Photos by Noelle Darilek
Audio by Armando Maese
Text by Courtney Runn
“These events are like coming home,” says Alexandra LittleJohn, as she tinkers with a glass container. “It’s a family reunion of sorts.”
Her table resembles a high school chemistry lab with a hot plate and glass beaker-like containers. Two beakers are stacked on top of each other, each feeding into the other, like an hourglass. She’s about to begin another presentation.
“The heat has to go somewhere so it’s going to go up,” she explains. “Once all of the water is in the top chamber, I’m going to add the coffee to it.”
The handful of people watching lean in to see the coffee travel between the upper and lower glass chambers. The technique relies on vapor pressure and vacuum to brew the coffee.
She passes out small paper cups so everyone can try it. The rich, bitter scent of coffee rushes the senses. The crowd fades and moves on to other tables, drawn to where there is applause.
LittleJohn has been in the coffee community for the past 17 years and currently works as the director of wholesale for Equator Coffees and Teas in California and serves on the executive council of the Barista Guild of America. She is one of many who traveled to Austin for the CoffeeChamp on February 11 and 12, one of two opportunities to qualify for the national coffee competition in Seattle in April.
The coffee community has been coming together to battle it out over espresso and cappuccinos since 2002, when the first North American Barista Championship was organized. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) sponsors the event and offers four competition categories: Barista Championship, Brewers Cup Championship, Roast Championship, and Cup Tasters Championship.
Competitors pay a fee of $195 if they belong to SCAA ($350 for non-members), a price that they have to pay out of pocket unless a coffee shop sponsors them.
The rules and regulations are complex. The championships are as much a science as they are an art. Baristas not only make a cup of coffee but simultaneously put on a show, spinning together personal stories, the history of coffee, geographical information on the beans they’re using, and an explanation of their brewing methods.
Mallory Leicht, a coffee trainer for Blue Bottle Coffee, never competed but has judged the competitions for six years and specializes in the Barista Competition. She judged at the Austin qualifying champ and will judge in Seattle as well. Just like the competitors, judges have to qualify for each higher level of judging.
For the Barista Competition category, there are three types of judges: sensory, technical, and head. Sensory judges evaluate drinks based on tangible factors, including if the taste measures up to how the barista described it. They’re also watching for communication skills and professionalism. Technical judges watch the barista’s efficiency and behind-the-bar skills. The head judge observes all aspects of competition and holds the other judges accountable to accuracy and consistency.
“[Competition] helped me as a barista really develop sensory and technical skills. When you’re a tech judge, you become very mindful about the way you use the cafe space,” said Leicht. “There’s just so much opportunity to learn from others what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re excited about, what kind of equipment they have. It’s kind of like an ongoing conference or ongoing trade show.”
For Lorenzo Perkins, co-owner of Austin coffeeshop Fleet, he owes competition his career. Before he opened Fleet in 2016, he worked at Cafe Medici where he was attracted to their competition-winning baristas. He competed himself for the first time in 2009 and has advanced to nationals five times. This year, at the Austin CoffeeChamp, he placed sixth in the Barista Championship and will be moving on to nationals.
For his signature drink, he made espresso with Demerara simple sugar syrup. He stirred the drink with cascara ice cubes and strained it into coup spritzed with orange blossom water. He topped it all off with shaken cinnamon cream. To connect with the judges, he told a story about his mom, remembering the coffee she made him that consisted of more cream than coffee.
While competition has provided Perkins with significant training and practice, he said he knows at the end of the day it’s just a game and does not necessarily reflect skill. In competition, he said, you’re interacting with “the four best guests you will ever have,” so while it’s an outlet for creativity, success in competition does not always directly correlate with success in real life.
The real test of a barista happens everyday, far away from the scribbling of judges and limits of a clock. And the real judges can be much harsher, rushing in and out, hardly tasting or appreciating the coffee keeping them caffeinated.
Perkins said there’s no “great secret or mystery to making a cup of coffee,” but constant pursuit of what’s next, attention to detail, and basic hospitality can separate the good from the great.
Paul Henry, who oversees all of the Austin Houndstooth locations, appreciates the potential in competition but thinks sending his staff overseas to learn about coffee can be a better financial investment than sponsoring them to compete.
When hiring baristas, Henry looks for intelligence, professionalism, and hospitality. He’s willing to hire someone brand new and often sees his baristas move on to other career paths, but rarely to other coffee shops in Austin.
“Texas baristas are great…because there’s this kind of natural hospitality to Texas,” said Henry. “The MO of baristas is they’re difficult, they’re uptight, they’re pretentious and I haven’t found that to be the case almost all the time in Austin.”
As coffee has grown in popularity, it has found a thriving home in Austin. Perkins describes the growth of coffee culture as happening in three waves. The birth of brands like Folgers marks the first wave, an appeal to the masses. The advent of Starbucks introduced the US to a second wave of coffee. This wave ushered in a European cafe culture and focused on specific flavors. It introduced espresso culture to the average American. The third wave pushed even further, focusing on the precision, preparation, and craft of coffee. This wave does not just highlight certain bean-producing countries but looks to the single farmer lots. Many of Austin’s coffee shops could be categorized in this third wave of coffee.
“Austin is a city full of people who desire to be fascinated,” said Perkins. “They might not know as much about a particular topic as someone else but they’re in to the fact that you’re in to it…From tech to food to dogs to whatever it is, if you’re in to it, other people are into you being into it.”
Coffee is the popular drink right now, but trends will change. Henry isn’t worried, though. While he thinks Austin is headed for a pattern of cafe closures, “the cream rises to the top” and he’s confident that the businesses built on excellence and hospitality will outlast any trendiness surrounding the coffee community.
Leicht can still remember where she was standing when she tasted her first cup of good coffee. Ryan Wilbur, a past competitor and current judge, found third wave coffee early and clung to it, dropping out of college to pursue that taste.
“I often tell people the biggest difference between Starbucks and your local small batch roaster is….like a national chain based restaurant and a celebrity local chef,” said Wilbur. “It’s pretty wonderful you can go to Morton’s The Steakhouse or Ruth’s Chris in most major cities in the US. You’re going to get a very curated and well cared for experience but you’re not going to get a taste of what that city is all about.”
The community of coffee goes deeper than using fancy brewing methods and fading trends. It truly is a family for many of these baristas and judges and coffee enthusiasts. One common factor in all of their desires to make coffee a career was tasting excellent coffee. Once they got a taste of that coffee, that community, that potential to pursue excellence in a cup, they couldn’t go back.