Live From Kansas City: North Central Regional Finalists

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Talya Strader, Bow Truss Coffee, Chicago – North Central Region

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It’s said that when considering a champion, the judges at specialty coffee events are asked to think about a competitor’s potential beyond the competition floor. Judges aren’t just looking for perfect tech scores, or creative sig drinks; they’re looking for ambassadors and role models for the industry as whole. Talya Strader’s routine in Kansas City was about so much more than her, or the company she works for; it was emblematic of Chicago’s growing microroaster movement, and the wild sense of creativity and ambition that characterize the specialty coffee culture there.

By using three distinct coffees, from three different producing countries, roasted by three separate roasters in the city of Chicago, Ms. Strader’s 15 minutes was a love letter to the city she epitomizes and helps to lead. Her espresso course was by Dark Matter (Finca San Jose, El Salvador Bourbon Rojo), her cappuccino course was by Bow Truss (Yirgacheffe Wote Konga), and her signature drink featured brewed coffee from Ipsento (a pulp natural Panama, “my favorite processing method”) alongside Bow Truss espressos, in a drink that featured sorrel, cranberries, and honey.

Your qualified team of professional volunteer judges are still searching for their 2013 United States Barista Champion. But if it’s an ambassador you need, the city of Chicago has already found one in Talya Strader. Learn more about her work organizing and promoting quality coffee beverages in Chicago by checking out New Gotham Coffee Community, and Talya, if you’re reading this, we hope to see you compete again in Boston.

Josh Taves, Dogwood Coffee Company, MPLS – North Central Region

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Like the best high school chemistry lecture you can possibly imagine, so went Josh Taves’ set of routines at Big Centrals. There’s some kind of brainy, geeky, charming magic in the air up at Dogwood Coffee Company; we saw it in the work put in all weekend by Jon Ferguson (winner of the 2013 North Central Brewers Cup and now two-time Brewers cup champion), and we couldn’t look away while Josh Taves was on stage.

“Science focused” barista competition routines are kind of a tightrope walk. Go too far on the knowledge aspect and terminology and you’ll wind up talking past the judges (not to mention the crowd, the journalists, the folks on Livestream, etc); focus exclusively on chemistry experiments, and you run the risk of veering into the realm of gimmickry. And while Mr. Taves’ routine did contain some big words – solubles, emulsions, molecules, congruency – and included a working chalkboard place setting (see photo above), he managed to bring the crowd along for the fun in an accessible, educational way.

Mr. Taves served a coffee called “El Mandarino”, grown by producer Nodier Andrade in the Huila region of southern Colombia. This coffee was sourced through Virmax, noted importers of fine Colombian coffees.

Scott Lucey, Alterra Coffee Roasters, Milwaukee – North Central Region

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A competition routine from Scott Lucey is always an event. He’s a competition stalwart, an old-timer whose “old times” reach back into an almost unrecognizable era of specialty coffee competition. Mr. Lucey is the first to admit to it; to begin his routine at BCRBC, Mr. Lucey told the judges “I want to be the old guy who has been doing this a long time.” There’s a kind of cotton comfort to watching him compete, a sort of collective sigh that goes through the knowledgeable and neophyte alike in the crowd when his routines being their rhythm; you know you’re in good hands with Scott Lucey.

Scott Lucey is an elite barista competitor, and an easy, subtle joy to watch on stage. Mr. Lucey is an educator first and foremost, and that’s his role on stage as well as in daily life as a longtime trainer and staff teacher for Alterra Coffee in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He’s been with Alterra for 11 years! 11 years ago your Sprudge.com editors were Juniors in high school.

There were little moments of education tasked throughout Scott’s routine at BCRBC, but the quintessential, unforgettable one came at the very start of his 15 minutes, when he presented the judges with a Texas ruby red grapefruit to elucidate one of the flavor notes in his  bourbon Finca La Casias coffee, a bourbon and caturra blend from Colombian producer Nelson Melo. It’s one thing to say “Meyer lemon”, or “tangello”, or “imported Thai padanus”, but it’s quite another thing to show the distinctness of this flavor note by comparing it directly next to a more agricultural mundane cousin. And that’s what Mr. Lucey was able to do with this routine, presenting the judges with a very specific note – “Texas ruby red grapefruit” – alongside a real-life in the flesh Texas ruby red grapefruit, with pink grapefruit provided to calibrate against. Two fruits on the table, but just one note in the coffee – “not that grapefruit, THIS grapefruit!” Who just teaches to the judges like that?

