Welcome welcome welcome to Sprudge’s live coverage of the Semi-Final round of the 2023 United States Barista Championship. For those of you that have followed along with our competition coverage over the years, things might look a little bit different this go around. No need to log into Twitter to keep track of our by-the-minute coverage of every Barista routine taking place today. Instead, we’ll be compiling, collating, and regularly updating this very article you are currently reading with competitor photos, zippy flavor notes, sig bevs, milk drinks, soundtracks, themes, you name it. If it happens on that stage, it’ll be tracked here for you reading pleasure.
We’ve got 18 of the best competitions baristas getting their 15 minutes to make their best arguments for why they should get one of the six Finals spots. Today is the day the rubber meets the road, so buckle up and stay tuned as we are live-blogging every competitor for the 2023 US Barista Championship!
Hugo Cano (he/him), Amberson Coffee, Indianapolis, IN
And we’re off! The first competitor today is longtime competitor Hugo Cano. This is Cano’s first run at the event this weekend, having earned a bye by placing 3rd in the Baltimore Qualifying Event. The theme today for Cano is balance. “Balance is essential to how we experience coffee,” he tells the judges to open his routine.
The first course for Cano today is the espresso, and he is using a carbonic macerated, anaerobic fermented Gesha grown by renowned producer Jameson Savage of Finca Deborah in Volcan, Panama. Pulled through a chilled portafilter in a ratio of 18g in and 46g out, the high-elevation espresso presents a medium body, silky and creamy, with a high acidity, and flavor notes of grapefruit, nectarine, single origin dark chocolate, and passionfruit.
Cano is his usual cool and collected self on stage today. He’s moving with purpose but doesn’t appear to be at all rushed.
For his signature beverage, Cano combines lactic acid, a Gesha cascara maceration from Finca Deborah, dried coffee blossom, cacao bean extract, and coffee oil, all homogenized together, giving the drink notes of peach, strawberry yogurt, tootsie roll, and green pear. Finally, Cano finishes up his routine with the milk course, a 4oz cortado-style drink featuring the Finca Deborah Gesha with a milk blend of unpasteurized and 25% lactose-free freeze-distilled milk with flavors of chocolate soft serve, almond, and strawberry ice cream. (I think we’ll see a lot of lactose-free and freeze-distilled milk today).
Elisabeth Johnson (she/her), Dayglow, Los Angeles, CA
Next up is Elisabeth Johnson, the Runner Up from the Baltimore Qualifiers and a Finalist from the 2022 USBC. “Resilience requires consistency and perseverance,” Johnson tells the judges, drawing parallels between working in the coffee industry and being a young mother.
Like Cano before her, Johnson is competing today with a Gesha variety coffee from Jameson Savage of Finca Deborah in Panama. Johnson’s ultra-small parcel coffee—she only had to chances to roast a batch of this coffee for the competition—underwent a process Savage calls “Nirvana”, an anaerobic fermented, natural process. As an espresso, it has notes of raspberry, white peach, passionfruit, mandarin, light to medium body, silk tactile, and a black tea finish.
Johnson has pretty specific drinking instructions for her judges. Using a laser thermometer for drinking temperature, she has the judges take two drinks of espresso, at 53 deg C and then again at 50 deg C.
For the second course, the milk course, Johnson combines 50% freeze distilled milk with a longer shot of espresso “for better balance,” giving the beverage flavors of sweet cream and milk. chocolate. Finally, Johnson creates a signature beverage containing soursop juice, guava juice, champagne vinegar, coconut palm sugar simple syrup, and Finca Deborah Gesha; all finished with cherry wood smoke for a touch of dramatic flair.
Addison Mathis (they/them), PERC Coffee, Decatur, GA
Addison Mathis of PERC Coffee is the next competitor in the Semi-Finals round. Mathis took fifth in Baltimore, earning their direct bye into this round of competition. For the opening milk course, they are straying from the Finca Deborah coffees of the previous two competitors and instead going with an anaerobic fermented, natural processed coffee from West Java that is deeply sweet. Combined with freeze-distilled milk, the drink has notes of rum raisin ice cream, malted chocolate, and PayDay bar.
