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How The World’s Best Brewers and Baristas Prepare For Competition

By March 13, 2019 June 11th, 2019 Coffee
Grace McCutchan Red Rooster Coffee

Brewers and baristas from near and far will be gathering this weekend in Kansas City for the US Coffee Championships, or CoffeeChamps for short. The road to the national stage is not easy. First comes qualifiers and then onto regionals with hours and hours of practice fit into any and all spare time.

We love supporting competitors. It’s humbling to see the best brewers and baristas in the world use our gear on our stage. If you’re thinking about taking the leap to compete in the future or just curious about what the heck goes into a “coffee competition,” you’ve come to the right place. We spoke with five of this year’s CoffeeChamps competitors to get the inside scoop on their routines and advice for future competitors.

CODY BARNHART | VIENNA COFFEE COMPANY | BREWERS CUP

Cody Barnhart 2019 CoffeeChampsHow did you first get into coffee and what is your role now?
Vienna Coffee Company opened up its first café in my hometown when I was only fourteen. Since their third day open, I was a regular customer for years. I moved to Kansas City for a year or so. Shortly after I moved back to Tennessee in 2016, I got a barista position at their café. Since then, I moved to Lead Barista at our downtown Knoxville location and then onto Sales Account Manager within the company. I still split time between our wholesale business and being on bar, but the bulk of my time is spent trying to help wholesale customers provide the best coffee they can — whether it’s training, coffee offerings, retail strategies, etc.

What were your goals going into the start of the competition season?
My mantra for specialty coffee from day one has been this: “Hospitality and excellence don’t have to be at odds.” Too often, specialty cafés offer hospitality at the expense of excellence (or vice versa). I went into competition season wanted to grow in both service skills and brewing skills — to learn how to talk about excellent coffee without alienating those different than us.

How did you prepare for competition?
For both the qualifying and national events, it took longer than expected to find a roast profile I felt made the coffees shine. The largest chunks of my preparation were unlearning the bad brewing habits I had, taking note of where I needed to “get out of the way,” and learning to be a little less heavy handed in my brewing. My preparation focused on yielding to the coffee, rather than pursuing a specific flavor profile or characteristic. The thing that shined in the El Obraje Caturra I used for qualifiers was its acidity and flavor clarity; the thing that shines in the Cold Fermented Pink Bourbon I’m using from Finca Monteblanco is the sheer complexity. I wanted the coffees to determine the brewing methods because, in brewing, one size doesn’t fit all.

I’ve been mentally preparing and reading up on brewing science since the company decided last April they would ask me to compete. That said, I couldn’t even begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent preparing. My family and friends have to be sick of hearing my tangents about processing and elevation by now!

How are you using Fellow gear in Kansas City?
I’m using two of the matte white Stagg EKGs in my routine, alternating between kettles so that I have more consistency across brews. I love your kettles because they offer unmatched control over brewing temperature. We ought to treat water temperature a bit more dynamically and use it in tandem with grind size. Brewing is a dance, and the Stagg EKGs make me a better dancer.

How did you pick your competition coffee?
I decided pretty early on that I wanted a stellar coffee that was resistant to la roya and didn’t break the bank. I don’t have any qualms with geshas, but they are a bit inaccessible and not completely understood by everyday coffee drinkers. In addition, they’re predominantly lower yield and more delicate plants, driving the price up.

The Pink Bourbon I chose is also, put simply, a fascinating coffee. It isn’t “actually” a Pink Bourbon; it was given the name for commercial reasons. The producers think it’s an escaped seedling from a research farm, but they’re not entirely certain. It was also processed using Cold Fermentation. Rodrigo Sanchez, who operates Finca Monteblanco in Huila, Colombia, began using the process a few years ago. When the coffee has a Brix content of 27-31 degrees, Rodrigo and his team use the Cold Fermentation process to slow down sugar degradation and enable the mucilage to have longer contact time with the bean. It offers a sweetness and complexity like nothing else.

