Congratulations are in order: this past weekend in Los Angeles, Charles Babinski of G&B Coffee in LA and Laila Ghambari of Cherry Street Coffee in Seattle, were crowned the 2014 United States Southwest and Northwest barista champions. They’ll move on to compete (with a first-round bye) at the 2014 United States Barista Championship in Seattle, Washington.
This is Mr. Babinski’s first-ever barista competition 1st place finish, after a career of appearances dating back to 2008 in the (now defunct) Great Lakes region. It’s an auspicious start to the 2014 season for one of the United States’ most decorated competition baristas, with national top 6 placements in 2010 (5th), 2012 (2nd), and 2013 (2nd).
During our @SprudgeLive Twitter coverage of his routine, we talked about how this routine felt “minimalist” in comparison to Mr. Babinski’s previous years of competition, but maybe the better explanation lies in an American football analogy. (Always with the sports analogies and Mr. Babinski’s routines, we know, we know.) It’s common for NFL and college football coaches to script the first 15 or so offensive plays at the start of any game, as a way of testing the opposing defense for weakness and determining what works. Adjustments are made at halftime, and for the start of the second half of play you’ll typically see a more improvisational approach from coaches; they know what works and what doesn’t now, and can call plays that accentuate those strengths.
This felt like a second half play call of a routine from Charles Babinski, relying on his many years of real life barista service behind the bar of working coffee bars, and his wealth of on-stage experience. In the past year, Mr. Babinski has worked near-constantly as a barista at the two cafes he owns with Kyle Glanville, Go Get Em Tiger and G&B Coffee. This was a working barista’s routine, comprised of elements achievable behind the bar and devoid of gimmickry, despite its rather unique approach to shot preparation. If your running game is picking up 7 or 8 yards a chunk, why not go smashmouth?
Mr. Babinski pre-ground each of his espresso shots prior to the routine on a Mahlkönig EK43 grinder, as is the norm in his cafes. Mr. Babinski’s espressos were served initially in tasteful hand-made Ben Medansky ceramic cups, as is done at GGET and G&B. And Mr. Babinksi’s signature drink—a combination of grapefruit rind simple syrup, apricot kernel milk, and cacao nib syrup—was mixed and aerated in a loud, buzzy blender. Blenders were once a mainstay at barista competitions; you’re more likely to see syphon infusions and molecular gastronomy these days, and its novelty might explain the audience’s spontaneous applause at the familiar whurr and hum of a blender on stage.
You might think finally winning a competition would be a cathartic moment for Charles Babinski, who was back at Go Get Em Tiger just hours after his victory to teach a public latte art class. But when asked for comment, Mr. Babinski said, “Catharsis? Nah…I’m so used to getting second that I forget most people kind of only care about the winner, you know? I’ve gotten so much out of being second, that I forget that the distinction matters.”
Charles Babinski’s win at Big Western comes with an additional dimension of pride: his name is literally attached to the company he competes for. When asked to comment on what this means to him, Mr. Babinski said: “It was really nice to win for G&B this year, and to have competed for G&B last year as well. But it was so cool to have multiple teammates competing for us at Big Western—June Thornton in the barista competition and John Lambertson in the Brewers Cup. That, more than anything, was an ‘oh wow, this is really cool’ moment for me. The thought that we’ll be fielding teams at competition, and our in-houses will be getting better. That’s really cool.”
Consider him a throwback player-coach.
Relive all of our 2014 Big Western Barista Competition here.