This is a strong soundtrack from Mathis, starting off with a little Sheryl Crow before dropping Dolly Parton’s Jolene on us. And then some Steely Dan! If the notes of Mathis’s routine seem light, it’s because I was in a music-induced trance.
For the next two courses, Mathis is switching up coffees, opting instead for a wash processed coffee from the Guji Zone in Ethiopia. “It reminds me of Florida, where I’m from, and Georgia, where I currently live.” As an espresso, it has notes of pluot, naval orange, and palm sugar.
When you fall, I will catch you, I’ll be waiting. Time after time.
The signature beverage draws further on Mathis’s Florida and Georgia roots. With a peach reduction added to espresso while still warm, Mathis combines Meyer lemon juice, Meyer lemon oleo saccharum, and an egg white, all emulsified and finished with a wildflower spritz, giving the drink flavor notes of apricot jam and milk chocolate.
Anthony Ragler (he/him), Black & White Coffee, Zebulon, NC
Are y’all ready to see something special? Because Anthony Ragler is taking the stage. “Origin stories aren’t only limited to the coffees we serve. We, too, are a product of everything it took to get us here,” Ragler says. “Allow me to let you into my origin story.”
A music drop causes a technical timeout and causes Ragler to restart his routine. Has it fazed him? Not in the slightest. Ragler is as much a technician as he is a storyteller.
We will see two different coffees from Colombia today for Ragler, our first competitor coming out of the Denver Qualifying Event, where he took third place. First up is an 84-hour anaerobic fermented, natural Gesha—known as Gesha Clouds—produced by Humberto and Maria Lopez in Tolima. In a ratio of 20g in and 46g out, Ragler’s Gesha espresso has notes of raspberry, mango, and clementine, with a light-medium body and silky mouthfeel.
For the second course, the milk course, Ragler switches up to a Pink Bourbon variety that has been fermented with dehydrated strawberries, upping the strawberry aromatics in the espresso. Combined with cryodesiccated milk, like freeze-distilled on steroids, the small cappuccino-type drink has flavors of strawberry yogurt, peaches and cream, caramel, and milk chocolate.
Ragler is telling a deeply personal origin story, recounting familial tragedies shaping the person he is today.
For his sig bev, Ragler is using both coffees from the prior courses, the Gesha Clouds and the Pink Bourbon, and combining them with an oleo saccharum, and Meyer lemon juice, finished off with a homemade seltzer to open up the drink and allow the raspberry sorbet, peach tea, sparkling white wine, and lavender flavor notes a chance to breathe.
Dakota Graff, Onyx Coffee Lab, Rogers, AR
We’ve got our first of two Onyx Coffee Lab competitors today with Dakota Graff, the company’s Head of Coffee. Dakota keeps with Onyx tradition started by Andrea Allen many years ago of competing with a coffee produced by Rigoberto Herrera at the esteemed Cafe Granja La Esperanza in Valle del Cauca, Colombia.
As an espresso, the honey-processed Sidra variety—evenly dispersed about the portafilter and declumped via another WDT shoutout—has notes of ruby red grapefruit, red cherry, pomegranate, and unrefined cane sugar, with a medium weight, soft, silky, and round, and a long finish of sweet dark chocolate.
The milk course, a 1:4 ratio drink, has flavors of white chocolate, banana bread, and warm cocoa, thanks in part of the freeze-distilled milk. Freeze-distilled milk is fairly common at this level of competition these days, and that is thanks to Graff’s predecessor Andrea Allen, who helped popularize the technique.
For his signature beverage, Graff pulls shots of Sidra espresso extracted over dried cherries, mixing them with oolong tea and Sichuan peppercorn syrup, coffee saccharum from steeped Sidra espresso pucks, salted whey, a single origin olive oil, and finished with a rose fog. Did Dakota Graff sig bev out a Starbucks Oleato? Howard Schultz just felt a chill. Flavor notes for Graff’s Onyxeato include cherry cordial, spiced cider, and dark rum, with a heavyweight, long finish, and an oily and slick texture.