Any advice for folks thinking about dipping their toes into the competition scene for the first time?
Well, first things first: read the rules. Everyone says it, but I’ll say it again. Know what you’re going into. I printed the whole packet and marked it up with highlights and arrows and underlines. Ingrain it in your head. Secondly, cultivate your sensory skills. Evaluate everything you consume (please don’t use a scoresheet – just do it really quick in your head!). I don’t have the most refined pallet, but I noticed an improvement once I started paying attention. It doesn’t even have to be coffee. You can spend some time learning about hops in beer or different types and ages of wines, or flavors in cheeses or unfamiliar spices. I distinctly remember pouring a soda at a friend’s house and prefacing that I would be smelling before I drank it (and asking them not to make fun of me). I looked like a fool, but I think it helped me in the long run.

Lastly, if you compete, have fun with it. It seems like there’s too much competition and condescending spirits in the coffee world. We’re all in this thing together, so if you’re not having fun and growing as a professional because of competition, you might be in it for the wrong reasons.

Follow Cody’s brewing adventures on Instagram (@codygbarnhart)!


GRACE MCCUTCHAN |  RED ROOSTER COFFEE ROASTER | BREWERS CUP

Tell us a little about your journey into coffee!
I started in coffee when I was 14 years old. My family opened up a café, and I began working there after school. We knew very little about specialty coffee and coming from a small town in rural Appalachia (Floyd, Virginia) our resources were pretty limited. We experimented most of the time, read online articles, attended trade shows when we could but essentially only had one another to rely on to perfect our craft. Six years later, in 2010, my sister and brother-in-law formed Red Rooster primarily to roast coffee for the café (with bigger ideas and dreams always in the back of their minds). Today, Red Rooster has 31 employees, a thriving flagship café, partner cafés all over the east coast, a premier training lab, a successful tea (Swallowtail Tea) and syrup line (JT Copper Extracts), and an on-site daycare facility for employed working parents. We’ve come quite a long ways, and we did it together relying on one another’s feedback, advice, and pure gut intuition.

What were your goals going into the start of the competition season?
My goal going into this competition was simple: make the best cup of coffee and hit every single sensory note possible. As a first time competitor, I knew very little when it came to the overall structure of the competition, but I wanted to do it so that I might learn more about the industry and the SCA, meet more coffee professionals, and help put Floyd, Virginia and Red Rooster on the map. I also just wanted to have fun and make a good cup of coffee for the judges while telling my story and the coffee’s story. So that’s what I did and what I hope to continue doing!

How did you prepare for Brewers Cup?
I began thinking of a narrative for my presentation 2-3 months before the qualifiers in Nashville and practiced every day in some facet or another leading up to the competition. I already knew which coffee I was going to use so I began thinking of different stories I’d like to tell the judges and the audience and ultimately, settled on something that I believe to be the most authentic and real part of myself. My story, alongside the story of the WORKA cooperative in which this coffee comes from. I’ve changed quite a bit up in my routine in preparation for Kansas City focusing primarily on the many technical aspects within the presentation so that’s been fun and challenging, but I am happy and honored to continue sharing this coffees story as well as my own. Because that’s what it’s all about right? The journey from seed to cup and our belief in what makes coffee beautiful and life-changing for so many people in the world.

What Fellow gear will you be using for competition?
I’m using two Stagg EKG kettles in my routine for water temperature control. I’ve been experimenting with different water temperatures at different times throughout the brew and the hold function really comes in handy for that purpose. This was not something I did in Nashville, so I am excited to apply it in the next round in KC.

How did you pick your competition coffee?
I chose my competition coffee because I wanted to share the bean that changed my life with the rest of the coffee community! Five years ago when Red Rooster started to really find its wings, I took part in a blind cupping and had a coffee that completely changed everything for me. I knew immediately going into this competition, that would be the coffee I’d be using. Coffee is extremely personal and so I wanted to put the two together. My journey and the coffee’s journey into one narrative.

Any advice for folks thinking about dipping their toes into the competition scene for the first time?
Just have fun and enjoy the process! Listen to yourself. Don’t overthink too much. Get plenty of rest. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to try new methods or create new ones. Oh, and practice your open service but practice compulsory, too! It’s a big part of your score, and I think folks often spend so much time perfecting their open service we forget to practice with beans we may not be familiar with.

