All the way back in February 2015, a series of national coffee competitions took place in Long Beach, California, hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. This included the US Barista Championship, won by Los Angeles, California's Charles Babinski; he'd move on to finish second at the World Barista Championship. But that's just part of the story—several other events took place that weekend in Long Beach, including the US Cup Tasters Championship, won by James Tooill of La Colombe Coffee in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Cup Tasters Championship “awards the professional coffee cupper who demonstrates speed, skill, and accuracy in distinguishing the taste differences in specialty coffees”, as per the official World Cup Tasters website. It's part of a portfolio of competitions owned and operated by World Coffee Events that includes world championships for coffee roasting, latte art, coffee cocktails and manual coffee brewing. This year all these events, including the World Cup Tasters Championship, will be settled in Gothenburg, Sweden, as part of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe‘s annual World of Coffee trade-show. In the run-up to these events, let's learn more about US Tasters Cup Champion James Tooill of La Colombe.
Congratulations on your big win at the US Cup Tasters Championship! Take us back to that day—how did it feel to win? What was the secret to your success?
Thanks, it felt awesome just to make it to Sunday with such a talented field of coffee people. Pete Licata, Andy Sprenger, Samuel Demisse, Charles Babinski, Amanda Juris and so many more. It was a talented field of people to whom I’ve long looked up! And then to win, well . . . I was on a crazy cloud of emotion. When I was competing in the finals, it felt like I was floating 10 feet in the air just watching myself work on the cups while also keeping an eye on Amanda and Sammy. The weirdest bit is that I was honestly day-dreaming about winning while I was tasting. It’s not that I wasn’t focused, but this felt like I was so intensely focused that my mind was coping with the stress of that by pulling my consciousness a few feet out of the way.
Tell us about your experience with the Cup Tasters format—have you competed in previous years?
I have never competed in Cup Taster’s before, but I did compete in US Brewer’s last year and that experience was a confidence-builder. The competition was surprisingly fun to watch because the results are so inarguable and immediate.
Is it possible to train for an event like Cup Tasters? Have you been preparing for the big event in Sweden?
I don’t know if it’s possible to train, but I know I’ve been trying to. On the weekends, I’ve been challenging baristas and trainer to cup-offs while also avoiding spicy foods, and too-hot slices of pizza.
Tell us a little bit about what you do with La Colombe—what's your role? Is cupping a part of that?
We absolutely cup every morning. Todd drew up my role and it’s a dream come true. I get to shepherd the coffee through the whole place. On one end I’m buying green, and leading a small team of passionate roasters through Production and QC. And then on the other, I get to be a resource for our Marketing, Training and Sales teams on coffee issues. Between all of them, you can bet there’s a lot of questions.
I’ve worked in very small companies in the past (my last job at Argo Sons in KY, I was the only non-owner employee!). For that reason, my favorite part of my job now is getting to work with an ever-increasing roster of talented and passionate people.
What are you drinking…right now?
Barry’s Irish Tea, the “Gold Blend” because I’m on vacation. I’m sitting on the mother-in-law’s deck watching my dogs play in the yard.
Any shout-outs you'd like to give your team on the road to Sweden?
Firstly, my wife Gretchen. She hid encouraging notes all through my luggage and I'd never have made it without her. Obviously my Mom and Dad! I’m the oldest of four and we’ve all had hard work modeled for us by our parents. Then, we were all encouraged to pursue whatever path looked right however dubious it may seem to others at the outset. Honestly, I’m not even sure Cup Tasters is going to make the first page of the Tooill Christmas Newsletter if my siblings don’t stop crushing it.
La Colombe and Todd Carmichael have been super supportive not just of me but also of my co-workers preparing for competitions. Thanks also to my friend Josey Dear for keeping me calm and Samuel Demisse for giving me the perfect spoon.
If you could compete in any other big coffee competition right now, which would it be and why?
Coffee in Good Spirits, without a doubt. Liquor is just the best. Also, being a Kentucky boy, it’s my one real chance where the best ingredients are made in my home state. I hope the judges are ready for the Pappy-ccino!
I know the SCAA so far hasn’t been able to hold the event, but I’m reducing cascara teas, cavitating Geisha into Gin, and shaking up Different Drum Rum Alexanders all the same in preparation.
Sprudge.com will be covering the World Cup Tasters Championship (and several other coffee championships) live from Sweden beginning Tuesday, June 16th, with coverage sponsored by Urnex Brands and Square.