Jooyeon Jeon of South Korea is the 2019 World Barista Champion. This is Jeon's first win in two appearances at the World level of competition, placing 14th in the 2018 World Barista Championship in Amsterdam.
In the world of sports journalism—and by extension coffee sports journalism—you don't root for a team. There's no cheering in the press box. With the exception of the occasional Lem Butler run to the Finals, it's a rule we generally abide; we love all these baristas the same and want to see them all succeed. But rules were made to be broken, and with Jooyeon Jeon of Momos Coffee in Busan, they were completely shattered.
From the moment Jeon took the stage she captured the attention of the crowd, press included. Who is this competitor sitting on the table addressing the judges? What is happening here? There was something magnetic not just about her script but with the genuine excitement with which she delivered it, and it gave all the coffee competition-viewing public a moment of pause.
At this level of Barista competition, routines generally fall into one of two categories: academic or emotional. The hallmark of the academic routine is very technical information about some facet of coffee growing, processing, or brewing delivered in a precise (if not downright stoic) manner. On the other end of the spectrum, the emotional routine appeals to something less scientific in the coffee supply chain but does so with energy and heart. Jeon had both.
For her winning routine, Jeon chose to focus on how carbohydrates, specifically mono- and polysaccharides, affect the flavor balance experienced when drinking coffee. This was going to be a heady, facts-heavy 15 minutes. And it was, but Jeon's disarming effervescence brought life to what could otherwise be dry subject matter. There was an intentional informality in Jeon's performance, from beginning her routine sitting on the table to instructing the judges to do the same to then having the judges relocate for the signature beverage course where they stood around a table, the way you would if you and three friends went out for a coffee together. And it was this informality that paired so beautifully with information-laden routine executed flawlessly thrice over the entirety of the weekend. It was a routine that would bounce effortlessly between explaining how the clashing warm and cool climates at La Palma y El Tucan—the esteemed coffee farm in Colombia that produced Jeon's Sidra variety coffee—led to more carbohydrates in the cherries to perfect little moments like Jeon stating to the judges, “I want all of use to enjoy my coffee as friends, so say hello to each other.”
Yet even as a uniquely singular routine, Jeon's performance was still very much on trend for 2019 coffee competition. Anaerobic fermentation (of a non-Gesha variety coffee no less), freeze-distilled milk, La Palma: these were phrases we heard time and again at the World Barista Championship, especially in the Finals, and they were present in Jeon's routine. But instead of making them the centerpiece—as was the case in a handful of other performances this year—these were just some of the many facts Jeon had at her disposal to arrive at her script’s grand thesis, predicated on the effects of carbohydrates on coffee.
For her signature beverage, Jeon went full science experiment. She began by extracting polysaccharides from her Sidra coffee, a flavorless compound—just ask the judges that got to “taste” the substance—that she would go on to break down into disaccharides with the introduction of malt, producing more glucose and therefore more sweetness. To this Jeon added an oligosaccharide in the form of starch and a monosaccharide via a blackberry reduction. These all get combined with chilled Sidra espresso, thereby “reincorporat[ing] the carbohydrates that disappear during roasting.” In true Jeon fashion, the signature beverage course was precise and technical, and ended with a beaming grin and a “cheers!” of the long-stemmed tulip glasses in the judges' hands.
Anyone who caught even a small part of Jeon's routine would be hard pressed to not have found a new rooting interest. It was a 15 minutes chock full of moments (many of which found their way to our Twitter and Instagram walls, perhaps outing us as #TeamJeon from the jump). It was a routine that after Round One had many of us in the media box vocalizing our hopes to see her in the Semi-Finals, which as the last name called in the Semis announcements, hope of such seemed all but lost. These supplications weren't based soley in well-wishing success onto another, they were rooted in selfishness: we wanted to see this routine again.
We got our wish. And again in the Finals.
And then, as if by sheer force of collective will, Jooyeon Jeon was standing next to Greece's Michalis Dimitrakopoulos as the final two names left waiting to find their spot in the rankings. (Can I also say there was no shortage of fans for the 2016 World Coffee In Good Spirits Champion from Greece, who stood poised to take home a remarkable second World Championship on his way to an WCCGOT). With just the two Barista Champions remaining, it felt inevitable that Jeon would come up just ever so short. The people's champion never wins. Rarely do the things we as laypeople love in a routine carry much water on the scoresheets; it's flavor calls and tech points that make champions. These two things aren't mutually exclusive, mind you, their combination is just exceptionally rare. So it was with resignation that we preemptively assumed our lucky stars had run out of magic dust.
But here's the thing that makes the ending to this story a little different: this wasn't luck nor was it magic. This was 100% Jooyeon Jeon executing one of the most memorable routines to ever grace the World Barista Championship stage. The people's champion was now the World Champion.
In 2019 SprudgeLive is home to the Digital Roasters Village, because it takes a village to cover a barista competition. The Digital Roasters Village features Camber Coffee, Verve Coffee, Partners Coffee, Intelligentsia Coffee, Rishi Tea, Kickapoo Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, Onyx Coffee Lab, Creation Coffee, Amavida, and Equator Coffees without whom this work would not be possible.
Photos by Charlie Burt