Cherry Roast is an annual Denver coffee competition for all women, transmasculine, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming baristas of all skill levels to compete in. Founded in 2015 by Amethyst Coffee owner Elle Jensen, the Roast gives participants a chance to experience barista competition in a safe space and the event raises money for the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, which combats the sexism and inequality women face in the world of coffee.
What started as a way to prominently feature and support women in the coffee industry, Jensen’s support has grown and now includes staff members Corvus Coffee barista Kristyn Wade and Crema Coffee barista Breezy Sanchez, along with volunteer and sponsorship support from people throughout the Denver coffee and alcohol scene.
People in and out of Denver’s coffee scene packed out Commonwealth Coffee’s roastery and cafe for nearly four hours while a total of 24 baristas from Colorado and one from the Bay Area competed through rounds of coffee triangulation, brewing, a latte art speed round, dialing in and order fulfillment, and signature drinks. Not bad for a cold Tuesday night.
Barista Abigail Forgath of Loyal Coffee in Colorado Springs was crowned Cherry Roast Champion after defeating Melissa Vaiden of Boxcar Coffee in the signature drink finale. The final round consisted of creating a beverage within seven minutes with a secret ingredient box filled with gooseberries, coconut whipped cream, tandoori popcorn, and rose water. Forgath’s inventive use of a single gooseberry as a garnish for the signature drink was not only pleasing to the judges, but whipped viewers into a frenzy.
Being crowned champion notwithstanding, Forgath’s biggest takeaway from the night was the people of the Roast and the impact it is having in the coffee community.
“My favorite part of the night was the support from the Cherry Roast and the people that put it together,” says Forgath. “They put so much into it. Amethyst is awesome, and so is everyone involved. They’re doing great things for Colorado at large and for the industry at large.”
Even with the fierce competition, cocktail slinging, and an entertaining night of emceeing from Commonwealth Coffee owner Jason Farrar, some of the most memorable moments of the night came from people feeling comfortable enough to simply be themselves in a room full of people. This included Boss Barista podcast co-hosts Ashley Rodriguez and Jasper Wilde starting a “fuck fascism” chant, some sporadic dancing, bottles of champagne flowing, and Jensen giving a passionate speech about the impact individuals can make in the fight against inequality in coffee.
As a judge and 2016 champion, Johanna Hirschboeck of Crema Coffee was not only quick to point out the significance of the inclusivity of the competition in light of SCA’s new Deferred Candidate policy, but how the people of a local coffee scene is the point of being in coffee.
“Cherry Roast is so important for the coffee community for a number of reasons, but particularly, the inclusivity of it. Given everyone’s sentiments when considering the latest SCA news, I think this is a really good event that includes everybody,” says Hirschboeck. “It’s also important to have that community, to feel that support around you… it really is designed to be a fun competition and a way to get everyone together, to be supportive, and to showcase everyone’s talents.”
After traveling to Houston and Seattle to promote the Cherry Roast over the last couple of years—and in the process, help start the Badass Babes of Coffee in Houston—Wade has embraced the Cherry Roast becoming something bigger than what she and her teammates put together each November in hopes of creating some change in the industry.
“We just want to place our values into grassroots efforts because that’s where change happens,” says Wade. “It’s almost as if we’re knighting individuals, and they have to go around and spread the word in their own communities. I think that’s where we’re headed; it seems to be blowing up beyond what Elle, Breezy, and I are doing now. With the Cherry Roast tonight, we just provided the space and everybody showed up. That’s great and I’m so happy about it.”
The impact of a successful coffee competition and fundraiser on a local level speaks for itself. At the end of the summer, Bob Goldman of Allegro Coffee wanted to find another way to bring the community together and created the Rocky Mountain Craft Coffee Alliance Roasting Rodeo, while Chelsea Kenney and Julia Morgan created the Hot Shots Barista Calendar to raise money for the IWCA and to start conversations about sexism and inequality in coffee.
The coffee industry is not exempt from systematic inequality, but things are changing. If there’s anything to take away from the Cherry Roast, it’s that real change will look a lot like incredible amounts of work each day throughout the year and occasionally like throwing a big party with all of your friends.
Ben Wiese is a freelance journalist based in Denver. Read more Ben Wiese on Sprudge.