USBC Finalists: An Interview With Babinski

Our 2012 USBC coverage was made possible by direct support from Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

We sat down digitally with one of our very favorite barista competitors, Charles Babinski, of Intelligentsia Coffee, Los Angeles, to discuss his 2012 USBC run. Charles was the 2nd Place finisher in this year’s United States Barista Championship, but he’s without peer when it comes to entertainment factor and stage presence. Mr. Babinski is, quite simply, a delight to watch compete; he’s graceful and ebullient, knowledgeable and cheeky, and comes armed with an endless stockpile of witticisms, expressive asides, and hilarious expressions. It’s not easy to do this stuff at all, but to perform like Charles does – to be free enough to be joyful on stage – takes a degree of control and expertise that is perhaps unrivaled in competitive coffee. But enough flattery! Let’s chat with Chuck.

Hey Charles! Can you tell us about the theme to your presentation?

“Service! I wanted to find a way to explicitly bring what I do every day in the shop to the competition. Part of it was that I really love what I do everyday and wanted to share that and part of it was that competition is usually so glaringly divorced from real bar service. I also wanted to contribute something, however modest, to the conversation of how service should be approached.”

Did you name your sig drink? Can you hook us up with a recipe?

“No name for my signature beverages! One was a roughly equal parts 1) long extraction of the bolivia takesi 2) infusion of citra hops. The citra hops were infused lightly, but were not filtered that much. Basically, the little bits of hops conveyed the flavor without getting the palate-strafing bitterness super extracted hops can have!

The plan to use hops came from Dan Kouba, a Intellivenice barista who wanted to use hops for his slow bar week. He got in touch with John Gordan, the UK champ who used hops in his signature beverage. John awesomely gave him a bunch of insight and help and Kouba ended up having a few delicious hops/espresso drinks that week. One of them was an espresso dark ‘n stormy (with espresso instead of rum) using a hops ginger beer that was the tastiest espresso cocktail I’ve ever had. When devising this sig bev, I was basically just trying to steal and harness John and Kouba’s copious mojo. Citra hops worked great because they are so fruity and aromatic (have you ever tried 3 floyds’ zombie dust?! Damn!).

The second drink was espresso, shaved chocolate and melted vanilla ice cream. Really plumbing the depths of innovation. Oddly enough, the hops drink was loads more delicious.”

Talk coffee with us. What did you use for your routine?

“Bolivia, Takesi. Really amazing farm! Super high elevation! It is a great experience to walk in to competition with a coffee that you think is the coolest coffee on earth. I used two roasts, one for espresso and one for cappuccino. Kurtis and Alex, two of our roasters in Chicago, worked with me to find the right roasts for each. Ach! That coffee was so good!”

Charles, you’re a seasoned competitor – give us a rundown on your competition history.

“I have competed in Intelli In-house/regionals/nationals in 2008, 2010, 2012. I also helped mike phillips out in 2009 & 2010 when he competed.

My first year was rough. Watching Mike go through competition in 2009, I noticed that competition could be used as a medium to do some pretty cool things. I learned the rules and expectations a little better and started having more fun with it. Even trying to successfully make one single. simple point in a 15 minute presentation means clearing out a ton of bullshit that you didnt even know had piled up around it. Distilling ideas down and learning to convey them in clearly understandable ways is something I didn’t really have an innate talent for and, thusly, barista competitions have been incredibly rewarding.”

Share with us a favorite moment at USBC 2012 – doesn’t have to be competition based, but certainly can be. What stands out in your memory?

“There are way too many.Working bar with Kevin Bohlin on the 4th machine. These comps are essentially a celebration of barista skills, but for all that, we spend little to no time on bar. To get to rock a line 20 deep with a really great barista with whom I’d never worked before was a thrill. Standing with Katie waiting for them to call 2nd place. Time stood still to the point where I could take moment to note “Holy shit, this is happening. Cool!” You spend a week hanging around with so many of the people in the world you most admire and respect. It was at that point that it sunk in what an incredible honor it was to be there to begin with. Dancing at the Coava party on Sunday.

What do you do to get pumped before competition?

“I am generally too pumped before competition. Its mostly about finding ways to release that. Pacing, dancing, crooning, air squats. Before competing at the SWRBC, I was pacing around like a madman and Tom Baker, with an air of concern, handed me a set of 6 dice to roll to relieve the nervous energy. The dice are magic. Annie McGee showed me a foot wiggling exercise that her dad had taught her. There is magic in that as well.”

Whom would you like to thank? Use this last question for essential shout-outs, and thanks so much for sharing your time and info with us today.

“There are so many people to thank! This routine was the result of an incredibly amount of labor and expertise, only a fraction of which was mine. The briefest I can keep it:

Mauricio and folks at Takesi – Such amazing coffee! Alex and Kurtis, who roasted it! My sister, Katerina, who flew out to support me. Percy, Charlie, Jordan, Talya, John, Stephen, Jen, Doug Z. and all the other crew from Intelli/Ecco that competed and helped in Portland. I work with some amazing people! Chang Yu, who made my boards for competition and Skandia Shafer who drew gorgeous cards for the judges. And everyone at Intelli Silver Lake, who supported me and covered my shifts while I was competing.”