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United States Barista Championship: Meet the Reigning Regional Champs

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[Pictured: Katie Carguilo. Photos: Liz Clayton]

This Thursday in (wait for it!) Portland, Oregon, begins the four-day gauntlet of coffee craftsmanship: The United States Barista Championship. It's our World Series of espresso-based antics: dozens of competitors from around the country, including six regional champs, will pit themselves against the clock, each other, and the mercurial nature of espresso.

To compete, each entrant must prepare four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks of their own invention, which can include pretty much anything except booze. Contestants may bring their own coffee, their own milk, their own grinders, and whatever else they need—but they only have fifteen minutes to present twelve incredible drinks, along with a persuasive presentation to back them up.

The winner this year will go on to represent the entire United States in the World Barista Championship taking place in June in Vienna, Austria. By way of appetite-whetting, we bring you a quick Q&A with the six reigning regional champs, who have already advanced to the semi-finals round coming up this Saturday. And yes—you can watch all this coffee being made live on the internet.

Jared Truby

Verve Coffee Roasters, Santa Cruz, California
Southwestern Regional Champion

Is there a strategy to barista competitions? If so, what's yours?
Know your coffee, know your routine, speak from the heart.

What have you learned about coffee in preparing for your competition this year that you didn't know before?
I learned how to manipulate my coffee to better my crema in an all-around fashion.

What's your signature drink, and what's the hardest part of preparing it?
My signature drink is a two-part, almost three-part beverage. It's an espresso foam bed, with spheriphied fruit juice paired with espresso, cascara [the skin of the cofffee fruit] and molasses. The hardest part is the prep of the food-safe solutions.

When you meet someone for whom coffee is "just coffee", how do you explain what's special about it to you, and what would you serve them first to prove it?
I would find out what they normally drink, make them a smaller, better version of it and after that melted their face they would only ask: Why is this better? Door opened, new coffee fan made.

Lorenzo Perkins

Cuvee Coffee, Austin, Texas
South Central Regional Champion

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Is there a strategy to barista competitions? If so, what's yours?
Make tasty coffee. Tell the judges why it's tasty. Be charming.

What have you learned about coffee in preparing for your competition this year that you didn't know before?
I've learned that I suck at steaming milk. I've learned that espresso is hard. I've learned to pay attention to all of the details and if you build great habits, you can make great coffee.

What's your signature drink, and what's the hardest part of preparing it?
My signature drink is a three part experience. First, I serve hopped tangerine juice with an espresso, then an Americano, then a clever dripper brewed coffee topped with a cherry juice and honey espuma. The hardest part of making the drink doesn't have anything to do with the actual production, it was figuring out how to de-emphasize the signature drink portion of the routine and still score well.

When you meet someone for whom coffee is "just coffee", how do you explain what's special about it to you, and what would you serve them first to prove it?
I'd serve them whatever they asked for, a cappuccino, a vanilla latte, or just a cup of coffee. Because coffee is just coffee, but it should be delicious coffee. I think people tend to fetishize coffee too much, and lose focus of everything else around great coffee. Like the community, and the passion, and conversation, and the love. I'd like to remind people of that.

Devin Chapman

Coava Coffee, Portland, Oregon
Northwest Regional Champion

Is there a strategy to barista competitions? If so, what's yours?
If there is any strategy to competition that I employ it is picking the right coffee and understanding it. Then creating a routine that best presents the coffee to be judged.

What have you learned about coffee in preparing for your competition this year that you didn't know before?
Probably more than anything else it has taught me that all coffees have different properties. Knowing this my job as a barista is about letting the coffee be itself instead of making it into something I want it to be. Observing the coffee and letting go of the parameters that I and others use or have used to define it. One think I love about coffee is there is no bottom, there is always more there to be discovered.

What's your signature drink, and what's the hardest part of preparing it?
My signature drink is a tasting of coffee and espresso. The hardest part of preparing it is keeping the water at the right temp on stage.

When you meet someone for whom coffee is "just coffee", how do you explain what's special about it to you, and what would you serve them first to prove it?
Coffee is "just coffee", just like wine is "just wine." It is something that can be discovered more and more in depth in relation to appreciation. For someone who hasn't started this discovery I would make them a good cup of "just coffee" that has been well stewarded, this is the only place to start.

Linsey Kiser

Peregrine Espresso, Washington, DC
Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Champion

Is there a strategy to barista competitions? If so, what's yours?
My strategy is first to know the rules backwards and forwards from a competitor's perspective as well as a judge's. Knowledge breeds confidence, but knowing the rules thoroughly also aids in quick decision making when troubleshooting moments arise. It is a focus of mine to master the technical skills. It is also my desire to serve outstanding drinks and show honor to the espresso that I have so meticulously chosen. On top of all these things, my strategy is to provide the judges with a memorable and creative experience. I give them myself—my personality, temperament, the lens from which I look at things—and do my best to communicate my passion and excitement as a barista.

What have you learned about coffee in preparing for your competition this year that you didn't know before?
In preparing for competition this year, I furthered my understanding that coffee has its own personality, distinctive characteristics, and culture. These combined elements along with coffee's processing journey brings an engaging complexity to the cup that deserves exploration and celebration.

What's your signature drink, and what's the hardest part of preparing it?
I am using a single-origin espresso from Papua New Guinea. The espresso is mixed with coconut milk and passion fruit puree. On the side is a serving of ginger candy floss. I made ginger hard candy which I then turn into candy floss during my presentation. Spinning the candy floss is definitely the hardest and most finicky part of preparing this beverage, but it is entirely worth it.