Follow Grace’s brewing adventures at CoffeeChamps on Instagram (@redroosterontheroad)!


BLAIR SMITH | AUGIE’S COFFEE | BREWERS CUP

Blair Smith Brewers Cup Competitor

Photo Credit: @maestastim

How did you get into the coffee industry?
I was looking for a second job after college and stumbled across an ad on Craigslist for a barista position. I had no idea that it was for a specialty shop with a full bakery. At that time, I was drinking really nasty coffee with tons of hazelnut creamer and had no idea what any drink really was: Americano, macchiato, etc. I learned a ton at this job and eventually went on to manage the cafe side for a year before moving to California and working at Augie’s Coffee. This month will be my fifth year working at Augie’s, and I have been managing my store for four and a half years.

What were your goals going into the start of the competition season?
I’ve been competing for the last four years and always trying to learn more and bring that into my routine each time. This year, I knew I wanted to focus on my water chemistry and being able to bring the same flavors I love in our warehouse to wherever the competition is held.

How have you been preparing for competition?
Prepping is essentially easier every time since I know what to expect. In the first few competitions, I’d spend many hours just figuring out how to brew coffee best and trying out different brewers. But now, I feel like I can be more intentional because I’ve had the experience to know where and how to change things quickly. The water dialing in was probably the most challenging and time-consuming such as researching and tweaking with different chemicals to achieve different attributes. It’s amazing what such small adjustments can contribute to the cup, good or bad.

How are you using Fellow gear at competition?
I’m using the Stagg [X] Dripper. I love the heat retention, and I can’t stray away from the body that it gives the coffee. I absolutely love the Stagg kettles because they are so easy to use and I like not having to hit the button to hold the temperature. I’m using two different temperatures for my routine, so it’s nice that the kettles are so efficient.

What coffee will you be using in your routine?
I’m using a relatively approachable coffee which is unique to the national competition. Usually, folks will use geishas or rare varieties from small lots. My coffee is made up of two very high yielding and rust resistant varieties and comes from a 700 kilo lot. It’s an anaerobic fermented coffee that’s been really carefully executed. It jumped off the cupping table, and it’s crazy unique. Tastes like strawberry, watermelon, plum, and cherry blossom. I’m excited to showcase a relatively inexpensive coffee that can achieve high scores through the fermentation process.

Follow Blair’s brewing adventures CoffeeChamps on Instagram (@theblairista)!


ELISABETH JOHNSON | VASHON COFFEE COMPANY | BARISTA CHAMPIONSHIPS

Elisabeth Johnson Barista Championships Competitors

Photo credit: Paige Hicks

How did you first get into coffee?
I first started working as a barista in 2010. I fell in love with cozy cafés and their well-worn sofas. As the offspring of small business owners, I loved the idea of someday owning my own café, so I decided to get a job as a barista. As I earned some years as a barista, a new wave of cafés rolled in that was much more clean and precise with more white walls and scientific research. There’s constantly something new to learn, and that’s why I’m so invested in coffee. In the beginning, I learned so many things the hard way that I was determined to learn more so that I could become an effective trainer and help new baristas have a better foundation. Now I manage a café, I’m the head of education, and I also do consulting. It’s a lot of hats to wear!

What inspired you to compete this year?
I felt like I had something to prove, and I really wanted to do better than last year. I made a lot of mistakes as a first-year competitor, and I kept telling myself, “I know I’m better than that!” I just wanted to learn from my past experiences and improve myself and my craft.

How have you been preparing for Kansas City?
I started practicing in August by participating in the USCC Preliminaries in Seattle where I placed 2nd in both Brewer’s Cup and Barista. I wasn’t sure which path to take and I wanted to try my hand at Brewer’s. After I got accepted to Glitter Cat Barista Bootcamp, it made the decision a lot clearer. I did a training workshop in Philadelphia with some coffee greats who I really admire, and it bolstered my routine a lot.

