Our Trip to the United States Coffee Championships


Our Trip to the United States Coffee Championships

Posted on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 10:30am By Michael Harwood

Two weeks ago, hundreds of U.S. coffee professionals constellated around the Long Beach Convention Center to illuminate and be illuminated at the SCAA United States Coffee Championships. With a grinder, delicate glassware, and bags on bags of coffee in tow, Ronnie, Vince, and I made our way out west to California to represent Ceremony alongside some of the sharpest minds and palates in Specialty coffee. A coffee professional should consider competing for many reasons, but being around incredibly dedicated and forward-thinking peers is amongst the tops. These connections grow our consciousness of how to better brew and serve our favorite beverage. Further, we see competition as a crucible for the cafe and roastery, through which we melt down and reshape our daily craft so that you might enjoy an even better experience.

Ronnie leading his judges through brewing at the United States Brewers Cup

Never one to be content with the status quo, our Director of Wholesale Ronnie Haas built on his first place finish at the Northeast Regional Brewers Cup by bringing the fresh crop Sulawesi Minanga and an important question to the United States level. Ronnie posed to the judges that they might consider the concept of an ideal coffee. We work tirelessly at Ceremony to bring in delicious coffees at prices that are reasonable for all parties involved, from the producer to you. However, the coffees that score and place well at the U.S. and World Brewers Cup levels are often rare, expensive, and more often than not of the Geisha variety. This is not inherently bad, but does represent a trend that is not necessarily reflective of your day-to-day experience with us or most roasters. We're not saying we dislike Geishas or that we think trying to score well to win a competition is wrong. Quite the opposite! What we do believe though, and what Ronnie got us thinking about is how we present an affordable, everyday, incredibly delicious coffee that connects with you.

Ronnie used our Sulawesi Minanga as his ideal coffee, which you can find here - http://store.ceremonycoffee.com/coffees/pedamaran.html
With a medium body, full mouthfeel, complex acidity, good sweetness, and clean cup, this coffee is really hard not to like. Whereas some coffees are super delicate and enzymatic, and other coffees are mostly about sugar browning and that classic "coffee" taste, our Minanga strikes a balance that makes it highly satisfying. It took a bit of courage on Ronnie's part to bring a C. arabica-C. liberica hybrid cultivar called S795 to a Geisha party, but we're glad he did. Several industry professionals came up to Ronnie after his performance and seconded his objective. Though Ceremony did not make it through to the U.S. Brewers Cup Finals this time around, we felt like Ronnie had pushed forward a conversation that will keep us thinking and moving towards a better experience for our guests.

United States Coffee Championship Arena

Having come in third at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition, I was invited to compete in the first round of the U.S. Barista Competition, which was taking place just across the room from where Ronnie competed. The arena itself was set in the round, surrounded by beautifully lit scrims and blue lighting globes. The giant space elicited feelings of great responsibility in me. I knew that on such a heightened stage, I had to give it my all. It is challenging to recount the exact number of hours I put into practicing for this event since it was always on my mind, but it was certainly over one hundred. All that hard work can go wrong in just one moment and it almost did before I even got started.

Before a competition round, each competitor receives one hour to practice on an espresso machine before they perform at staggered times throughout the day. I set up for my practice time and immediately noticed something wrong with how my grinder was sounding. I had packed it in my luggage (D'oh!) and something was clearly not right after all that jostling. My friend Travis from Mahlkoenig stepped in and attempted a couple of fixes, but something greater was definitely wrong. My hour of practice ended without having dialed-in any of the three coffees I brought. The urge to panic was palpable, but I reminded myself that I had been in similar situations in busy cafes before and gotten through those. In the end, it is just a barista competition! At the last moment before I went out on stage, Travis handed me a brand new EK-43 grinder (burrs not seasoned!) and the gracious SCAA staff (Thank you Hugo, Holly, Adam, Carlee, Lara, and whomever else helped out!) gave me about twenty minutes to dial-in before prep time began. Without those twenty minutes, I would've been toast because it might be near impossible to dial-in three unique coffees on a strange, new grinder in the five to seven minutes I had left after setting up during prep time (in which you have fifteen minutes to set up and dial-in right before you compete). I jumped straight from practice time into prep time, and then right into my performance. My head was swirling like a tornado, but Ronnie, Vince, and my partner Rosalind all made sure I had everything I needed and helped me keep it together. I couldn't have done it without them. The ensuing performance was a bit of a blur for me, but I tried to stay in the moment and deliver a delicious and hospitable experience for my sensory judges. To my surprise, spectators mentioned how calm I seemed (the film Melancholia comes to mind. lol). Even with the words of encouragement, I didn't feel very confident about making it out of the first round; but I had the rest of the day to wait before finding out, so I set myself to cleaning up and resetting optimistically for the next round, should it come. When the time for announcements came, somehow, my name was called to advance! I later found out that I came in second place out of the twenty-four competitors in the first round. I was astounded by my advancement after that morning's stress, but I was incredibly delighted. All of a sudden, I was playing with house money. Tomorrow was a new day!

