The youngest-ever United States Barista Championship competitor discusses making the finals on the first try.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Sam Neely was always fascinated with barista competition, but until this year, wasn’t able to take part. That’s because United States Barista Championship (USBC) competitors must be 18 years of age to compete, and Sam hadn’t hit that milestone yet. Sam finally turned 18 in 2018, and the nascent barista competitor made the most of the opportunity, making it to the USBC finals. Sam, who works at Switchback Coffee Roasters in Colorado Springs, Colo., talked to us about why barista competition is a passion, how it felt to make the finals, and much more.
Chris Ryan: How long have you worked in coffee?
Sam Neely: I’ve worked in coffee for about four years, starting in England (where I’m from) as a barista for almost two years. Then I moved to Colorado Springs and started working for Switchback Coffee Roasters, where I’ve been ever since. My official job title here is director of wholesale, but I wear a lot of hats, including some roasting, quality control, and training.
CR: How did you get interested in competition, and why did you want to compete?
SN: When I first got into coffee, I would spend hours watching every single competition video that I could find. I found it absolutely fascinating how much a barista could know about their coffee, and the performance aspect was really appealing to me. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to compete. I only turned 18 this year (the age limit for competing), so that’s why this was my first year.
CR: What was your approach going into the USBC? What did you want to communicate with your routine and what was your theme?
SN: I really let the coffees that I chose lead the way for me in terms of a theme. I ended up choosing two coffees from a farm that I have been a huge fan of for a very long time called La Palma y El Tucan. I picked two coffees from them that were both absolutely stunning, but had quite different flavor profiles.
So my theme was essentially that by intentionally choosing certain varietals and processing techniques, and then executing them with very close attention to detail, one single farm with the same terroir is able to create extraordinary coffees that explore all parts of the coffee flavor spectrum. Finally, for my signature drink, I combined both of the coffees, with some other ingredients, to show my judges the full range of amazing flavors that La Palma y El Tucan are able to produce.
CR: What was your experience like of competing?
SN: Since it was my first year, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. At least, other than definitely not expecting to make finals, or even semifinals, to be honest—that was definitely a surprise.
It was definitely such a fun experience though! Leading up to Seattle, I definitely had my ups and downs. Some days I would be really happy with how my coffee was tasting, happy with my script, and ready to go. Other days, the stress would kick in and I would second-guess pretty much everything that I had done. Fortunately I had a really awesome team of people supporting me, not only from my own company, but from all around the Colorado Springs coffee community, which was indispensable.
I worked super, super hard to get to the point that I felt like I had put together the best routine that I possibly could, and for that I’m proud. And to have my work affirmed by making it to the finals was, honestly, unbelievable. It was a dream of mine to compete in the first place, and to make it to the USBC finals still doesn’t feel real. Truly, a dream come true.