Add another trophy to the shelf for Mexico’s Carlos de la Torre! The Mexico City coffee polymath has already taken home some serious hardware, having won national titles at Cup Tasters (2012), the Brewers Cup (2015, 2016), and the Barista Championship (2018, 2019). And he has just added Coffee Masters Champion to his CV in his first-ever appearance in the competition. If this isn’t a coffee EGOT, I’m not sure such a thing exists.
Yet, even with his impressive résumé, keeping the US Coffee Masters title in a producing country (matching the efforts of 2018 New York Coffee Masters Champion Remy Molina of Costa Rica) would be no easy task. Standing in de la Torre’s way were no less than three national champions, multiple finalists, and two Coffee Masters Runners-Up. But even as a rookie, de la Torre was able to call upon his vast competition experience to rise to the occasion, even mowing down two of those national champions along the way.
To learn more, Sprudge caught up with Carlos de la Torre after his big win to find out what the fast-paced weekend was like and what’s next in store for him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hey Carlos! Congratulations on your Coffee Masters victory! By way of introduction, can you tell us a little bit about what you professionally in the coffee world?
I’m the green buyer and head roaster at Cafe con Jiribilla and I’m in charge of Quality Control and Training at Café Avellaneda, both in Mexico City. I have an oncoming Cold Brew project and I run the coffee program for the new bar Cafe Ocampo. I’m also the current Mexican Barista Champion and I’ve been involved constantly in barista competitions as a competitor and coach for other baristas, and randomly I give some workshops and lectures on coffee.
As an experienced coffee competition veteran, what was it like competing in your first Coffee Masters?
It was an amazing experience. Even before I knew I won the competition I was saying to my wife, “I guess I’m not winning, but it was a lot of fun, I’m going to try again next year.” But now I guess there’s no Coffee Masters for me in the future at least as a competitor.
How did it compare to other coffee competitions?
It has long performance times with the big stress of competing one-on-one, so it demands a lot of energy and focus. I was so tired after it all that I didn’t even go out to celebrate, just a quick takeaway dinner before going straight to bed. But the most notable difference is not just the variety of abilities that the competitors need to display, but the fact of having the competitors perform against each other under the same circumstances, which removes a lot of advantages some competitors may have; it’s all up to the skills and knowledge inherent to the competitors.
Do you feel like your extensive competition experience (and success) gave you a leg up in Coffee Masters?
Yes, for sure. I was already a national champion in Cup Tasters, Brewers Cup, and Barista, which relates directly with the cupping, order, sig drink, espresso blend, and brewing disciplines at Coffee Masters, so it was sort of familiar to me and I guess that helped me a lot. On the other, I have almost no experience at cupping various origins or presenting latte art.
There were a handful of other national champions at Coffee Masters this year. Was it intimidating going up against such accomplished competitors?
For sure it was intimidating. Since Round One I was asking myself, “what the hell am I doing here?” I heard a lot of great things from Cole Torode about the competition when we hung out in China at the Fushan Cup last summer, and that inspired me to compete but I never expected to face him in the Semi-Finals. I was just scared as hell since he is not just the third-best barista in the world but one of the professionals I admire the most. Then Shin [Fukuyama] at the Finals, man!! He is a latte art god (fourth in the world) from a prestigious company and he trained so hard. Obviously I was so intimidated by every competitor and I respect them A LOT, but they were very friendly and supportive with me because it was my first time and they had more experience in Coffee Masters, so it made for a good friendship.
What was your favorite discipline in Coffee Masters?
I guess it was the cupping, I’ve always loved the rush of combining speed and precision in a competition.
What was the most challenging discipline?
I guess the origin because I have so few experiences cupping non-Mexican coffees.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your signature beverage?
It was a cocktail with “overnight espresso,” made with tamarind, lemon, Sotol (a Mexican distilled spirit), and gin. So refreshing, complex, spicy, and harmonious that I couldn’t resist to drink one with the judges so I crafted one for me too.
It’s actually a cocktail I created a while ago, thinking about giving “second chances” to the espresso that some times you don’t use when serving single shot drinks using a double spout portafilter, or just the coffee you forgot to drink at home and is “overnighted.” We used to have a lot of those espressos at the coffee shop and we would throw them into the sink, so this cocktail is crafted with stuff you can find at any party or in some fridges very easily; it’s almost a cocktail built from scratch turning a wasted espresso into an amazing drink.
Originally about recycling “overnight coffee,” for Coffee Masters we turned it into a concept drink using some Mexican ingredients representing the L.A. Mexican and Latin culture and also the second chances we look for when migrating to the US. Actually, that was part of bringing the ingredients across the border by car haha; we really wanted to build the experience of the drink and believe the story ourselves. For me, it was a very meaningful drink because it connected my passion, my origin, and my family (my wife is from Chihuahua, and that’s where Sotol comes from).
And more importantly, where did you get that wonderful pink silk robe in the video and will it a regular part of future competitions for you?
Hahaha! It’s my wife’s robe, I got it as a gift for her when I went away from home for two weeks to help out at Coffee in Good Spirits at the International Coffee Week last year. I don’t know if it’s taking part in competitions hahaha but surely in more funny coffee videos I’ll be borrowing it from her.
How does this win compare to your national competition victories?
It’s unbelievable, the warmth of an international audience giving you recognition as a well-structured professional in a field in which you have invested a third of your life in some way gives you a big satisfaction, but not quite as satisfying as having the opportunity to give a bit of exposure to Mexico and Latin America, not just as producing countries but also as consuming ones.
Any big plans on what you will do with the $5,000 cash prize?
Yeah!! I’m going to use it for the birth expenses of my son and the remaining cash I’ll use it for my road to WBC in Melbourne, maybe equipment, tools, or some training expenses.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
The other half of my success in coffee, Yaris Barrientos who supported me all the way, giving me advice, tasting, helping with stuff I may not be able to handle alone, even when she is currently having some difficult time expecting our first son. No one can read me better than her, she’s a wonderful woman and an amazing coach struggling with the fact that she cannot actually drink a lot of coffee or any alcohol. But she has that super-sensitive nose that her pregnancy gave to her as a very helpful side effect hahaha.
I also want to thank Cris Mancilla (Mexican Latte Art Champion) and Ale Lugo (two-time Latte Art finalist and Brewers Cup Runner-Up) who helped me improve my pouring. And last but not least, Sam Ronzon, my friend and coffee producer who supported us a lot during the competition days, showing that the relation between baristas and producers is not just about coffee; it’s not meant to be just a business relation but a great friendship supporting each other, not just as professionals but as human beings in regular everyday circumstances… and also, Sam smuggled my ingredients across the border.
Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Coffee Festival/Coffee Masters