Weihong Zhang of BlendIn Coffee Club in Houston, Texas is the 2024 United States Brewers Cup champion. This fact alone is not a particularly surprising one. BlendIn, a cafe and roaster that Zhang owns and founded, is one of the more progressive shops in Texas, if not the entire United States, in terms of the coffee they source. They focus on the rare and exceptional, the small lots and unique varieties. Their menu reads like a list of competition coffees and on any given visit, their pour-over (and espresso) offerings may include a number of Geshas and rarer varieties like Sidra as well as less frequently seen origins like China.

Nor is it entirely surprising that Zhang himself prevailed. He has competed in the Brewers Cup three times, making it all the way to the Finals at each; he placed third in 2020, second in 2023, and finally in 2024, he won it all.

What makes Zhang’s win so completely mind-blowing is that he did it with a decaf. And this wasn’t the decaffeinated version of a double-anaerobic thermal-shock natural Gesha or some other such combination of competition buzzwords. He did it with a decaf Typica variety from Colombia, with a coffee he serves on bar every day; it’s BlendIn’s house decaf. You could (until recently, for obvious reasons) pick up a bag of it online or in their cafe year-round.

Let that simmer in your brain for a second.

That’s not to say that the coffee isn’t unique. They underwent a unique decaffeination process developed by Oscar Hernandez of Finca Los Nogales in Huila, where the coffee was produced. After depulping, the green coffee is then decaffeinated using, in part, its own mucilage, which helps “[avoid] off flavors and [enhance] complexity with floral and fruity notes,” Zhang tells Sprudge.

Zhang’s Brewers Cup win is, without question, one of the most monumental achievements in US Coffee Championships history. It’s Babinski winning the 2015 US Barista Championship with two production coffees. But those coffees are also decaf. It’s winning the Latte Art Championship by pouring the most perfect heart. It’s a feat so completely historic and unprecedented that these are the only two events that can approximate it. And only one of them actually happened.

We spoke with Weihong Zhang to learn more about his coffee, his routine, and what, if any, changes he plans to make to it in the lead-up to the World Brewers Cup next month in Chicago as part of the SCA Expo.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Hey Weihong, congratulations on your big win! How does it feel now that you’ve had a little time to process it?

It feels surreal to be the champion. With the World Competition in Chicago so close, I am both excited and stressed about my first world competition. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to bring home the champion title.

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A decaf! Can you tell us a little bit more about your coffee and the brewer you used?

The coffee I used is a decaf Typica from Finca Los Nogales in Huila, Colombia. The producer Oscar Hernandez developed a decaffeination method called Mucilage EA Decaf. After harvesting, the coffee cherries are depulped, separating the beans and mucilage. The beans are then washed and soaked in their own fermented mucilage with Ethyl Acetate for 48 hours for decaffeination. This method uses the coffee’s pulp and mucilage instead of sugar cane, avoiding off flavors and enhancing complexity with fruity and floral notes.

I used the Hario Switch with a V60 Mugen dripper.  The coffee has a low density and fast water flow, so I switched to the immersion method to increase the water contact time and extract more sweetness, which helped me score high on the new Brewers Cup scoresheet.

Winning with a decaf is historic. Did you build the routine around your coffee or did you know you wanted to focus on decaf and found the coffee to fit the theme?

I discovered this coffee last September during a sourcing trip in Colombia. I met Francesco Sanapo, a multiple-time Italian barista champion, and we brewed a mysterious sample. I initially thought it was a Gesha or Sidra, but it turned out to be a decaf Typica. I chose this coffee for the competition because it’s an amazing coffee that opened my eyes to the world of decaf. I wanted to share this experience on the competition stage. The decaf concept resonated with many of my coffee friends and customers, and I realized there’s a significant group of people who can’t consume caffeine but still deserve to enjoy complex flavors from specialty coffee.

And this coffee is a year-round offering at your cafe, right?

Yes, this is the coffee we use for decaf drinks at BlendIn. We used to offer retail bags, but after the national competition, demand soared. A different lot of Los Nogales Decaf is on the way to Houston, but I’ve temporarily removed it from our online store to save some coffee for the World Competition and for shop beverages until the new lot arrives.

With the World Brewers Cup less than a month away, are you planning to do the same routine or are you going to start from scratch with a new one?

I will use the same coffee at the World Competition. While competitors have presented low-caffeine varietals like Laurina, I believe I’ll be the first to bring a decaf coffee to the World stage. I hope this inspires producers to create amazing decaf coffees and develop innovative decaffeination processes to fill a market gap.

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Now that you’ve won, are you retiring from competition or can we expect to see Weihong Zhang back on the Brewers Cup stage?

I feel that I always learn so much from competition. It’s what I love about it; every year, reflecting on my competition journey brings inspiration and new ideas. I’m more than likely to continue competing.

Lastly, is there anyone you’d like to thank?

I would like to first thank the producer, Oscar Hernandez of Finca Los Nogales, for being a pioneer in coffee processing. As a brewer, I’m fortunate to present his work to the judges. I also want to thank all the BlendIn team members for their support and, more importantly, their love for coffee.

Thanks, Weihong!

Sprudge’s coverage of the 2024 US Barista Championship in Rancho Cucamonga is presented in partnership with Third Wave Water

Zac Cadwalader is the managing editor at Sprudge Media Network and a staff writer based in Dallas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.

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