In the days leading up to the United States Barista Championship and the U.S. Brewer’s Cup, we at Barista Magazine are proud to share with you exclusive interviews with the six regional champions in each competition. We will feature the Southwestern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the Northwestern Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Southeast Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Northeastern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the South Central Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; and the North Central Regional Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions on Tuesday. And stay tuned right here on Barista Magazine’s blog all next week for more of our preview coverage of all the exciting events and parties happening in Seattle in conjunction with the SCAA, and reports and photos of all the action every day through the end of this epic week in coffee.
Barista & In-store Educator
When did you first get into coffee?
I first got into coffee in high school. There was this awesome little shop that hosted a bunch of good punk shows and an open mic called the Blue Moon. It’s actually where I first met Nathan Hoida, Colectivo’s Coffee Quality Manager and [my] best bud, who was working there as a barista and resident photoshop expert. It was such an awesome hang out, and it was a huge bummer when it closed. Back then though, it was all about the place and the people and hanging out. I wasn’t really “into” the coffee, but what coffee shops could be about. I was just drinking a bunch of vanilla cappuccinos and playing Arkanoid.
My first coffee job where I began to take coffee seriously was with Alterra when I moved down to Milwaukee to go to college. Nathan had moved down there a year prior and had gotten a job with Alterra. We sort of still kept in touch after the Blue Moon closed so I asked him [if there] was any room for an enthusiastic youngster. With a degree under my belt and the name change to Colectivo, I’m still with the company. There [are] so many talented and great people working here—it’s been the perfect place to go from knowing nothing to being able to really engage the larger coffee community.
What was your first amazing experience with coffee?
Tough question, but I’d have to go with the 2010 Great Lakes Regional Barista Championship in Milwaukee. Up to that point, I’d tasted a bunch of amazing coffees and had been wowed by the possibilities of coffee, but I’ve always been really intrigued by the human element of the coffee industry. Colectivo had (and still has) a great relationship with a farm in Brazil called Sao Domingos. During the competition, we hosted Alexandre, who owns the farm. He came to the Fourth Bar while I was serving up his coffee and ordered an espresso. The chain had become a loop. It was a surreal experience that remains one of those moments that keeps the human element of what we do at the forefront of my personal approach to coffee.
Barista competition history?
My first and only other barista competition was in 2012 in Chicago. I competed with a Guatemala from Hunapu. It was a really straightforward performance with an incredibly simple signature beverage and a bunch of Soviet Lenin/Lemon jokes.
What’s the coffee scene like in the North Central region?
The North Central is vibrant and growing, though I honestly I don’t get around the region as much as I should. I know in Wisconsin, there are people doing good stuff outside the larger cities which is exciting to see. Another thing I’ve noticed, and I think this is largely because of the Big Central the past few years, the ‘community’ has really extended well past the geography of the North Central. There’s been a lot of growth in community between the North and South.
How did you train for the regional, and how are you preparing for the USBC?
I really consider my experience judging at the regional and national levels as part of my training. For any aspiring barista competitor I suggest doing it at least once. Exposing yourself to the breadth of talent out there by trying amazing coffee and tasting what top tier baristas are doing with them really expands your understanding of what’s possible.
As for the routine itself, Colectivo has an in-house [competition] every year to get competitors up to speed well before the competition. I used a different coffee for the in-house, but the idea behind the routine was basically the same, so those few weeks before the competition came down to just refining the details. Switching coffees did make some people nervous, but they trusted me.
For the USBC, it feels a lot like those weeks between the in-house and regional, but there is significantly more work to be done. With so much time in between the NC and the USBC, I’m back to the drawing board on a few things. I’m also expanding and developing ideas I didn’t work out in time for the regional that I think are the kinds of things you bring to the national level.
Can you tell us about the coffee you used in the regional?
I used an Ethiopia Kochere from Cafe Imports for the regional. It’s all Ethiopia heirloom. There was sort of a dialectic between ideas I had for a routine and the coffee itself. I really wanted to use hops in a signature beverage, but not as a tasting element. Hop pellets are so pungent and fruity, but taste bitter and disgusting, and this fascinated me. Ethiopian coffees tend to have some hops in them, but when I started playing with the Kochere I found so much more. I loved how balanced the coffee was. There were notes of lavender, concord grape, and a really great sweetness. The seasonality of the concord grape was too perfect to pass up, as well. It was very much one of those moments where everything really clicked and there wasn’t really anything being forced.
Why do you feel competing in barista comps and brewers cup type things are important educational experiences for baristas?
There’re a few things these competitions have going for them that baristas can learn from. First, competing in them really forces you to push yourself to be your very best, in [terms] of knowledge, skill, and service. Secondly, it breaks that bubble that comes from just being in the shop day in and day out (if you’re just a barista, that is). Getting out and seeing what everyone else is doing and how they’re pushing themselves is really invigorating and fills you with ideas to bring back to your own cafe. To me, knowing that what you’re doing is part of something larger, a craft and not just a standard operating procedure, is what makes being a barista so fulfilling. To have competitions and a community to support the craft is really great.
What do you do when you’re not doing coffee?
When I’m not doing coffee, you’ll probably find me either cooking or playing guitar. I actually just started really getting into cooking. Right now I’m all about economical cooking with stews and braises. The neighborhood I live in has a grassroots cooperative movement that I’m involved with, and as soon as this hellish winter comes to close, the motorcycle also comes out of storage.
Tell me how you feel about winning the Ecuador trip from Cafe Imports—it’s such a super special prize.
I graduated with a degree in global studies and am in love with coffee, so getting directly involved with the international aspects of coffee has always been something I aspired to. This is an amazing first opportunity with an incredibly smart group. So yeah, a huge thank you to Cafe Imports for this. Also my favorite book by Kurt Vonnegut is Galapagos, though I hope our trip has significantly less global meltdown and human seals.