The US Coffee competitions season is kicking off this weekend in Knoxville, which means we’re buzzing here at Sprudge HQ. You can follow the action all season long over at our sister site, Sprudge Live, but today we want to interpolate a different mode of being. Did you know, dear reader, that there is all manner of beverage competitions out there in this great wide world of ours? Ay, ’tis true, and some of the most stirring stuff happens amongst the cocktail folk, a plucky and typically gregarious bunch with a strong subculture of competition coursing amongst the highest levels of the discipline.
Narrow is the path betwixt the two, but it’s a path walked by Brandon Paul Weaver, a Seattle-based coffee and cocktail professional currently balancing a full slate of competitions in both fields. As a coffee competitor he’s a regional champion and national finalist, plus an established coach, and as a cocktailer he came within a hair’s breadth of winning a recent Bacardi Legacy event in Seattle. Weaver is part of a vanguard of the new coffee + cocktail professional, and he’s not alone—more and more beverage pros are blurring the lines behind bars and showing that the two worlds may not be as different as they seem.
On the eve of the 2017 US Coffee Champs season, we bring you this interview with Brandon Paul Weaver, discussing the glaring differences and certain damnable similarities between the worlds of competitive coffee and cocktails. Behold, and drink well.
Hey, Brandon—give us a little introduction to what you do up there in Seattle, working in both coffee and cocktail worlds.
Hey, Jordan! I currently bartend at Liberty Bar, which we are in the process of converting into a worker-owned co-op, and do a little coffee consulting (and even a little roasting these days…but that’s on the down low…for now).
What is your background in coffee competitions?
I have competed in three seasons, winning the NW Brewers Cup, making US Brewers Cup finals and Barista semi-finals once each. Last year, I coached Maxwell Mooney (Barista) and Chelsey Walker-Watson (Brewers Cup) who both qualified for the national US competition.
Talk to us about the cocktail competitions—how did you get involved? Was this your first season competing?
There are a ton of different cocktail competitions. The vast majority of them are sponsored by a specific brand and one is invited to apply online. The sponsor picks (semi)finalists and those folks compete in person. This more or less is the first year I’ve thrown my hat in the ring of bartending competitions.
For folks who are unfamiliar, how does the national/international structure of these cocktail competitions work? Are there multiple competing ones, like in coffee—and if so, what made you choose the one you did? Do regional events feed up to national events and a world tournament?
Competition format and scope vary just like in coffee. There are some more informal ones (like a TNT, for example) that brand representatives might organize in a local sales region. Liberty’s Morgan Marchant recently made it into the finals for one of these held by Jameson Irish Whiskey. In round one, you replicated the cocktail you applied with, then there was a speed round and a final that asked the bartenders to make the most interesting/delicious Jameson Manhattan (Morgan made a version of a Tipperary that was delicious). The prizes for these competitions are often money or bar gear (again like a TNT).
Then there are the bigger competitions organized through the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) and sponsored by larger international companies like Bacardi, Bombay, and Diageo. These are more similar in scope and rigor to the Coffee Champs and just as diverse in terms of structure. Taking Bombay Sapphire’s “Most Imaginative Bartender” as an example, folks apply regionally with a unique cocktail (using “imaginative” ingredients, techniques, presentation, etc.) and a select few are chosen in each region to demonstrate their creation in front of a panel of judges. The winners of these go on to a national competition where any number of unique challenges are thrown at them.
My partner in swag hospitality, Nik Virrey, won the Northwest competition a couple years ago and Bombay flew the two of us out to Vegas. In the first round, he was matched against three others and the challenge was to create a delicious and compelling cocktail utilizing a strange ingredient and specific technique revealed to them just seconds beforehand. It was gnarly. In one round folks had to chisel down a 3′ X 3′ block of ice to use in their cocktail and three of the four competitors cut themselves. The 6 finalists were given a budget of $1000 and an entire day to gather ingredients and supplies to construct a mind-blowing cocktail which they would present to a group of national and international cocktail luminaries. The winner receives lots of money, fame, and a feature in GQ!
Structurally, what are you asked to do as a cocktail competitor? How is the stage time structured?
What we are asked to do definitely depends on the structure of the specific competition. For a Monkey Shoulder scotch competition, we had to take a 100-question test, free-pour specific amounts of liquid accurately, take orders and serve drinks to an eight-person table under time pressure, and estimate inventory cost.
For Diageo’s World Class competition (basically the bar version of Coffee Masters), the application requires you to create a cocktail menu with a specific theme and to explain why it is a world-class menu. The folks chosen to represent their regions are flown to a larger competition where they demonstrate a cocktail from the menu and participate in several more challenges. The infamous speed round involves making 8-12 inventive and delicious drinks in 10 minutes while simultaneously explaining what you’re doing and generally exuding charm. The standard for technical precision and hospitality is extremely high in these competitions. Participation is panic-inducing to be sure.
