For Laila Ghambari, being crowned this year's Northwest Regional Barista Champion at the Big Western in Los Angeles is for many reasons a relief, a moment that she summed up to Sprudge in one word: “Finally!” Ms. Ghambari began competing in 2010, appearing that season on behalf of Urban Coffee Lounge (Seattle) at regionals and BARISTA (Portland) at nationals. In 2011 and 2012 she competed regionally and nationally for Stumptown Coffee Roasters, reaching semi-finals in both consecutive seasons.
In 2013, Ms. Ghambari took a year off from competition to serve as a judge, and to help train competitors for Caffe Ladro in Seattle. This is her first-ever barista competition win, and it comes on behalf of Cherry Street Coffee, a twenty-two year old company owned by her father, Ali Ghambari.
When asked if she saw a correspondence there—a year off to judge, and then her first win—Ms. Ghambari told Sprudge, “Oh absolutely. The truth of the matter is, until I judged I had no idea how the judges were calibrated and trained on the rules. Until you judge, I don't think you can really know what to do.”
Ms. Ghambari’s service included washed, pulp natural, and natural coffees from producer Emilo Lopez Diaz, of Cuatro M Coffees in El Salvador. These coffees all came from the same farm, Finca El Manzano, and were chosen in a process that included Laila Ghambari visiting Mr. Lopez Diaz at the farm. This is the second time she's visited a producer in advance of a barista competition routine; in 2012, she self-financed her way to Guatemala to meet famed coffee producing father-son duo Arturo Aguierre Sr. and Jr. of Finca El Injerto.
On her recent—highly recent, as the coffees she served at Big Western were picked just one month ago—trip to see Emilio Lopez Diaz in El Salvador, Laila Ghambari told Sprudge, “I'm like the kid who just got back from Disneyland.” There are many styles of barista competition, but for Laila, it's about harnessing that travel energy and conveying it to the judges. “Some competitors are intellectual competitors, and I'm not. I'm a feel-good, ‘you're going to love this because I'm so excited about it' kind of competitor, and I want my judges to feel the same excitement,” she told us. “I get to talk about what the experience is like. That's my style of competition.”
Ms. Ghambari's signature drink was drawn directly from origin, featuring fresh coffee cherry jam made at Finca El Manzano, plus steeped coffee cherries, combined together in a syrup. Combined with espresso, this mixture was then topped with cherry wood smoke. As in, there was smoke ignited live on stage, directed from a smoke machine into a decanter containing the mixture. When delicately poured into Ms. Ghambari's signature drink vessels, each glass wafted aromatic smoke as judges took their first sips.
So what does it mean for Laila Ghambari to have finally won a barista competition for herself, and to have done it on behalf of her family's company? “It couldn't be better than that,” she told us. “Cherry Street is my family business—the fact that this win gets to be put on their name means everything for me.” She was also quick to shout out Dillanos Coffee Roasters, a longtime wholesale partner of Cherry Street, whose head roaster, Phil Beattie, was the learned hand guiding the roasting choices for Laila's coffee at Big Western. Dillanos is a long-time sponsor of the barista competition circuit, having hosted events for the NW region in 2013, 2012, and 2011. Laila Ghambari said that representing Cherry Street and Dillanos and being “able to get a win for both of them is so, so cool.”
Relive all of our 2014 Big Western Barista Competition here.