Alex Bernson recently attended the maiden voyage of the Knockbox Classic, a new kind of barista competition based in New York City. Mr. Bernson is a staff writer for Sprudge.com
It was in the low 20s outside on Sunday, but the Joe Pro Shop was boiling. The atmosphere for the first Empire City Knockbox Classic was giddy, with upwards of 150 people from all corners of the NYC coffee community packing Joe to the gills. As costume-clad competitors battled it out at eight different ingenious challenges, cheering sections were in full, very loud effect, and thanks to a heroic donation from Southside Coffee, the beer stayed flowing (and flowing, and flowing) all night long.
The Knockbox Classic is the brainchild of Anna Utevesky and Matt Banbury from Joe Coffee. They wanted to create a new take on coffee competitions that emphasized a community party vibe and a broader range of skills than just pouring latte-art. And boy did they succeed. Not even an hour in, I was already hearing people talk about how excited they were for “next year”.
The competition pitted eight teams of four people against each other in eight different challenges. Elly Weg captained the team for Joe, Gimme! was captained by Sarah Leslie, Tamara Vigil led Irving Farm, team Counter Culture was headed by Erin McCarthy, Sam Lewontin captained team Everyman Espresso (with reigning USBC champ Katie Carguilo thrown in for good measure), Urban Eisley led the Ports team, Grace Lowman held it down for Blue Bottle, and Amber Sather headed up a team comprised of Southside Coffee and Cafe Grumpy baristas – the “NorthEast Regional Ultimate Barista Shot Pullers Coffee Professionals”, or NERUBSCPCP.
The Knockbox Classic was about bringing ALL sorts of different coffee people together, and it was great to see that most of the teams went beyond the usual cast of characters to include lots of frontline baristas and other people new to coffee events. Standing in a packed room full of coffee people and realizing I didn’t know easily half of them was a refreshing change from the sometimes insular norm at other coffee events.
I would have loved to sit in on the surely hilarious planning sessions for the Knockbox Classic, because the challenges that Matt and Anna came up with were pretty much genius. There were some more expected ones, like cup taster’s style triangulation, and a trivia quiz that no one was able to get 100% on. There were also great challenges of fundamental barista skills, like the double bar drink making challenge, and a tasting note identification challenge that involved team-mates feeding their blindfolded compatriots dozens of different fruits, nuts and vegetables, with the winner being whoever identified the most the quickest.
The crowd favorite was the “mystery box” challenge, where each team was given a wild selection of different ingredients from coconut milk and date jam to amaretto and tuaca and then had six espresso shots with which to taste, develop and present an attractive, hopefully delicious signature drink to an illustrious panel of judges: Cora Lambert, Liz Clayton, and Troy Sidle of coffee industry favorite cocktail bar Pouring Ribbons.
In addition to the more serious challenges were a few oddballs that seemed to generate some of the most fun and hilarity of the night. There was “I like the way you grind”, where each team had six minutes to grind as much coffee as possible through a Hario Mini-Mill, and a county-fair style challenge where you had to guess the weight of a burlap sack of coffee beans to the gram. Last but not least was the “milk delivery” challenge (milk courtesy of Baldor), a relay race where each team member had to carry as many milk jugs as possible 30 ft and back as quickly as possible–the challenge being that each team member had to carry the same number of jugs, so you had to figure out what was the lowest number everyone could do. Team Counter Culture managed a frankly stupendous 8 jugs each, thanks to smart loading/unloading teamwork.
Bonus points were awarded for team spirit, as demonstrated by enthusiasm, costumes, teamwork, and willingness to take part in MC Rose-Emma’s call for coffee related song and poetry. In the end most every team sent someone up to the mic, giving us everything from absurdist meditations on coffee history to sensual love poems to coffee, and even a heavily call-and-response based freestyle, complete with beatbox accompaniment.
A compendium of photos via Instagram:
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Matt Banbury said that the turnout, and the level of enthusiasm and commitment from the teams exceeded his expectations. Everywhere I looked people seemed to be having a total blast, with many competitors I talked to saying it was both a lot of fun, and an interesting challenge. They clearly took the competition seriously, but everyone was very much there to have a great time and get to know other coffee people.
And of course there were the prizes, the big ass trophy, and serious bragging rights.
In the end, the competition was a close one. Anna and Matt made the great decision to award a prize to the winner of each individual challenge, as well as an overall winner. Gimme! won the “I like the way you grind” challenge and took home a t-shirt and mug filled swag bag from Heart Roasters. Blue Bottle nailed the trivia challenge, winning sweatshirts, water bottles, mugs, and coffee from Verve. PT’s Coffee donated more sweet swag for the “Tastes Like _____” challenge won by NERUBSCPCP. Everyman Espresso won the Mystery Basket Sig Bev challenge, scoring them coffee and mugs from Ritual and gift cards from Sweetleaf. Joe Coffee took the Double Bar Bar event, winning a master tech class with Tommy Gallagher from Counter Culture and brew equipment from Blue Bottle. Odd Coffee Out winners Counter Culture won gifts from MADCAP. Team NERUBSCPCP most closely guessed the weight of the sack of beans winning them bags of Granola From Another Mother and gift cards from Court Street Grocers.
Irving Farm took home the Team Spirit award, winning cookies from Ovenly. And the champions for the whole night, in a closely contested race, were baristas from Team Ports!
An amazing amount of work went into putting on this very smoothly run event, and huge thanks are in order to Matt and Anna, and Joe Coffee for providing the space, the staffing, and an enthusiastic contingent of competitors and spectators.
All in all, an amazing night that makes me thoroughly excited for more Knockbox Classic events in the future. Improvements can certainly be made in making the event engaging for spectators, but for the first run at a brand new take on barista competition, this event went stupendously well. So much fun was had and so many connections were made, in what in many ways felt like a milestone of just how large and exciting the NYC coffee community has become. If this is the future of barista competitions, sign me up.