Michael kicking off the United States Barista Championship

The six of us who made it through the first round were now competing in the Semi-Finals against the top two winners from each of the U.S.'s six regions (Northeast, Southeast, North Central, South Central, Northwest, Southwest). That made eighteen semi-finalists in total, with only six advancing to the final round. We're talking about eighteen of the best baristas in the entire country (though many great baristas also choose not to compete, or don't feel comfortable competing, which I want to help change!). This is tough company, but I felt great about being there. I had a working grinder and a little momentum to go with it! We switched my burr set (which was still functional) into the new grinder's shell and to my relief, everything went smoothly during practice time. When it came time for my performance, I don't believe I've ever had so much fun on a competition stage - it's funny how perspective works. When it came time for announcements, I was cautiously optimistic. Though I had competed at USBC thrice before, I had yet to advance to the final round. That all changed as I heard my name called to step forward. I looked down the line at my fellow finalists and had to blink to believe I was standing there, being photographed over and over. It is truly an amazing feeling.

By the morning of Finals, it dawned on me that I had not slept in three nights. It is amazing how adrenaline and doing what you love can stoke your energy! I felt pretty great, but I worried that my tired brain would sabotage me during that day's performance. Still, that morning's walk to the convention center was lovely and I felt remarkably calm for it being one of the biggest days of my professional career. I had a great time dialing-in that morning with Ronnie, Rosalind, and Kyle from Mahlkoenig. When it came time for my performance, some nerves crept in, but I left the stage feeling like I had given it my best shot. I ended up coming in sixth place, which isn't winning, but I have to say, I didn't feel like I had lost either.

Michael portioning out signature beverage at United States Barista Championship

I am proud of the concepts set forth and of the coffees Ceremony sourced, roasted, and I brewed. For the last half year, I have focused on re-imagining our cafes' espresso program through the medium of the Mahlkoenig EK-43 grinder. Its potential to offer more choices for your espresso experience is truly exciting. My goal at USBC was to design a Specialty coffee experience by matching three different hybrid coffees to the course that creates the best experience for the guest. In practical bar terms, this means pre-dosing and grinding fresh for decaf shots, offering a non-house espresso or two (likely single origins), and reducing waste and poor-tasting shots. This effectively creates an opportunity for us to match your palate with the perfect coffee and course. For instance, a delicate coffee may not show up in a milk drink. I can use my experience to help guide you to a coffee that will be much more enjoyable in that cappuccino. I decided that in my USBC paradigm, a stand-alone espresso ought to be sweet and balanced, a cappuccino should be distinctive, yet familiar, and an espresso-based signature beverage is best when it expresses creativity and complexity. To get each of these, I tend to be of the opinion that you want the following type of coffee for each course:

Espresso - sweet & balanced flavor, washed process for clarity, light espresso roast, pulled longer in mass for sweetness and clarity, plus more to enjoy!
Cappuccino - big bodied, mid-tone flavor-dominant, positive intrinsic bitterness for weight, blend of light/med. espresso roast, pulled short in mass for strength to match milk
Signature Beverage - complex coffee, big acidity, positive bitterness, complete mouthfeel, stands up to ingredients, light espresso roast for flavor clarity

The coffees from our current line-up that best fit these descriptions and I took to USBC are:
Espresso - Colombia Bella Vista - Sold out!
Cappuccino - Sulawesi Minanga - http://store.ceremonycoffee.com/coffees/pedamaran.html
Signature Beverage - Kenya Gondo - Sold out!

We are sad to see the Bella Vista and Gondo go, but do check out the Sulawesi and let us know what you think!

A note about why I spoke to coffee genetics at USBC - I am optimistic about the role hybridization will play as a partial solution in mitigating coffee diseases and climate issues in the years to come. We've seen what hybrids can do in the cases of cultivars like Castillo (Bella Vista) and S795 (Minanga) combining the good flavors of C. arabica with the adaptability, disease resistance, and overall hardiness of C. canephora and C. liberica. Or in the case of SL-28 (Gondo), where two C. arabica varieties were hybridized for drought resistance. In all cases, cup potential was taken into account, which is making these coffees not only physically viable, but gives them a lasting foothold in a Specialty market that more and more seeks a high quality experience.

My takeaways from this past weekend are that it takes a team to achieve a high level of success, that Ceremony roasts some of the most delicious coffees in the country, and that it is possible to grow our espresso program in a dynamic way that we think you're going to love. Stay tuned and thank you for reading.

Until next time, happy brewing!

Michael, Ronnie, and Ros preparing for United States Barista Championship