with anyone, even if I don’t know them.
Winning the championship still feels pretty unreal. It feels like it could have easily been anyone else, because there were a lot of fantastic roasters in KC. I suppose more than anything, this is more visibility for me, for women in the roastery. I’d love it if more women and non-binary people felt more welcome in the roasting community.