Here we are, we’ve made it. Sunday, April 23rd, the Finals for the 2023 US Barista Championship. Today marks the culmination of eight months worth of work, these six coffee professionals honing their craft all season long hoping to be right where they are right this very moment. And now we’re here.
Over the course of the two days prior, 35 competitors took the stage in Round One and the Semi-Finals, each day narrowing the field just a little bit more. From 35 to 18 and now six. We’ve come to expect a high-level of execution at this stage of competition, but even still, this year’s field completely blew past even our most lofty of expectations. We’ve seen so many memorable routines this year, but there are still a few more to go.
Half the field took the scenic route to get here, having competed in Round One on their way to the Semi-Finals and now the Finals. Will that extra run through give them the upper hand? Or is smart money on the other three Finalists, who earned a bye directly to the Semi-Finals by placing at one of the Qualifying Events?
We’ll have that answer in just a few short hours, but in the meantime, follow along with us as we bring you live and updating blow-by-blow accounts of the six Finalists routines here at the 2023 US Barista Championship.
Morgan Eckroth (she/they), Onyx Coffee Lab, Portland, OR
May as well start off the US Barista Championship Finals with a bang, with none other than the current champion, Morgan Eckroth. Eckroth is looking to be the first back-to-back USBC champion since Michael Phillips in 2009-10, who went on to win Worlds on his second attempt, if we are looking at precedent.
The theme for Eckroth’s performance today is relationship, particularly those built between the barista and the customer. “In this relationship that you and I have, it doesn’t start with names. It crescendos to them,” she tells the judges, after having them write their names on cards provided.
For their first course, Eckroth has opted to kick things off with the signature beverage. It’s a deeply layered and complex drink, made my combining clarified whole milk, tart green apple juice, kiwi-infused caramel, and chilled espresso, all combined via CO2 infusion and finished with a flamed grapefruit peel. Flavors include orange sherbet, cream soda, dark chocolate, and yuzu. It’s a significantly different style of sig bev from Eckroth’s winning drink last year, where she wanted to make a drink the millions of @morgandrinkscoffee fans following along could make at home.
Moving onto the milk beverage, Eckroth has dropped a few hints about their espresso—it has undergone a 100+ hour natural carbonic maceration and it was roasted to a 375 degree drop temp in nine-plus minutes—but the whole truth has yet to be revealed. Combined with freeze-distilled milk, it has flavors of yellow cake batter, chocolate soft serve, and white chocolate, with almond undertones and a warm powdered cocoa finish.
At long last, Eckroth reveals the mystery espresso. It’s a Gesha variety from the Chiriquí region of Panama called the Valley of Flowers and Eternal Spring, from the esteemed producer Jameson Savage. Pulled in a ratio of 18.5g in to 40g out in a total of 25 seconds, Eckroth’s Gesha has flavors of strawberry, bright cherry, grapefruit, panela, and cacao nib.
It’s yet another clinical routine from Eckroth. The script was well-paced and purposefully delivered, full of the quiet command and stage presence that are hallmarks of Eckroth’s routines. It’s a champion-caliber performance, and we’re only getting started.
Isaiah Sheese (he/him), Archetype Coffee, Omaha, NE
If you invoke the name of Bob Ross, as Sheese did at the beginning of his routine, you better have some happy paintings as part of your presentation. And indeed Sheese has just such imagery for the judges. This is no happy accident.
Sheese competes today with a well-traveled coffee. Grown on Finca Buena Vista in Guatemala by Luz Mila Mosquera, this Pink Bourbon variety coffee was then handed over to Diego Bermudez of Finca El Paraiso in Colombia to undergo his “thermal shock” processing, before finally ending up with Sheese in Nebraska at his cafe Archetype. And now here today in Portland.
As an espresso, pulled in a 1:2 ratio over frozen cubes for a “compound chilling” process in 26 seconds, the Pink Bourbon has flavors of canned yellow peach, Rainier cherry, oolong tea, and a lingering 70% dark chocolate finish.
You gotta love how very pink this routine is. Pink Bourbon, pink nature scenes, pink flannel with matching pink shoes, It’s all just so pink.
