Northeast Regional Barista Championship: Meet the NY Competitors


Competitor Park Brannen [Photo: Liz Clayton and Silent H]

Whether you linger and learn about coffee, or take what you want on the run, your local baristas are your ambassadors to the flavors and pleasures of coffee. This weekend, some of New York City's most passionate baristas will join leagues of others in the Northeastern US for the Northeast Regional Barista Championship, the first ever hosted within the five boroughs. The winner must excel in presentation and preparation of espresso, cappuccino, and signature drinks of their own creation. Whoever wins will go on to compete at the national level in Houston, Texas later this month; the United States Champion will compete in the World Barista Championship in Bogota, Colombia, this summer.

We took a little time to chat with some of the baristas you may already see on the front lines day to day, and asked them about the coffees that drove them to take their trade to the competition stage.

Mike Jones


Where do you work? I work at Third Rail Coffee, it's been open for two years now, and I started almost exactly a year ago. I especially enjoy being able to serve both Stumptown and Intelligentsia coffees and see how they're both doing.

Have you competed as a barista before? I did the Northeast Cup Tasters competition last year, where I got second out of 16 people, and there was no fanfare whatsoever! I helped [reigning Northeast Regional Barista Champion] Danielle Glasky last year. So I thought I knew what went into it, but... you can't get inside someone's head and realize the kind of stress they're actually going through.

Why did you decide to compete? This year I made it a goal to take advantage of pretty much any coffee opportunity that came up. I'm turning 25 this week, which is young, but...I love coffee, and I'm trying to see how far it can take me. And a lot of that involves meeting people and trying to do anything that can better where I'm at right now. Competition's kind of perfect for that—you meet a lot of people. One thing I didn't realize is how much better as a barista it's made me just from preparation time. And I'm getting better at presenting my coffee in a more coherent manner, because you have to learn how to say and do all that stuff in 15 minutes in front of a bunch of people.

What coffee are you using, and how did you select it? I'm using a 2-bean blend from Stumptown, it's an Ethiopian Adado and Indonesian Sulawesi Toarco. I decided on it because I had espressos that I like the most, they're sweet with a really lush mouthfeel, and then really nice red fruit. Stumptown agreed to work on it with me, and I tried a bunch of single origins and blends, and email them what I was tasting and what I wanted it to taste like. So then they would adjust the roast, and we built this blend sort of based on what I wanted it to taste like.

What do you love most about working in coffee in NYC? My entire friend base, or 90% of it, is as a result of coffee. And the community of people who GO to coffee shops. The spotlight on coffee here in NY is great. Stuff I was doing with coffee in Michigan, even if it was really progressive, wouldn't make a difference and get noticed.


Can you give us any hints as to what you're doing for your signature drink? It is a deconstructed taste experience [laughs]. I make pourovers of each of the coffees that are in the drink, and I have a couple special ingredients—like a foam made from coffee honey. The goal is to demonstrate why there are flavors in espresso and how they got there, and how they work paired with other flavors.

Sam Lewontin

Where do you work? I work for World Bean at LaGuardia Airport, which is a project to put awesome coffee shops in airport terminals.

It's kind of an unusual coffee shop! Yes. It's been really really interesting—it's a very different environment than any other shop I ever worked at, it's incredibly busy in a way that is totally separate from what usually drives business in a coffee shop. And it's a really MUCH broader cross section of customers than I've ever seen in any other coffee shop that I've worked in. People who have really different expectations on what they want from a cup of coffee.

Is this your first barista competition? It is, yeah! It's been something that I've wanted to do for a few years now, and have only just now had the time and resources to make it happen.

Why did you decide to compete? A couple of different reasons—one, it's sort of the next level of challenge. I'm in a position where I'm training a lot of baristas but that means that my own training sometimes has to wait. This gives me a really great reason to focus my energy on improving my own craft. But my original love was theatre, and this is a very theatrical sort of enterprise, and that's really appealing to me, sharing coffee with people in a very performative sense.

What coffee are you using, and how did you select it? I'm using the Papua New Guinea Baroida, roasted by Counter Culture Coffee. I had a general sort of range of ideas of what kinds of flavors I was looking for, and I was looking for something a little bit more challenging and outside my own box of coffee flavor preconceptions.

Can you give us any hints as to what you're doing for your signature drink? I'm looking for some unorthodox approaches to texture and flavor balance. I'm looking to create a beverage with a set of flavors that really deviates from what we think of when we think signature beverage. I'm definitely staying savory and getting into some herb and spice flavors.

Park Brannen

040611-145649-nerbc-preview-park-brannen-2.jpgWhere do you work? I work at Cafe Grumpy, and I enjoy serving coffee there because it's our own coffee that we roast, and because of that I have a really good connection with it.

What coffee are you using, and how did you select it? I'm using a coffee from Colombia, it's from the Desarrollo Co-op. My green buyer went down there for a trip and brought back several samples, which I was able to cup and try, and this is the one that I found that I liked. It's really balanced, and it has equal amounts of fruit and chocolate flavors and also a pleasant acidity.

What do you love most about working in coffee in NYC? I enjoy getting to serve a LOT of people every day, and getting to talk to people that are actually interested in what we're doing. There are a lot of people here who really enjoy food and beverage, and this is something that a lot of those people can really enjoy.

Can you give us any hints as to what you're doing for your signature drink? My signature drink is going to taste like an angel, if it landed on your mouth.

Jessica Roff

Where do you work? I'm opening a green coffee house called Cafe Verde, specializing in local products and products from indigenous peoples, because I have a background in Indian law. So I'm going to be offering food and small retail including crafts, and coffee, teas, chocolates, crafts from native growers around the world. It'll be in Brooklyn.

Is this your first barista competition? Yes. I've been training for five weeks.

Why did you decide to compete? Well, I obviously am doing everything I can to be more involved in the coffee community, which is a big part of it. The training and preparation is huge—refining my craft, developing it. And I'm hoping to be able to meet people who can be involved in my coffee house, and get the word out for what I'm doing. This is a whole new world for me.

What coffee are you using, and how did you select it? I'm using an Arabica coffee from Papua New Guinea, and Byron Holcomb at Dallis Bros. helped me source it. It's been something that's sort of been plaguing me for the last year—I'm only planning on using coffee from indigenous growers, and it is a challenge finding an espresso that isn't a blend where it is more difficult to ensure each bean is from an indigenous grower. I had to find a single origin coffee that would work well as an espresso. Byron knew what I was looking for, and got on the phone and got this one, which is from a native cooperative, the Highlands Organic Agricultural Cooperative in Papua New Guinea.

What do you love most about working in coffee in NYC? I've been having a great time with it. It seems to be a really welcoming community. And for me this was a way to combine my passions about indigenous people and foods, and to be able to highlight products from indigenous people in a way that puts money back into their communities. I'm looking for the ideals of fair trade—I'm not somebody that's a big label person—but I'm buying only products that fit the model of good working conditions, a good wage, above-market pricing. And people here have been super supportive, which is great.

Can you give us any hints as to what you're doing for your signature drink? I'm going to be featuring Kallari chocolate, which is a Kichwa indigenous cooperative from Ecuador, which I quit my lawyer job to go volunteer with a couple of years ago.

Want to check out the competition?

You can attend the Northeast Regional Barista Competition free this weekend, April 9 to 11, at Milk Studios, 450 West 15th Street—8th Floor, Studio D, in Manhattan. Events, including the Brewer's Cup competition, kick off around noon each day.