Thank you for correctly using the word “infamous.” I’m curious, what drinks did you create for your most recent cocktail competition appearance?
I recently competed in the Bacardi Legacy competition wherein the idea is to make a drink that could become a classic and stand the test of time. Part of the way people win is to offer a compelling story behind the drink. I made a riff on Audrey Saunders’ cocktail, the Old Cuban, using Bacardi 8, lemon juice, Peychaud’s bitters, soda water, basil, and cascara syrup. My idea was that the drink plays into Cuba’s coffee history as much as it does mine. My other major point was that this style of rum is made from molasses, which was a waste product of the sugar industry before people got wise and made rum from it. I claimed that cascara is in a similar state as a waste product and that we should follow suit by crafting it into delicious beverages. I tied for first and lost in a daiquiri-off to the admirable Cameron George, who is also our newly crowned Washington State USBG President.
What do you think is the biggest difference between the cocktail competitions and the coffee competitions?
Funding. The cocktail competitions come with a lot more sponsorship than the coffee competitions. It is standard practice in the cocktail world for even the regional competitors to be offered a travel stipend, making the barrier for entry more about merit than money. By way of comparison, imagine a world where folks fill out a lengthy application to Coffee Champs, the SCAA chooses the top 10% of applicants, and then flies everyone to the venue all expenses paid. I don’t know if that would be better or worse, but that is how many cocktail competitions work.
That said, the bigger coffee competitions are certainly more evenly judged. It’s no secret, the selection for the finalists in cocktail competitions are made by people with agendas. Since it’s their money that makes the competition possible, they prefer winners who will represent their brand positively and they are the sole judge of that. Conversely, the rules and regulations for Coffee Champs are far more specific and thorough than anything I have seen from cocktail competitions.
What do you think is the biggest similarity between the two? Is there an open exchange of skills or nah?
The biggest similarity is that the vast majority of competitors (and consequently, winners) look a lot like each other. White dudes. This isn’t something that I should be worried about since I’m one of them (and I am certainly trying to win) but I think it’s imperative that an industry based on hospitality show empathy for its own members. There are real career benefits to be gained from competing so, if a sizable segment of our co-workers are not receiving these rewards, we should be as concerned as any well-functioning, empathetic human would be.
I hear folks say that if women or people of color want to win they should enter more competitions. While low turnout is certainly part of the issue, I want to suggest that it might be a symptom of a larger problem which is a bit more nuanced. It can be intensely taxing to compete but for many, the opportunity to win makes the effort worth it. Conversely, if no one like you has won, the work of competition might seem like a futile, Sisyphean process.
Let me be clear, I’m not trying to speak for anyone else by saying this, but I am trying to imagine how someone different from me might feel. I mean, I would have a hard time entering a competition under those circumstances. This is obviously a larger issue and one that we aren’t going to solve today, but the good news is that we don’t have to wallow in negativity or assign blame. Both industries could do a better job of hiring, encouraging, and rewarding folks who maybe haven’t seen themselves as someone who could do well in these competitions.
In fact, let’s do this now: if you work in coffee or cocktails and are reading this, go tell someone that you think they should compete. Chances are you have a coworker whom you respect and, if you thought about it, would do really well in competition. Go tell them! Tell them they are more than deserving of the prizes, accolades, and glory and what’s more, you think they have the qualities to do really well! Hearing that one’s peers think highly of you can make all the difference.
Is there a similar coaching/mentoring structure in the cocktail world as there is in coffee? This is something we’ve watched really grow and develop over the last few seasons in coffee, and I know you’ve worked as a coach yourself, so I’m curious if that’s in the cocktail world too.
From what I can tell there is not really a similar structure for coaching. The Coffee Champs tend to be pretty consistent in terms of the types of things they reward, meaning that specific experience in competitions can make someone a good coach. Cocktail competitions might change wildly year to year so it can be hard to coach for. Plus, there is somewhat less need for a coach in the cocktail world as bartenders are generally surrounded with people (coworkers, chefs) who do the work of the coach. Also, a great bartender is typically already good at public speaking, so the presentation aspect comes more naturally than it may to baristas. Basically, bar competitions tend to be a lot more like bartending than the coffee competitions are like working a barista shift.
Will you continue to compete in cocktails? Will you continue to compete in coffee?
Most definitely. There are few things in this industry as rewarding as competing and the relationships made with fellow competitors. I’m currently in the midst of several competitions as we speak. Stay tuned!
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.