The coffee pride of Georgia turned atypical New Yorker, in 2014 J. Park Brannen of Counter Culture Coffee mustered a barista championship victory during the United States regionals, earning himself a spot on a Cafe Imports origin trip to Ecuador. Sprudge.com Assistant Editor Alex Bernson interviewed Mr. Brannen about life, competition, and coffee on a bouncing bus ride out from Guayaquil.
How long have you been a barista?
I started in coffee in 2006, in Athens, Georgia at Jittery Joe's Coffee. I had moved to Athens to go to the University of Georgia, where I studied Agricultural and Environmental History. At the time I was waiting tables at a Cracker Barrel, and well, I got really tired of randomly finding cornbread in my underwear. A friend got me the job at Jittery Joe's. I met Eden-Marie Abramowicz [of Intelligentsia] and Sumi Ali [of Bar Nine Collective] at Jittery Joe's; they’re both alums.
I wound up doing training for some of the franchise stores under the Jittery Joe’s brand. I opened some stores for them in Atlanta and Dallas. Eventually Jittery Joe's was opening a store in New York City, so I moved to New York to open a shop for them in Midtown.
I went to work at Café Grumpy after Jittery Joe's, (thanks Amber [Sather]!), then I met Mike [Phillips] and went on to work with Handsome in New York City and then I started working at Counter Culture Coffee.
When did you first start competing?
This was my third year competing: one year for Grumpy, one for Handsome, one for Counter Culture.
I’m a pretty competitive person by nature, and I saw it as an opportunity to grow my skill set and meet more people. Competitions are a great way to network and find the kinds of opportunities you need to make coffee a career instead of a job. Competing is how I made coffee into something I‘m going to do for the rest of my life, hopefully.
Did you ever think competition would take you to Ecuador?
I knew that competing would lead to me travelling, but this is something beyond my wildest expectations.
Is this your first time on a coffee farm? What's really stood out to you?
Yep–this is my first time with a passport, I've never been outside the country. Coffee takes you places!
We talk a lot about respecting coffee, the farmers, traceability. When you work with good coffee, with a high amount of traceability, you have an idea of who and what made the coffee, what the varieties are etc. But you can’t really experience the hands of everyone who touched it until you're here. The producer is just a foreman in a way, there’s the pickers, the people who run the wet mill the dry mill, and on and on.
I realized I don’t relate to people enough the importance of origin. As a barista, a lot of my focus is on flavor balance, extraction. I always focus on that, and I’ll look at the details of the coffee second. I need to do more research on what makes the coffee have a flavor, a place.
Also, two words: farm dogs.
What most excites you about coffee?
I think growing specialty coffee “wider” is where my interest is–you have people like Matt Perger [of St. Ali Family], Charles Babinski [of G&B Coffee], doing amazing vertical growth in coffee. The way we extract coffee, how we serve it.
My mind goes to widening the base, to increasing the amount of good coffee we buy. As pros we focus on 90-94 point coffees, that’s what we love. But those 80-84 can grow to be that, and as we work with producers on that we can buy more and better coffee. That’s what really draws me in.
How did you explain to your parents, “I’m going to Ecuador”?
It’s a long conversation when someone asks me, “Is this vacation?”
“No, I won a contest.”
“Oh, did you win something off the back of a cereal box?”
“No this is something I worked really hard at, achieved my long-held goals,” all of that.
My parents and some of my friends didn’t grasp the weight of the situation, how seriously people take these things. The conversations were funny to say the least.
Do you plan on competing more?
My co-worker Katie Carguilo [2012 USBC Champ] told me something about competing. She said, “I would compete again when something else motivates me,” and that’s what I’m waiting for as well. Next time I find that special coffee, or something that I can relate to about origin, or something about extraction.
The motivation to win isn’t what pushes you to win in a competition actually. It has to be something more. You have to want it more than actually winning.
What motivated you?
I think the way that Counter Culture works with producers is important and I was able to highlight a really effective approach we have with a producer in Burundi, and that was the main motivating thing for me.
Visiting origin is a huge thing for me–as much as I had prepared myself for this, the experience is very real. The experience of doing a Barista Jam in the church with all of the Ecuadorian baristas, I cried a little bit afterwards. It felt like one of the most important things I’d ever done, seeing the passion, how we were able to affect, or motivate them even a little bit was amazing.