An educator can drop knowledge no matter the setting, and Scott Lucey teaches on stage with the clock running and the lights on, far too immensely incalculably gargantuan of a task for us to properly spell out here. You should watch Scott Lucey; you will learn from Scott Lucey.

Zaida Dedolph, HalfWit Coffee, Chicago – North Central Region

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Zaida! This was a huge weekend for Chicago’s HalfWit Coffee Roasters, who placed competitors at Finals Sunday in both the Brewers Cup and Barista Comeptitions despite having been open a scant six months. Zaida Dedolph competed using HalfWit’s Ecuador Perla Negra, sourced by Cafe Imports; it’s a Cidra variety coffee, Spanish for “Cider”, meant to denote the coffee’s inherent fruit and spice-like qualities. This is a very small lot of coffee on offer from HalfWit, and you can learn more via HalfWit’s website.

Within the charm and undeniable buzz she creates on stage, Zaida herself remains endlessly professional and in control of her station. A sig drink that incorporated Perla Negra espresso into as soda with hibiscus, non-alcoholic blood orange bitters, and muscovado sugar; a play list that transitioned from “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” into “I Wanna Dance With Somebody“; and that smile, radiating hospitality while masking the deep thought and attention to detail running through her routine. It’s safe to call her a “crowd favorite”, or at least it definitely felt that way in Kansas City.

Congratulations to Ms. Dedolph and HalfWit for all their success at BCRBC, and on to Boston!

Andy Atkinson, Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago – North Central Region

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A little bit of inside baseball here: We know for a fact that even getting to the BCRBC stage within Intelligentsia’s corps of professional, competition-ready baristas is no easy task. Intelli’s in-house competitions are the stuff of legends, and as such, closed to journalists. Andy Atkinson has placed in the top two for Intelligentsia baristas in the Chicago area for the last 2 years running; BCRBC 2013 was his first time advancing to Finals Sunday, where he competed using Intelligentsia’s Kenya Kangocho, a coffee from the famed Gikanda cooperative in Nyeri.

There’s a couple of moments from Andy’s routines that stand out in retrospect – his “orange creamsicle” cappuccino description was one of the weekend’s most evocative, his aerated espresso service in a slanted glass vessel – but folks watching live in Kansas City will not soon forget the heart-bounding conclusion to Mr. Atkinson’s Finals Sunday routine. As Will.I.Am and Britney Spears bumped over the loud speaker, 14 minutes turned into 15 minutes, which turned into 15:25, which crept up to an endorphin rush at 15:35, which is an all-out adrenal gland boogaloo by 15:45, until finally RIGHT at 15:59 Andy calls time. And there was this huge “whoooosh” of exhaled adrenaline in the crowd, and a big cheer, and the knowledge that Mr. Atkinson’s routine was really, really good, and we may well have wound up with a different result to the weekend were it not for the timing standards. But exhilarating nonetheless!

Andy Atkinson is a Chicago-area native and a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan. Here’s his projected line for 2013:

ATKINSON [Starting 3rd Base], 559 plate appearances, 200 hits, 32 2B, 0 3B, 39 HR, 121 RBI, 109 strikeouts, .292 BA, .714 OPS, an unexpected 11 SB (plus 4 more in the postseason!), a robust .629 SLG, and probably around 30 errors from daily play. Walks are hard to project – are pitchers keeping away from his power, or going after him for K’s? – but let’s say league average, around 45. All of which factors out to a +4.25 WAR – think Adrian Beltre’s 2004 season with the Dodgers.

Charlie Habegger, Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago – North Central Region

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Charlie Habegger is your 2013 North Central Regional Barista Champion! Read about his routine here in this Charlie-exclusive feature.

Our work covering this event live from Kansas City was made possible by PT’s Coffee, Kaldi’s Coffee, and Nuova Simonelli, with access and logistical consideration graciously provided by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. When you support these companies, you make our work possible.

Our gorgeous, world-beating, industry-leading photography from BCRBC comes courtesy of Charlie Burt, on Twitter as @Tiger_Friend. We think it’s some of the finest competition photography ever published. Look for more work from Mr. Burt on Sprudge.com in the near future.

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