Seidy Selivanow (she/her), Kafiex Roasters, Vancouver, WA
Here comes Seidy Selivanow, winner of the Denver Qualifying Event, and all but a local competitor; Vancouver, WA is just a brief hop from where we are here in Portland. Selivanow invokes her birth country of Mexico early in her routine and is indeed competing with a coffee from Mexico, a honey-processed Typica and Bourbon from Finca Santa Cruz in La Concordia, Chiapas by Jose Arguello, a multi-time Cup of Excellence winner.
Selivanow starts her courses with espresso, which has notes of cranberry, cherry, floral honey, and red berry compote, with a medium weight, juicy creamy texture, and a lingering red win finish. For the milk course, Selivanow freeze-distilled her milk during a full moon, imitating techniques Arguello used in processing the coffee, “to connect you to the story.” Notes of warm dulce de leche, vanilla soft serve ice cream, warm cocoa finish, and puff pastry comprise the macchiato-style drink.
For her signature beverage, Selivanow combines phosphoric acid, lactic acid, a 21-hour hibiscus cold brew, and lychee simple syrup, all nitrogenated together and poured delicately into some rather elegant stemware. Flavor calls on her sig bev include white wine, juicy grapes, grapefruit, and sweet and crisp apples “like a riesling wine,” with a lingering apple juice finish.
Morgan Eckroth (she/they), Onyx Coffee Lab, Portland, OR
Now up to the stage is Morgan Eckroth, the hometown favorite. Eckroth is the first competitor to make it to this stage of competition by making it through Round One yesterday. She also just so happens to be the sitting US Barista Champion and Runner Up from the World Barista Championship. The level of competition today is actually bonkers.
While prepping the espressos for the signature beverage course, Eckroth has the judges write their names on the cards provided. She is building relationships, the theme of Eckroth’s routine, and this is the first building block. Clarified milk made by combining whole milk and lime juice, tart green apple juice, kiwi puree-infused caramel, and chilled espresso all get homogenized via CO2 infusion, and finished with a flamed grapefruit peel for Eckroth’s first-course sig bev, with notes of orange sherbet, cream soda, dark chocolate, and yuzu.
Moving on now to the milk course, Eckroth has yet to reveal the coffee she is using today, but she has given us hints. We know it has undergone a natural carbonic maceration, we learned about the drop temperature during roasting, but that’s it thus far. The freeze-distilled milk beverage course has notes of cake batter, chocolate soft serve, white chocolate, and pistachio.
We now know the espresso Eckroth is using today, a Gesha variety from the Chiriquí region of Panama known as the Valley of Flowers and Eternal Spring, produced by—you guessed it—Jameson Savage. It has flavors of tart cherry, strawberry, grapefruit, and panela. Eckroth calls the judges by the names they wrote on their cards provided earlier while handing them their final course espressos.
Gray Kauffman (they/them), Caffe Vita, Seattle, WA
“What if we could freeze the moments from when coffee inspired us?” Kauffman starts of their routine. “Stop and smell the terroir.” The vibe of this routine is relaxed and inviting, pulling the listener in even closer. This is thanks in part to the soundtrack, composed by Kate Van Petten, using sounds from the farm the coffee was grown on and created specifically for this routine. We are in a happy place.
Starting off with the espresso course, Kauffman’s anaerobically fermented, natural processed Sidra variety from Nariño, Colombia has flavor notes of cocoa nib, blackberry, and red grape, with a creamy body. Roasted on an air roaster, their coffee was frozen ten days off roast, where Kauffman states is when it is at peak flavor.
We love a good milk blend, and that’s what Kauffman has for us today. A 50% fractionally frozen milk combined in a 1:1 ratio with four-day aged milk for flavors of milk chocolate, yellow cake batter, and vanilla. Stirred five times in a circular motion. Precise stirring instruction for the milk course is most definitely a thing now.
