The Barista League: Portland in Full Effect

On June 18, coffee pros gathered in Portland, Ore., to take part in some friendly competition.


Photos courtesy of Kenneth R. Olson

On a partly rainy yet moonlit night on June 18, a memorable event unfolded in Portland, Ore.’s eclectic, industrial Buckman neighborhood. The Barista League dropped its trademark event into town, an equal-parts mix of informal barista competition and party destination. Despite the Pacific Northwest’s unusual weather that weekend, baristas and coffee enthusiasts from all over the region descended on Buckman Coffee Factory.

What Is The Barista League?

The Barista League began in a small town in Sweden in 2015 to provide baristas a more visible platform within the coffee industry. That vision has since grown to include a media network that curates high-quality coffee content and news. They also host traveling barista competitions in major cities throughout the world, such as the one in Portland. Careful attention is paid to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for all attendees, so The Barista League events regularly set successful examples of fun and inclusivity. Their next barista competition takes place in Kansas City, Mo., on August 27, which is followed by stops in Copenhagen, Denmark; Melbourne, Australia; Barcelona; Manchester, England; and Mexico City.

The Barista League: Portland was met with an impressive attendance rate.

Setting the Scene

Guests arrived at a meticulously decorated venue featuring inflatable purple moons hanging from the ceiling, a translucent fog machine mist, and plenty of mood lighting. The ample space provided guests with a chance to mingle before the competitive action got underway. An assortment of complimentary coffee drinks were also available to ease them into the night. They included Toddy cold brew, affogatos prepared by Rancilio Group North America, and endless carafes of single-origin coffee made by a Marco Beverage Systems pourover machine. For those needing a bit more spark, ice chests with alcohol beverages overflowed nearby.

Guests stayed busy introducing themselves to others as the team of judges slowly arrived. In one corner, Jen Apodaca of Mother Tongue Coffee chatted with Instagram drink guru Molly Flynn. In another corner, Morgan Eckroth, the current U.S. Barista Champion, greeted Ian Williams of Deadstock Coffee. The duo-barista teams also started to trickle in, bearing endearing titles like Coffee Cats, The Peabody & The Pacamara, Bar Baddies, and Brewed Awakening, settling in for last-minute planning sessions with their support teams. Barista League coordinators Steve Moloney and Anna Johansson explained the night’s proceedings to a team of volunteers.

Emcee Camila Coddou kicked off the event by pumping up the crowd. She also introduced the judges and 11 barista teams just as the fog thickened and the DJs began to pump out a steady stream of popular hits.

Baristas making the best drinks for judges.

Round One – Barista Skills

In the first competitive round, baristas were allotted 10 minutes to produce four of their best drinks. The teams were then given two minutes to present those drinks to the team of judges. One of the volunteers, acting as a combination bartender and barback, worked busily between the judges and competitors, offering help and lighthearted commentary to soften the mood. This approach proved successful in helping the baristas relax and enjoy themselves as they steadily worked through their presentations. 

Behind the judges, the audience buzzed with excitement. Some guests leaned in to keep a close eye on the competition while others got lost in conversation or simply enjoyed a drink. 

Round Two – Mystery Infusions

The competition’s second round proved to be a simpler but more intimate affair than the first. The barista teams were whisked away to an area beyond the main floor to engage in a sensory skills test. They were given five minutes to taste freshly brewed teas with mystery infusions and submit their answers—a tasty reprieve from the fast-paced action of the first round and the following one.

Putting sensory skills to the test with tea.

Round Three – A Mystery Drink

The third round was “designed to put the barista’s adaptability to the test. Something just a bit different to anything you might find in your standard coffee competition,” per The Barista League. 

And so, each team of baristas was provided with an espresso machine, cocktail-making equipment, and a bevy of fresh fruits, herbs, and other ingredients such as syrups and chocolate. Their only mission during the final round was to produce the tastiest non-alcoholic coffee cocktail. The third round was also where the night’s energy crescendoed, providing everyone involved with a sense that the baristas had delivered top-notch performances and it was time to crown a winning team.

Crowning the Winners

Eventually, the DJs stopped the music and the neon glow was replaced by regular lighting as everyone inside Buckman Coffee Factory gathered around to hear Camila announce the competition results. Moments later, the crowd erupted in excitement one last time as they cheered for the winners of the night’s grand prize—Kat Melheim and Kendra Sledzinski of Team TBLO IRL. Photographers rushed in to take pictures of Kat and Kendra holding a giant copy of an airline ticket, which was part of the winner’s mystery vacation prize package. The crowd milled around for some time but eventually dispersed into the night, most of them smiling and grateful to have been part of such a wonderful event.


Eddie P. Gomez (he/him) is a freelance writer based in Modesto, Calif. When he is not substitute teaching kindergarten classes, he wanders from city to city, perfecting the art of the food and coffee adventure.

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