How are you using Fellow gear in your routine?
I’m using the Monty Milk Art Cortado Cups. Surprisingly, I had a very difficult time finding this size cup (4.5 oz), and it’s such a standard size for competition. I think that they are beautiful and I really wanted the judges to have a ceramic cup with a good weight to it as opposed to the simple glassware I was practicing with. A good cup makes all the difference! Not to mention, the rose gold perfectly matched the rest of my wares.

How did you pick your competition coffee?
I picked my coffee based off of a relationship with the importer, Cafe 1959, and because it was the most delicious coffee I could find. When I’m looking for a competition coffee, I go for sweetness, body, and acidity. The mouthfeel (or “tactile”) component is a huge multiplier for points in the competition, but I also wanted to choose a coffee that I personally just really enjoyed. After reaching out to one of the farmers from Finca la Julia on social media, I felt much more invested in representing this coffee because of the love and effort that goes into their art. I feel lucky that now I get to leave my mark on it!

The coffee that I’m using is a natural process Java variety from Colombia, specifically Finca la Julia in Trujillo. It’s certainly a unique coffee, and I’m excited to be able to serve it!

What’s unique about your competition routine?
I have studied this competition a lot, and I know that a thorough knowledge of the rules and what the judges are looking for is a huge component. As much as I’m focused on the points, at the end of the day, what’s important to me is that my routine feels true to who I am is a person. I hope that the work that I have put into my career and competition puts me in the top bracket of competitors vying to represent the United States at the world level. But ultimately, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished at this time in my life, and I have a tiny cheerleader at home who already thinks I’m a winner. My daughter Scarlet is an avid supporter of me and always assures me that I’m a winner.

Follow Elisabeth of Vashon Coffee Company on Instagram (@elisabethanej)!


KIMHAK EM | PEIXOTO COFFEE ROASTERS | COFFEE IN GOOD SPIRITS

Kimhak Em Coffee In Good SpiritsTell us a little about your journey in coffee!
My journey started with my love of the cafe. I remember how much I like and still do enjoy hanging out and talking to everyone one in a coffee shop. With my professional career,  it started about three and half years ago when I started at Peixoto Coffee in Chandler, Arizona.

You’ll be combining your mixologist and barista skills at the Coffee in Good Spirits Championships. Can you tell us more about the beverages you’ll be making?
There are two rounds at Nationals. In the first round, you have to make two pairs of beverages. One of the coffee cocktails has to be hot and other has to be cold. We have to use whiskey in both of the beverages and for the coffee, one of the beverages needs espresso and the other needs to have brewed filter coffee. If you make it into the top six for the second round, everybody needs to make an Irish coffee. You are only allowed four ingredients: coffee, whiskey, cream, and sugar.

What were your goals going into the start of the competition season?
My goal is to win first place! But truthfully, my real goal is to grow as a professional and do my best. I hope I can get my stories across to the judges. I put my heart and a lot of time to this routine, it is such a fun event. I encourage anyone who is thinking about doing it to just take a leap and do it!

How are you using Fellow gear at competition?
I’m going to be using the Stagg EKG Electric Pour-Over Kettle! It helps me make sure that my water temperature is on point and heats up fast! This is so important because it will help brew my filter coffee correctly. If I don’t get the right extraction, my beverage will not taste correctly as it should.

Kimhak Em Coffee In Good Spirits ChampionshipsHow have you been preparing for competition?
I start out with just a concept in my head. I imagine how the flavors and texture would be. I used to be a cook and this practice helps me out a lot with coming up with recipes. Then, I test out the recipe in real life and adjust as I go. Next, I write out my presentation, my story. I read this out while I drive to and from work. Finally, a week before competition, I do it all together a few times until I am comfortable.

What coffee will you be using in your routine?
I’m going to be using a natural Brazil and a washed Brazil. We at Peixoto Coffee own the farm in Brazil, so I’m very proud and honored to be using our family farm coffee.

Follow Kimhak’s at CoffeeChamps on Instagram (@kimhak.em)!


If you want to stay up-to-date on the latest 2019 CoffeeChamps action, follow along on our Instagram. We’ll be on hand in Kansas City documenting the fun!

Hanna

About Hanna

Specialized design generalist.