Amidst the heated battle of last weekend’s Big Central Barista Competition, a no-less-ferocious tournament of champions took place on the Brewers Cup stage. Competitors from throughout the great midwestern states of America fought hand to hand in the squared circle – literally, in a boxing ring – before finally, one of them could be declared champion for his or her region. In the North Central region, that champion was George Burnett, representing Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, Illinois, where he works at Intelli’s brand new Old Town cofeebar. Let’s learn more about him, his routine at Big Central, and his humble hopes for future glory as he advances to the US Brewers Cup Championship, April 2014 in Seattle.

George, you just won the Brewers Cup. What are you going to do next?

Well, aside from getting back to my shop, I’ve got a lot of work to do before USBC in April. I’m gonna hang out with our roasters and the guys who source our coffee so I can spend less time staring at my brews and more time talking about them. Oh, and I’m gonna be making a ton of coffee.

Which coffee did you compete with at Brewers Cup? Can you tell us a bit more about it?

I used our Kurimi Limited Release. It’s a fantastic coffee from an awesome washing station owned by the Shegole co-op in western Ethiopia. They just paid off the loans they were given to build the washing station, and the limited release was the product of a pilot program that Intelligentsia started out there this past season. The short version is that one person was put in charge of overseeing a small lot from the best 30 farms out of 1200 in the co-op.

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Coffee in this lot was only harvested or processed on specific days last January, and a ton of attention was paid to every step from cherry selection to bean sorting. All that work shows up in the cup. It’s the most complex coffee I’ve tasted in my brief time in the industry, and it cools fantastically. Which is great, because I love my coffee a little on the cool side.

…that was pretty much my presentation for the open competition. It’s a lot easier to deliver offstage.

Mr. Burnett (second from right) and his fellow North Central Brewers Cup finalists.
Mr. Burnett (second from right) and his fellow North Central Brewers Cup finalists.

What brewing method did you employ at the Brewers Cup, and why? 

I used Kalita Wave #185s, mostly because it’s what I’m used to brewing on. A vast majority of what I brew at the shop is done on Waves, and I think they’re pretty forgiving to pour on without giving up anything the coffee has to offer. It helps that I don’t really have to worry about breaking them. I get weird nerves about breaking stuff, and competition makes me nervous enough already.

What advice do you have for future Brewers Cup competitors? 

Don’t forget to bring a timer! I totally spaced right before my turn in the compulsory round and forgot mine. I had everything set up to brew: coffee in my filters, hot water in my kettles. Just as I dropped the first bit of water on my first brew I realized I didn’t have a timer up there and had to count Mississippi-style in my head. It’s a miracle I didn’t screw up all three.

More seriously, just taste what you’re brewing, and be decisive. Especially in compulsory, it’s a competition that takes place in the cup and on the palate.

What would it mean for you to represent the United States at the World Brewers Cup Championship? 

Haha, that would be incredible. Right now I’m focusing on Seattle. There are a lot of people in the North Central who need representing before I can worry about the WBC. It sounds corny but I’m just taking things one step at a time.

Photos by Charlie Burt for’s coverage at the 2014 Big Central was made possible by Cafe Imports, Wilbur Curtis Co., and Nuova Simonelli. We’re proud to serve as your 2014 official media partners with the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Read all of our 2014 Big Central coverage here

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