When you meet someone for whom coffee is "just coffee", how do you explain what's special about it to you, and what would you serve them first to prove it?
I remind myself that I can't force an experience and a way of thinking onto a person, but I can give to another a platform from which they could make that discovery for him/herself. I would ask leading questions to find out what they already like in coffee based drinks. Do they like black coffee, milky drinks, something sweet, certain combinations, simplicity? I would meet them where they are with coffee, yet desire to see them move forward. I would communicate what excites me too about those things and make an educated beverage suggestion for that particular person.

Ryan Knapp

Madcap Coffee, Grand Rapids, Michigan
North Central Regional Barista Champion

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Is there a strategy to barista competitions? If so, what's yours?
Definitely. But, I can't tell you.

If you want a real answer: I think it's important to understand to rules, practice and then relax. Have of the battle is being able to stay calm and remind yourself that you make coffee every day.

Oh, and a couple shots of whiskey go long way.

What have you learned about coffee in preparing for your competition this year that you didn't know before?
How graceful great green coffee is. I'm always realizing how many details go into preparing great coffee. So as a roaster and a barista, I've always put a lot of emphasis on nailing every single detail to make sure everything comes out perfect. With a competition roast, there were always series of trial roasts, trying every extraction ratio possible and so on. This year, I'm working with a coffee with so little quantity I haven't had the chance to "dial in" every aspect so to speak as I've been able to roast 1 batch to practice with, 1 batch to compete with at regionals and 1 more for nationals. So through this process, it's allowed me to step back a bit and be reminded how graceful excellent coffee is. It's been different as I've been able to step back, let the coffee perform and relax a little bit about some of the details. With that being said, it's been the tastiest coffee I've competed with.

What's your signature drink, and what's the hardest part of preparing it?
My signature drink is a series of 3 drinks. The coffee I'm using, Elefante, is big and balanced, but with a lot of different things going on. So the signature drink is served first to make the coffee more accessible before enjoying it as an espresso. The first beverage highlights the refreshing citrus acidity by making a cold Aeropress of the Elefante into ice cubes infused with tangerine essential oil. The second beverage highlights the subtle pleasant bitter notes by making a hot Aeropress into a pinch of unsweetened cocoa. And the third beverage highlights the big juicy sweetness: it is grape juice with espresso (that has been aerated to tone down the acidity and skimmed of the crema to tone down the bitterness). So, you get 3 different temperatures, with 3 different bodies highlighting 3 different aspects—easily the most amped I've been about a signature drink.

The hardest part is talking a lot while trying to make coffee 3 different—somewhat complicated—rounds of coffee.

When you meet someone for whom coffee is "just coffee", how do you explain what's special about it to you, and what would you serve them first to prove it?
For most people I don't bother. For a lot of people coffee is just going to be coffee and I'm fine with that. I'd rather save my energy for the ones who show interest than having to prove it. For those who actually show an interest I start with the farm level. I'm most fascinated by what happens to coffee before it ever gets here, I'd rather get someone excited about a coffee by talking about the fermentation process used at a mill in Colombia than talking about the way I roasted or brewed it.

Katie Carguilo

Counter Culture Coffee, New York, New York
Northeast Regional Barista Champion

Is there a strategy to barista competitions? If so, what's yours?
People might think a good strategy would be to have an expensive or rare coffee. That can help you stand out, sure, but bottom line is the drinks have to taste good, and specifically taste balanced in the way that the judges are instructed to score them. I also think it helps to practice your routine a bunch, because there's not much to be gained from improvisation. And do your run-throughs in front of people so they can give you feedback about what's not working.

What have you learned about coffee in preparing for your competition this year that you didn't know before?
At the risk of sounding cliche, so much! But there are two specific instances I can think of in the past year where I had an a-ha moment surrounding coffee: one in the Counter Culture Pro Series and another while visiting coffee farmer Aida Battle at origin in El Salvador. Basically, Aida and Counter Culture did these experiments with her coffee where she processed (processing being the way a coffee bean is removed from the cherry, fermented and dried) the same coffee in a number of different regional styles (such as Ethiopian, Kenyan, etc) and we got to taste those coffees at the Pro Series. Later, I got a chance to visit Aida and help her do some of the experiments, and it was interesting to actually see in person the physical changes happening that would later affect the coffee's flavor.

What's your signature drink, and what's the hardest part of preparing it?
My sig bev is inspired by fermentation water, or the water coffee beans are soaked in during the Ethiopian style of washed processing. To emulate the flavors of green coffee soaking in that water, I use a mash/mixture of nectarine, lemon, sugar, and jasmine green tea. Then I add a little vinegar and carbonated water (because vinegar and CO2 are byproducts of fermentation) and top that off with the Haru, a washed Ethiopian espresso. The hardest part has been mashing all those nectarines and getting the proportions right, but man does it taste good.

When you meet someone for whom coffee is "just coffee", how do you explain what's special about it to you, and what would you serve them first to prove it?
I would say coffee is special to me because there's so much potential for it to taste amazing (depending on the variety, the way it's picked, processed, roasted and brewed) and that is super exciting and appealing to me. Honestly, the best coffees to illustrate the "coffees taste different and that's what makes them special" story are naturally processed coffees. I would probably serve them a natural Ethiopian espresso in a cappuccino, which is the PERFECT balance of coffee to milk flavor. I'm actually doing just this at the USBC (using Idido Natural just for capps). My mom does not drink coffee, but she was in town this past weekend so I made her "judge" a run through of the presentation. She was running for a spit cup when I served the espresso, but when she tried the cappuccino, her remark was, "This is delicious. I can see why people like this. I could get into this." It was a nice to see that even people who don't have a palate for coffee can taste the deliciousness.


About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.

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