Weihong Zhang’s Decaffeinated Journey to U.S. Brewers Cup Victory

We talk to Weihong Zhang, a biochemist turned coffee professional, about how he conquered the U.S. Brewers Cup by using a decaf coffee.

BY VASILEIA FANARIOTI
SENIOR ONLINE CORRESPONDENT

Photos courtesy of Weihong Zhang

Today, we catch up with Weihong Zhang, the mind behind Blendin Coffee Club and the reigning U.S. Brewers Cup Champion. Weihong’s bold decision to champion decaf coffee in the fiercely competitive arena of the U.S. Brewers Cup truly set him apart. Opting for the decaf Los Nogales Typica, he defied convention and challenged preconceived notions about what decaffeinated coffee could be.

Join us as we chat with Weihong about his coffee journey, his approach to brewing, and how he feels about representing the U.S. on the global stage at the World Brewers Cup, which takes place this week in Chicago.

Barista Magazine: Can you tell us about your journey from China to the United States and how you developed your passion for coffee along the way?

Weihong Zhang: I moved to the United States in 2009 to pursue a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and completed it in 2014. I then moved to Houston for a postdoctoral research project in Pharmacology at Baylor College of Medicine. My passion for coffee was ignited during a conference trip when I participated in a cupping session and tasted a Kenyan coffee that amazed me. This experience led me to explore coffee further and attend SCA classes. In 2017, I made a career switch to the coffee industry and opened Blendin Coffee Club as a café, roaster, and training lab.

Outside of Blendin Coffee Club's building.
Blendin Coffee Club has grown from a passion project to a beloved fixture in the local coffee scene, thanks to Weihong’s vision.

What inspired you to open Blendin Coffee Club?

My curiosity about coffee extended beyond brewing techniques to the stories of its origin. I had the opportunity to taste some exceptional coffees, which fueled my desire to learn more. When I opened Blendin Coffee Club in 2017, Gesha and special processed coffees were scarce in the U.S. My goal was to source the best coffees available and share them with our customers.

Could you walk us through your decision-making process in selecting the decaf Los Nogales Typica for the competition? What were you looking for in a coffee?

For the competition, it was important to choose a coffee that would provide judges with a memorable experience. The decaf Typica from Los Nogales is just that kind of coffee. I first tasted this coffee in the farm in Colombia when I was on a sourcing trip for my competition coffee.

I met Francesco Sanapo, a multi-time Italy Barista Champion, in the farm and he brought a mysterious sample to share. When I first tasted this coffee I didn’t know it was a decaf, but I knew it was a great coffee for competition. It was later revealed to me that this is a decaf coffee, which opened my eyes to the world of decaf coffee and the advancement of coffee processing in general. 

A pourover setup behind the boxed coffee Weihong used in the competetion: Los Nogales Decaf Colombia, with notes of eucalyptus, strawberry, and raspberry.
 Weihong selected the decaf Los Nogales Typica, with notes of eucalyptus, strawberry, and raspberry, for his award-winning Brewers Cup routine.

Could you share with us the concept behind your competition routine? What message or theme were you aiming to convey through your choice of coffee, brewing method, and presentation?

I aimed to share my eye-opening experience with decaf coffee in the competition. While developing my routine, I discovered that the decaf concept resonated with many of my coffee friends and customers. I realized there’s a significant group of people who can’t consume caffeine but still deserve to enjoy the complex flavors of specialty coffee. My goal was to represent the producer and highlight the innovative decaffeination process, promoting a more inclusive specialty-coffee culture where all coffee lovers can enjoy a world-class cup, with or without caffeine.

Weihong speaks to judges at Brewers Cup.
Weihong returned to this year’s Brewers Cup stage with a fresh perspective and a unique story to share.

Serving decaffeinated coffee in a competition setting is quite unconventional. What motivated you to take this approach, and what were the reactions from judges and attendees?

Several factors motivated me to serve decaf coffee. Firstly, it was an exceptional coffee that defied typical expectations of decaf. Secondly, a rule change allowed the inclusion of the decaffeination process in the competition. The judges appreciated the coffee, and serving a decaf provided a refreshing twist to their fully caffeinated day.

Can you describe the brewing method you used for the decaf Los Nogales Typica during the competition? How did you develop this technique?

I chose the Hario Switch with a V60 Mugen dripper due to the coffee’s low density and fast water flow. By using the immersion method, I increased water contact time, enhancing sweetness extraction, which was advantageous under the new Brewers Cup scoring sheet.

Weihong in a lineup of winners at Orange County USCC qualifiers.
 Weihong’s experience in previous Brewers Cup competitions fuels his determination to excel with each subsequent attempt.

You’ve competed in the Brewers Cup three times now, each time with notable success. What drives you to continue participating in these competitions, and how do you approach each competition differently?

I always learn so much from competing, which is what I love about it. Reflecting on my competition journey each year brings inspiration and new ideas. I believe that no single recipe fits all coffees, so I bring a different coffee to each competition and develop a recipe from scratch, including the processing, roasting profile, and brewing methods. This approach has greatly improved our day-to-day brewing at the shop, giving me confidence when serving new coffees.

Weihong brewing a pourover outside under a canopy.
Weihong’s background in biochemistry informs his innovative brewing techniques.

Winning the U.S. Brewers Cup Championship is a remarkable accomplishment. Can you tell us about what this recent win signifies for you personally and professionally? How do you feel about representing the U.S. at the upcoming World Brewers Cup in April at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Chicago?

It feels surreal to be the champion. As a competitor who has competed multiple times, I know that many factors, including luck, contribute to a win. I’ve treated every competition like a proof of concept, developing new ideas that I believe enhance the coffee experience and then presenting them to the judges for feedback.

I’m glad that my approach to developing and designing quality coffee experiences resonated with the judges. I’m eager to continue refining these concepts and improving the coffee experience at Blendin Coffee Club. With the World Competition in Chicago fast approaching, I’m both excited and anxious about my first global competition.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vasileia Fanarioti (she/her) is a senior online correspondent for Barista Magazine and a freelance copywriter and editor with a primary focus on the coffee niche. She has also been a volunteer copywriter for the I’M NOT A BARISTA NPO, providing content to help educate people about baristas and their work.

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