In October 2015, the Cafe Imports Barista Origin Trip took a half dozen or so lucky competition baristas to Colombia for a whirlwind tour of coffee farms, festivals, and horseback rides. Sprudge embedded reporter Emily McIntyre interviewed each of the champion coffee professionals for a series of exclusive spotlight features.
Ryan Soeder is an unashamed Kentuckian—though he largely lacks the accent. After years spent at Counter Culture, Intelligentsia (for which he competed in, and won, the North Central Barista Competition), and other standout coffee companies, he has returned to his native city, Louisville, and makes no bones about it: this wasn’t a career move, though given the burgeoning Louisville coffee culture, it was a smart one.
Now head of quality control, training, and coffee education for Sunergos Coffee, he’s diving deep into rediscovering his connections with family, friends, and himself. The Cafe Imports Barista Origins trip to Colombia was his first origin trip, and he had plenty to say about visiting his first coffee farm, why we should care about coffee origin, and the importance of a good backup team during competition.
You’re in Colombia. What stands out?
The whole thing. The central market, running horses through the mountains. Arnulfo’s (Leguizamo) farm was unbelievable, tasting coffee cherries for the first time. I think that day in Huila might be the most memorable for me. I’ve been refining my skills, working hard on the retail, US side of coffee, and if there’s another chapter in my understanding of what coffee is, that day began it. I value that learning experience because I haven’t had it for a while.
What a day. We did it on horses! Huila is unbelievable. Beautiful sweeping vistas. Meeting farmers and finally seeing what’s actually happening at the farm. A waterfall. Extreme physical exertion. And the buildup to it all—my whole coffee career I’ve wanted to go to a farm and taste a coffee cherry. You can only read about it so much.
What have you learned from your Colombia visit?
This idea that we should dial in the variables at the farm, like at the shop, and that it’s not just doable but being done…that’s the most exciting to me. You can’t apply a one-size-fits-all methodology to everything in this industry, or any agricultural specialty product. If you want it to be the best it can be, you have to figure out what you can control to make it more consistent. The idea that different trees and varieties have different measurable ripeness—no, you don’t pick a Castillo at the same time as a Caturra—makes total sense if you think about it for six seconds, but it hadn’t occurred to me.
And having my biases blown apart—scoring tree-dried Castillo in the 90s was very humbling. I really don’t know anything about coffee. That’s what this is about, and it’s very motivating and exciting. Doing the retail side for so long, there’s a certain amount of hubris that comes with it, and then you find out that even the varieties and processes you think taste a certain way don’t necessarily. It makes me feel like the industry is open again in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.
Do you have a favorite daily coffee ritual in Louisville?
There are two: the first is the work coffee ritual, which is 6:30 in the morning when the shop is just opening, and I get house blend espresso and add cream and drink it without evaluation because I just need to wake up. I love that because it’s the only time at work when I can taste coffee in the shop and drink it just like a customer might. Then, the other is on my days off, when I make a pour-over over a book and a podcast. Or I sleep in and make a Chemex at 9:00 in the morning and take it outside to the sunporch to read my book. This is maybe my favorite experience because it happens regularly, and I appreciate that it’s what we give people.
You’ve won latte art competitions before, but this year you won your first barista competition. Tell us about your training, and how it felt when you won.
I think I’ll always remember the weeks I spent in the Intelli lab by myself just beating my head against the signature drink and having so many ideas that tasted terrible. It would turn into eight-hour days going crazy on caffeine and flavors…after a while, things I thought worked actually tasted vile. I’ll always treasure the long nights with Jesse Raub and our Brewer’s cup competitor Sophie Block, all pulling together and just doing this thing.
At the competition, I was so grateful for Eden-Marie Abramowicz. The night before the competition we went to the Cafe Imports lab and just did run throughs and worked out all kinds of kinks, doing like a six-hour session. There were so many moments of people pulling together and putting in time. I guess that’s why the win was so huge and validating—because I got to be the vessel for the effort of so many people, and it turned out I was the appropriate vessel.
Competing is a team sport, and if you don’t understand that, well…it’s very lonely and sad. I can’t imagine doing it alone.
What’s the coffee scene in Louisville like?
It’s just great. Lots of passion, excitement, and sheer energy all centered around making coffee. You can float the Louisville coffee scene on this incredible buoy of excitement, which I haven’t experienced in a long time. People are just freaking out about espresso. They’re just losing their minds with excitement, and I’m trying to learn that again, let some of that joy bleed off into me. That’s the scene in a nutshell, and it’s a great scene to be part of.
I’ve been doing this coffee thing for twelve years, and I’m not bored at all.