A fan favorite and nationally renowned competitor, Camila Ramos has watched her career as a coffee professional blossom alongside success at the United States Barista Championship. 2014 marked her first regional win, which Ramos then parlayed into her first-ever USBC finals appearance. Sprudge.com Assistant Editor Alex Bernson sat down with Ms. Ramos for this interview as part of a Cafe Imports origin trip to Ecuador, a prize given to US regional and national barista competition winners and the World Barista Champion.
How long have you been a barista?
My first coffee job was in 2008, at Volta in Gainesville, Florida. My friend was showing me around Gainesville, and when we stopped in, Volta had a really awesome tea program, through Intelligentsia at the time. I was really impressed by the tea service–I wasn’t really into coffee yet. I wound up going to the University of Florida and working at Volta. I studied microbiology and then a year of marketing, and then took time off, and haven’t gone back.
I did a year at Volta, and was working in restaurants, as a manager and as a bartender. I moved to Miami, and there was no coffee at all, so I started bartending at high-end restaurants. I love the hospitality industry in general, love food and flavor and drinks, and working at these restaurants was a great outlet for that.
There was this girl Ally Wright, she was the senior barista at Volta before she moved to Portland. We were chatting one day, and she told me about a coffee roaster opening in Miami. I said, no way, not just a shop but a roaster! I contacted Leticia Pollock [of Panther Coffee]. At the the time I was working two bartending jobs, and living in Miami, I told her I can’t really afford to be a barista, but I want to so I'll do it part time. I started working with them June 2011, two weeks before their shop opened.
Leticia was pregnant, and once she got to about eight months, I stopped bartending and went full time plus at Panther. I got to have a lot of input in the growth of the company, which was especially cool because there was no specialty coffee in Miami.
Joel and Leticia and I are best friends now, and I'm the Director of Retail at Panther.
When did you first compete?
My first year was the Southeast Regional in 2011. I’d always seen the competitions, and I was very motivated to be part of that world, to connect with the industry more. It was also really important for us and for me to put Miami and Panther on the map. No one thought of Miami for coffee.
I’m super driven, super quality oriented, and I knew I could represent them well.
Did you ever think competition would take you to Ecuador?
Honestly the best part about it, when I started competing, I didn’t even know there were prizes. “Oh, I get stuff for this?”
You don’t compete for the prizes, you compete to be a specialty coffee representative, to represent your company.
Is this your first time on a coffee farm?
In September 2012, Joel and Leticia took me to Huila in Colombia. I was competing with Finca El Ventillador from Higuerón in Huila. We went to go meet the farmers. Going in, I had this really romantic idea of origin and farm and processing.
We flew into Bogota, then Neiva, then drove for 3 hours. When we arrived and sat down for dinner, at end of dinner, we found out that the producer Jose Edgar Pareja had sold the farm the week before. It was a super real experience. We knew Pareja was very quality oriented, and we were bummed because the new owners probably wouldn't be as focused. It really shed light onto the reality of business for me—he had two other farms, this one wasn’t making as much money.
Colombia has a really interesting history with coffee, the Federation did so much work on processing, and planting Castillo variety, and it let them produce at a mass level. I realized there was this movement now to go back to Caturra variety, but use the same styles of processing that let them have such clean coffees.
What has stood out to you about coffee in Ecuador?
Here I've seen a little more flexibility with drying, stacked-vertical African beds for example, and it seems like one producer might process their coffee a number of different ways.
Colombia was more homogenous, everyone had parabolic raised beds and there was a heavier focus on more classical fermentation. Seeing the Penagos ecopulper was really new to me, I was really impressed at how much mucilage was removed.
I think this trip gave me a little more intimate relationship. The First time you see it all, you’re glossy-eyed, but you hear it a second time and everything clicks together.
Tell me about getting named to Eater's Young Guns list for 2014.
It was amazing. It’s a national recognition, there’s thousand of nominations, they filter through them with a panel of James Beard Award-winning chefs. It’s really special for me to represent the coffee industry on that list for the first time, cool to have restaurant people start to focus on coffee. I think coffee is another part of the hospitality industry, I think it’s a world within a world, and I think that connection isn’t made enough, especially by the larger hospitality world.
I was nominated by Michael Schwartz, a restaurateur in Miami. We work closely together—Panther is in all his restaurants, and I’ve done trainings with his staff. It’s really difficult to find good coffee in Miami—it’s an incredible luxury to be able to go one of his restaurants, like The Cypress Room, and have a spectacular meal and have spectacular coffee.
When I went out to Los Angeles for the Eater party, everyone was really humble and awesome, all the winners got along really well–there were wine people, foodies, chefs, it was a nice mix, and I thought it was appropriate there was a coffee person.
How did you explain to your parents, “I’m going to Ecuador”?
It was interesting because, this summer, I’ve had the luxury of being able to travel a lot. It was really great, as far as people in Miami, they didn’t know the extent of the competitions and the coffee industry—they were really surprised you could win an international trip because of this. It made them realize it must be a really big deal—to the outside world it gave it some validity. My parents were really excited for me to travel more. A lot of people asked me to bring them back chocolate.
What excites you most about coffee in your future?
As much as I am a coffee professional, I am a hospitality professional. I also love the business side, the nitty gritty of it. At Panther we have two stores, and we're about to open three more. I love designing floor plans, systematizing things. Right now I’m very in the present moment with that.
I absolutely adore retail, that’s my focus. That end connection with the guest is so special. Every single day when I walk into work and feel this community at the coffee shop, I think it's so great to be able to cultivate an environment for people to meet up and drink delicious things.
One of the really awesome things about Miami is that there are some grab and go customers, but there are a lot of people who are there to meet people and hang out—it can be a little distracting for work, but it’s great.
When we first opened up, we expected all this pushback–coffee in Miami is a very specific thing, not really specialty thing. But we gave all this info on the farmers and origin, and a lot of customers were really surprised to see their country and the regions that they’re from. We were surprised to learn that a lot of our regulars were raised on coffee farms or had had family that was raised on coffee farms. Miami is a liaison between the United States and Latin America—so it was incredibly fitting. We don’t need to tell them about how hard production work is and why coffee farmers need more money.