10 Minutes With Roasting Champion Mark Michaelson

Last month, the United States Coffee Championships took place in Seattle, and we crowned four new champions. Over the next four days, we’ll talk to each champion about their road to victory.


This is the second in a four part series. Read our interview of USBC winner Kyle Ramage here.

Mark Michaelson has roasted coffee for a number of barista and brewing champions, but had never competed himself. But after a push from Jon Allen, co-owner of Onyx Coffee Lab, he decided to give competition a shot by entering the Roaster Championship. After placing fifth at the Austin qualifying event, Mark went on to win in Seattle by acing his roast of the compulsory coffee, a honey-processed Colombian coffee from Ally Coffee, and his presentation coffee, from La Palma y El Tucan in Colombia, which was naturally processed and went through a lactic-acid fermentation.

This was the first year that roasters in the Roaster Championship had to give a presentation to judges about their coffees, showcasing not just their skills in roasting, but their ability to explain their decisions and how they connected their technique with the coffees they chose. We took a moment to talk to Mark about the process of competing, from how he trained to get to Austin to how he’ll adapt to represent the United States at the World Roasting Championships in China.

Mark is the head roaster for Onyx. This is his first—and only—coffee job.

AR: Tell us about your life pre-coffee. What was your first coffee job?
MM: I am originally from the south side of Chicago, but moved to Arkansas when I was young. Pre-coffee, I earned a degree in theology, and worked in pastoral ministries for several years.

My first coffee job was part-time, with Onyx Coffee Lab. I’ve been with them since the beginning. I helped taste coffee (what we considered “cupping”), assisted with production roasting, and bagged coffee. I ended up at Onyx while pastoring. I would frequent one of Jon and Andrea’s coffee shops (pre-Onyx) to prepare sermons. Jon noticed that I liked coffee and had a decent palate. So he asked me if I’d be interested in helping him with a company he was going to start.
AR: Have you ever competed in any competition before? What made you decide to compete in the roasting competition this year?
MM: I have not done coffee competitions for myself. I have had the privileged of roasting for various barista and brewer competitors: Charles Babinski (USBC), Andrea Allen (USBC), and Dylan Siemens (Brewers Cup). My boss, Jon, convinced me to compete this year. Thanks Jon!
Mark had never competed before, but has roasted coffee for other competitors, including Onyx co-owner Andrea Allen.
AR: How did you train?
MM: The first step was sample roasting the coffee, and figuring out the scoring rules. From there, Jon and I cupped and batch-brewed the coffee. Then we decided how I should adjust the roast profile for the next batch. We kept tweaking until we agreed on what tasted the best through the batch brewer. We knew this would be the brew method for the competition, so we roasted with that in mind.
AR: This year’s roasting competition format was different in that you had to talk to the judges and present your coffee. What informed the decisions you made and the things you shared with the judges?
MM: My decisions were based on the score sheet, which was broken up in three categories: Green Coffee Knowledge, Roaster Knowledge, and Flavor Accuracy.
For Green Coffee Knowledge, I focused on how the green coffee directly correlated to how I should sample roast it. So I focused on where the coffee came from (location), how high the coffee was grown (elevation), the type of coffee (varietal), the coffee’s freshness (moisture level), the size of the beans (screen size), and the bean’s structure (density).
Mark studied the rule changes for the competition and trained accordingly.
For Roaster Knowledge, I explained my roasting theory, based on all the green coffee information I gathered, and how it tasted after sample roasting it.
For Flavor Accuracy, I tried to only focus on the notes that were very apparent. If the note was at all questionable, I did not use it.
Mark (center) with Cameron Heath of Revelator Coffee (left) and Tony Querio of Spyhouse Coffee.
AR: Tell us about your Onyx team. Are there any shoutouts you’d like to give specifically? What was it like working on a team with a bunch of people also preparing for competition?
MM: Honestly, there are too many to name. But I’ll try. Jon and Andrea Allen, for giving me the support to succeed. Dylan Siemens, for always showing up to help me cup. Marshall Moore, my new assistant, for holding things down while I was competing. Gabe Smentek, for always having a kind word and a smiling face. Anthony Rivera, our warehouse manager, for his work ethic and friendship. And the rest of the Onyx crew—we wouldn’t be where we are without them.
Mark with his wife, Janie, and his three sons.
AR: I’m guessing you also roasted coffee for Andrea and Dylan. Was that stressful as well?
MM: I did roast for both of them. It was stressful, because I didn’t want to fail them. I knew that they would put long hours into preparation, and if I failed to roast their coffees to their specifications, it would be hard to forgive myself. On top of that, I needed to roast and prepare presentations for two different coffees for my competition.
AR: How will you approach training for the world roasting competition? Will you change anything?
MM: The world competition is completely different. In this event, we will be evaluated on green coffee grading, developing a roasting profile that best accentuates the desirable characteristics of that coffee, and on the ultimate cup quality of coffees roasted. So my training approach will be twofold: to practice on the two roasters that are sponsors of the event, Stronghold and Giesen Roasters, and to test myself on green coffee trading. 
Mark will have to practice with a new set of roasters to adapt to the rules for the World Roasting Championships, along with focusing more on green selection.
AR: Has this competition changed anything about the way you view coffee or your team at Onyx?
MM: It has helped with validating my roasting ability. I tend to be my own worst critic. As far as my team at Onyx, they have always been very supportive. This competition has enforced what I already know of them.
AR: What are your passions outside of coffee? What do you want people to know about you?
MM: My family. I have an amazing wife (Janie) of almost 10 years, and three crazy boys. Coffee is really fun, but I wouldn’t be the person I am without my family and friends
About Ashley Rodriguez 413 Articles
Ashley is the Online Editor for Barista Magazine. She's based in Chicago. If you want to share a story or have a comment, you can reach her at ashley@baristamagazine.com.