Chilled Sidra espresso, blood orange juice, herbal honey syrup made of Pu’er tea (grown at the same MASL as the Sidra) sous vide alongside honey and egg white, all get nitro-flushed and poured into stemware that has been spritzed with hibiscus water for Kauffman’s signature beverage, giving their drink flavors of concord grape, ripe strawberry, and grapefruit.
Jenna Gotthelf (she/her), Counter Culture Coffee, New York, NY
It is time for the triumphant return to the US Barista Championship stage of one Jenna Gotthelf. “I’m going to speak intentionally, move deliberately, and tell some jokes,” Gotthelf tells the judges about her “sprodeo rodeo” 15 minutes. Welcome back, Jenna; it’s been too long.
Gotthelf kicks off the routine by pulling espressos to chill and serve later as part of the signature beverage course, using a Gesha variety coffee grown by Lucio Luque from the Incahuasi Valley in southern Peru. In the espresso course, it has flavors of lime, pineapple, and wildflower honey, a medium-light body, silky mouthfeel, and a raspberry Snapple finish.
Gotthelf is going revolutionary by going old-school. There’s no freeze-distilling milk here, the first competitor thus far to decline doing so. As an “extra small latte,” her 1.5:1 milk to espresso drink has notes of raspberry cake and cocoa dust.
“Commercial viability isn’t normally a factor in competition sig bevs, but it would be cool if it was.” Every element of Gotthelf’s sig bev is made from readily available ingredients at coffee shops and grocery stores. This includes orange blossom, cinnamon, honey syrup, lime, tea, and a banana infusion, giving flavors of red grape, cola, chocolate pudding, and fruity pebbles.
Nora Brady (she/her), Blueprint Coffee, St. Louis, MO
Now up is Nora Brady, the fifth place finisher from the Denver Qualifying Event. Brady is using her time to discuss some heavy topics. Inequality, the fight for rights by the gay and trans communities, mass shootings, many of the issues afflicting the United States right this very moment.
Using an anaerobic fermented natural processed coffee from western Ethiopia, Brady kicks things off with the espresso course, expressing flavors of lime, raspberry jam, brown spice, tart cherry, sweet pipe tobacco, and red wine, with a medium body and a juicy and silky texture.
For the milk course, Brady’s 1:3 espresso to milk drink has notes of oatmeal raisin cookie, almond paste, pastry crust, and malted chocolate. Moving directly into the sig bevs, Brady combines aromatic rose, cardamom, sencha, sage syrup, and orange zest, all CO2 charged, giving flavors of yogurt, berries and cream, milk chocolate, citrus effervescence, peach black tea, and a craft cola.
Jason Yeo (he/him), Saint Frank Coffee, San Francisco, CA
Before we go any further, let’s just take a moment to appreciate Jason Yeo for starting his routine with Tears For Fears’ timeless Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Himself a seasoned competitor, Yeo found his way to the Semi-Final round today via yesterday’s Round One performance.
In true Saint Frank fashion, going back to the days of former competitor and owner Kevin “Tex” Bohlin, Yeo competes today with a coffee produced by Bolivian Cup of Excellence winner and multi-time Sprudgie finalist Benjamin Paz of Finca La Salsa in El Sidral, Bolivia. The natural processed Gesha variety coffee as an espresso—stirred with frozen spoons to cool them to the ideal drinking temperature—has notes of black tea, apricot, and tangerine.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and hello to a lactose-free milk/freeze-distilled milk combo dombo milk course, with notes of vanilla custard, cream cheese frosting, and butter toffee.
For his signature beverage, Yeo combines a cara cara orage oleo saccharum, apricot pit orgeat, citric acid solution, and Gesha espresso, all blended together with ice and strained, giving the drink flavors of orange blossom, grape candy, cherry, and candied lime. Is the blender-as-competition-implement-staple era back?!
Becky Reeves (she/her), Creature Coffee Co, Austin, TX
Please welcome to the stage the one and only Becky Reeves. Like Jenna Gotthelf, Reeves took a few years off from competing, but she is back and better than ever. If you want to watch someone having a lot of fun on the competition stage, look no further than Reeves and this run today.