For the milk course, Sheese decided not to freeze-distill his milk but instead opted to cryo-desiccate it. It produces similarly rich and sweet results but is a more consistent, repeatable process. In a macchiato-style beverage, the combination of Pink Bourbon and cryo-desiccated milk has flavors of salted butterscotch, chocolate mousse, and a caramelized peach finish.
For the final drink he is serving to the USBC judges, Sheese’s signature drink combines chilled espresso, fructose simple, citric acid, a butter and sugar syrup, and off-gassed Fever Tree tonic, all nitrogenated and finish with a white peach tea aromatic smoke. (And a touch of food coloring to give the drink that thematic pink tint.) Notes of cherry hard candy, blood orange, and pomegranate juice give way to a grapefruit finish. Even the flavors are pink!
Sheese appears to have dialed in his performance from the Semi-Finals. The script felt tighter than it did yesterday, just overall a very polished 15 minutes.
Frank La (he/him), Be Bright Coffee, Los Angeles, CA
Call him Frank La-fka, because the theme of his Finals routine today is metamorphosis. “Transformation is happening at every step of the coffee story,” he tells the judges to start the routine. La competes today with an anaerobic fermented Gesha variety, grown at 2,050MASL on Finca Juan Martin in Cauca, Colombia.
Kicking things off with the espressos, La is “introducing a new layer to this course,” he states. Pulling shots in a ratios of 18g in to 46g out, La instructs the judges to visually evaluate the crema before he places lids over the cups, allowing the espressos to cool to the ideal drinking temperature and trapping in the aromatics at the same time. Once the lids are removed, judges immediately inspect the aroma before stirring six times in a paddle motion and tasting La’s first course, which has notes of blood orange, tart cherry, orange blossom, and cacao nibs.
Yesterday we noted La’s Radiohead-forward soundtrack was missing the appropriate Everything In Its Right Place. And guess what just came on as La began working on his milk course? Be the change you want to see in this world.
Next up is the milk course for La, whose freeze-distilled milk combines with the Gesha for notes of cheesecake, salted caramel, buttery shortbread, and white chocolate. For the last course, the signature beverage—named “Nabi”, Korean for “butterfly”—La combines longer extraction of his Gesha that he then hyperchills with five-day lacto-fermented strawberry juice, sous vide coconut simple syrup, and a clarified Gesha floral milk punch, all blended together and finished with a spritz of oleo saccharum. Flavors for the drink include white grapefruit, lemon lime soda, and peach yogurt.
A hallmark of a strong competitor is the ability to update flavor calls from day to day as the coffee transforms. Yesterday, there was no white grapefruit call in La’s sig bev, but much like a well-timed Radiohead tune, it was there today. It’s a small detail that can pay big dividends on the scoresheet.
How are we already halfway done?
Juan Diaz (he/him), KWC, Orlando, FL
Kicking off the back half of competition here at the Finals of the 2023 US Barista Champion is Juan Diaz, winner of the Baltimore Qualifying Event. He is competing today with a blend of two coffees from southern Colombia, a Gesha variety from Mikava Farms and a Sidra from Granja Paraiso. Both anaerobically fermented, Diaz sent both off to a lab that could test there “flavor potential.” The results of the lab tests, along with those from other coffees that Diaz was considering, are given to the judges via a graph plotting their differing flavor potentials.
Starting off with the espresso course, Diaz uses an 80/20 Gesha to Sidra blend, pulling the shots through portafilters he has chilled to 75 degrees F. In the cup, they have notes of black cherry tangerine, chocolate covered raisin, and simple syrup, with a magnolia aroma.
For the milk course, Diaz flips the blend ratios 80/20 in favor of the Sidra. This is due, he tells the judges, to the sweetness imparted by his freeze-distilled milk. Cocoa-dusted chocolate truffle, cowtails (cream-filled caramel candy), and passionfruit cream highlight the milk course.
This has been the year of the milk course. We’ve seen innovative processes to increase the fat content of the milk and some in-depth drinking instructions the likes of which we normally only ever see in the espresso and sig bev courses. And Diaz’s instructions were the most exacting. He instructed judges to stir the drink 15 times with a straw he provided then taking a sip from the bottom of the cup via that straw. Then, for the second sip, judges were instructed to drink from the lip of the glassware.