“She’s always running out of time” Paramore’s Haley Williams sings in the soundtrack. The “she” in question is not Reeves. She’s cool as a cucumber.
The coffee today for Reeves is a Pink Bourbon variety produced by Wilton Benitez in western Colombia. After undergoing two 36-h0ur fermentations, the coffee as an espresso has notes of fresh grapefruit juice and rooibos tea. And yes, those are cute little teeny tiny coffee mugs the judges have to hold their espresso spoons post-stir. Moving on the the milk course, the freeze-distilled milk mixes with the Pink Bourbon for warm baked banana bread flavors, walnut, and butterscotch.
In the sig bev, Reeves uses a kiwi difficult syrup “because it’s not simple,” fermented tomato water, and milk kefir, finished with an aromatic green banana foam, giving the drink flavors of celery juice, chamois, honeydew aroma, and fresh paneloupe.
Frank La (he/him), Be Bright Coffee, Los Angeles, CA
Frank La tells the judges the last time he competed was in 2014! We’ve seen quite a few competitors return to the stage after taking some time off, but La wins the award for longest time away.
The coffee La is using today he roasted himself. A Gesha variety, the anaerobic fermented coffee was produced 2050MASL on Finca Juan Martin in Cauca, Colombia, and as an espresso, it has notes of blood orange, tart cherry, orange blossom, and cacao nibs. Mixed with freeze-distilled and evaporated milk, the flavors of the Finca Juan Martin Gesha transform into cashew milk, cardamom, cheesecake, and strawberry pocky.
La’s soundtrack has been very Radiohead forward, but no Everything In Its Right Place, which, y’know, seems appropriate for a comp.
Turning now to the signature beverage, La combines hyper chilled espresso, a five-day lacto-fermented strawberry juice, toasted coconut simple syrup, and clarified Gesha floral milk punch, finished off with an oleo saccharum spritz for flavors of lemon lime soda and peach yogurt.
Juan Diaz (he/him), KWC, Orlando, FL
Now up is Juan Diaz, the winner of the Baltimore Qualifying Event earlier this year, earning him a bye directly into the Semi-Finals. Diaz competes today with a blend of two different Colombian coffees, 80% Gesha and then 20% of a Sidra variety from Granja Paraiso.
For the espresso course, Diaz creates a micro-climate in the judge’s cups by covering them with a lid after pouring in the espresso. This gives Diaz’s blend notes of black cherry and tangerine with a magnolia aroma.
We’re getting grimy with drinking instructions for the milk course. Stir the drink 15 times with a straw, then sip from the straw first, followed by a more traditional drink from the lip of the glassware, presenting notes of cacao covered chocolate truffle and cowtails (creme-filled caramel candy) thanks in part to the freeze-dried milk.
For his signature drink, Diaz combines egg white, panela, and lemon oleo saccharum, poured over a frozen coffee blossom Sidra concentrate sphere, giving flavors notes of lime sherbet, mango, blood orange, green apple, and hops.
Reef Bessette (he/him), The Coffee Movement, San Francisco, CA
The Bessette-up time is over, so now here’s Reef. Bessette is a longtime competitor at the USBC and has had a pretty constant upward trajectory throughout his career. Don’t be surprised if this is the year he breaks through.
Bessette competes today with an anaerobic fermented Gesha variety, grown at 1960MASL by Diego Bermudez at El Paraiso in Cauca, Colombia. As an espresso, stirred with a frozen spoon to bring to an ideal drinking temperature, the El Paraiso Gesha has a ripe peach aroma that presents on the palette as peach candy, fresh guava, and black tea.
In his milk course, Bessette has taken a novel approach to upping the fat content of his milk. Using raw unpasteurized milk from Jersey cows, Bessette has skimmed cream off one bottle of his milk to add to another, almost doubling the fat content, giving his drink flavors of white chocolate, vanilla cream wafer, butter shortbread cookie, coconut cream, and a subtle apricot jam. How good does an English muffin sound with a healthy smear of subtle apricot jam? Pretty good if you ask me.