For the final course, the sig bevs, Diaz combined egg white clouds, panela, peach, and oleo saccharum, all whipped together with the original 80/20 Gesha to Sidra blend espresso and poured over a frozen coffee blossom sphere, for flavors of lime sherbet, orange blossom, tart mango, green apple, blood orange, and hops.
Dakota Graff, Onyx Coffee Lab, Rogers, AR
Our fifth competitor today is Dakota Graff of Onyx Coffee Lab. He is the second Finalist competitor from Onyx, after Morgan Eckroth (and two-time Brewers Cup champ Elika Liftee is in the Finals over at the USBrC stage as well). “The goal of the barista and the producer are the same: to develop relationships of trust who we share coffee with,” Graff tells the judges. And as the Head of Coffee at Onyx, Graff says he has the unique perspective of seeing both of these in action.
For his coffee, Graff has selected a honey-processed Sidra variety produced by Rigoberto Herrera at Cafe Granja La Esperanza in Valle del Cauca, Colombia. As an espresso—stirred by Graff for the judges—it expresses notes of red cherry, pomegranate, ruby red grapefruit, unrefined cane sugar, and a sweet dark chocolate.
In the milk course, Graff does something a little different. Yes the milk is freeze-distilled, but he took it one step further by aging it for five days. In a 1:4 espresso to milk drink, it has flavors of white chocolate, complex banana bread, salted caramel, and warm cocoa.
For his signature beverage, Graff pulls shots of Sidra over dried cherries and combines them with an oolong tea and sichuan peppercorn simple syrup, a coffee saccharum made on stage with the very pucks from the espresso shots made earlier in the routine, a salted whey made from a byproduct of the freeze-distilled process, and olive oil. Graff’s drink has flavors of cherry cordial, spiced cider, and dark rum, an oily and slick tactile, and a long finish, served alongside a rose fog.
Reef Bessette (he/him), The Coffee Movement, San Francisco, CA
We’ve already reached the end, can you believe it? Our last competitor for the 2023 US Barista Championship is Reef Bessette. Bessette begins his routine making a pour-over that will later be used as part of his signature beverage. It’s always fun watching routines that build slowly toward their signature beverages, constructing elements throughout the entirety of the 15 minutes and adding a bit of intrigue to who it all is going to come together.
Bessette competes today with a Gesha variety coffee grown at 1960MASL at El Paraiso in Cauca, Colombia by Diego Bermudez. The coffee underwent a “double-fermentation thermal shock” processing; first was a 60-hour 30 deg fermentation, depulped and washed, then anaerobically fermented again for another 30 hours. As an espresso, 19.2g in and 42g out, Bessette’s Gesha has an aroma of ripe peach that transforms into flavors of peach candy, fresh guava, and black tea finish.
For the milk course, Bessette was one of the two competitors from the Semi-Finals—and the only one here today—that didn’t use some sort of freeze-processing to up the fat percentage. But that doesn’t mean he was rolling with store-bought. Bessette took raw unprocessed grass-fed Jersey cows milk, scooped off the cream from one batch and onto another, nearly doubling the milk fat contact to a whopping 12%. (For reference, the whole milk you’d get at a grocery store will have around 4% fat content.) This decadent milk gives his drink notes of white chocolate, vanilla cream wafer, butter shortbread cookie, and coconut cream.
That same Jersey cow’s milk makes an appearance in the signature beverage as well, in the form of whey that gets mixed with jasmine blossom honey, crushed grapes, and tartaric acid. It gets added to Gesha pour-over Bessette was making earlier in the routine that has now been hyper-chilled, and an extended extraction of the Gesha espresso, all nitrous charged for notes of strawberry candy, jasmine flower, fresh pineapple, and lime sherbet.
And that’s it! Thanks for tuning in today for our play-by-play coverage of the 2023 US Barista Championship Finals! The big announcements will be coming down at any moment, so stay tuned!
All photos by Liz Chai