Finally, for the signature drink, Bessette strained yogurt from the same raw Jersey cow milk and fermented it alongside ripe white grapes and floral honey, combined it with flash chilled filter Gesha, espresso, and finished off with a nitrous charge, with flavor notes of fresh pineapple, lime sherbet, strawberry candy, and jasmine flower.
Jake McFarland (he/him), Black & White Coffee, Raleigh, NC
“Willie’s gonna sing for a little bit,” our next competitor Jake McFarland tells the judges while waiting to call time and begin his routine. McFarland is the first competitor today to use a coffee from Yemen. The Mocha variety he is using today is produced by Ghalib Al-Hamasi, whose family has been growing coffee on the same plot of land in Western Haraz for over 300 years now!
As an espresso, Ghalib Al-Hamasi’s Mocha variety has flavors of grape, spiced orange, dark honey, and dates. That same date note carries over to the milk course along with rum raisin ice cream, caramel, and milk chocolate. This is all thanks in part to McFarland’s combination of evaporated milk powder and cryo-desiccated milk.
For his signature beverage, McFarland found inspiration in his favorite cocktail, the Bourbon Smash. for it, he muddles together lacto-fermented blackberries muddled and mint before adding a tartaric acid solution and bourbon barrel oak smoked simple syrup, all shaken together over ice, for flavors of fresh raspberry, gin botanicals, lime zest, and tart mango.
Reyna Callejo (she/her), Olympia Coffee, Seattle, WA
As she was yesterday, Reyna Callejo is the penultimate competitor today for the Semi-Finals of the 2023 US Barista Championship. And just like yesterday, Callejo’s performance today is crisp and precise, delivered with a confidence that comes out her routine.
Callejo competes today with an Ethiopian heirloom variety coffee. For the espresso course, she pulls the espresso over chilled whiskey stones, and after being stirred 10 times, has flavors of pink guava—”like strawberry mixed with a pineapple,” Callejo tells the judges—white peach, baking spices, and elderflower.
More freeze-distilled milk, more fun drinking instructions. Four sips total, stirred 10 times, the cortado-style drink for Callejo is a blend of milk from two different farms, freeze-distilled of course, giving the Ethiopian espresso notes of Oops! All Berry Cap’n Crunch, caramelized sugar like the top of a creme brûlée, and dark Jamaican rum.
Callejo’s sig bev is deeply complex, a combination of dragonfruit, Calpico, elderflower syrup, aromatic syrup made of ginger root, orange peel, black cardamom, sichuan pepper, and burnt honey, and an egg white, all blended together, finished with a dilution of filtered and carbonated Olympia water and dusted with a dragonfruit powder. Flavor calls include pineapple, lychee, orange juice, baking spices, elderflower and lime zest finish.
Isaiah Sheese (he/him), Archetype Coffee, Omaha, NE
Well sheesh, we’re almost done with the Semi-Finals, and our last competitor is Isaiah Sheese. “Bob Ross believes in happy accidents and so do I,” Sheese tells the judges. The “happy accident” is his routine is a Pink Bourbon variety, derived from an accidental cross-pollination of Red and Yellow Bourbon coffees.
The Pink Bourbon Sheese is using today was grown on Finca Buena Vista in Guatemala, before being handed over to Diego Bermudez of Finca El Paraiso in Colombia for his proprietary “thermal shock” processing. As an espresso, it has notes of peach jam, rainier cherry, oolong tea, and 80% dark chocolate.
For the milk course, Sheese is using a cryo-desiccated milk that gives the thermal shock Pink Bourbon notes of lightly salted butterscotch, chocolate mousse, and a cooked peach finish.
Signature drinks for Sheese include fructose simple syrup, citric acid, butter, and off-gassed Fever Tree tonic, homogenized via nitrogen then finished with a peach tea aromatic fog, expressing flavors of cherry hard candy, blood orange, pomegranate juice, and a lingering grapefruit bitterness.
That’s it! Thanks for tuning in with us today as we brought you play-by-play of every routine for the 2023 US Barista Championship. We’ll have Finalists announcements here soon, so stay tuned!
All photos by Liz Chai