In the continuation of Sprudge’s Cafe Imports Barista Origin Trip coverage, we step from Sasa Sestic, a veteran in the coffee industry from Serbia and Australia, to Radames Roldan of Blueprint Coffee in St. Louis, Missouri. Rodan is the first to point out his newness to the coffee industry, and his intense sense of responsibility as winner of the Southeast Central Barista Championship.
Moments stand out with Rad, as he is nicknamed. The Colombian hat he bought in the central mercado in San Agustín and wore even during the poolside pull-up competition he held with Cafe Imports partner and CrossFit enthusiast Noah Namowitz (the contest was a draw). His rapid progress in Spanish, his intense gaze. An intangible air of grace. But most of all, his unashamed gratefulness. In fact, much of our interview centered around the weighty understanding he is beginning to carry of his own responsibility in coffee. To whom much is given much is required, he seems to say. And onward!
Tell us a bit about Blueprint Coffee in St. Louis—you’re run collectively, right?
We’re a pretty small company with six owners. I was the first hire for the company and by now we’ve expanded to around fifteen people in total. It’s cool: basically, all decisions are made as a group, though we lean on people for their expertise and everyone wears a lot of hats. Everyone trusts each other so much that it allows us to let go of the reigns a little bit. All the owners have been in coffee a long time so they know what they are doing. For me, I’m just lucky to let it all wash over me and take notes and contribute to the team where I can. I work with wholesale quality control and spend a lot of time on bar.
Were you surprised when you won your region at the barista competition? What was that like as a first-time competitor?
I wasn’t expecting to win. They called Norah (Brady, also of Blueprint) in third place, and that’s when my heart sank. I knew there was no way I could have a chance. After they called Andrea Allen (Onyx Coffee) in second I knew for sure. I was so inexperienced, I didn’t know what a winning routine was. I was certainly proud of what I had put together—but when they called my name, I just felt so lucky. And then, about an hour later, it hit me. I just felt I didn’t deserve it because there were other people with more time in the industry and that I hadn’t put in the work yet to earn it.
So…that’s what I’m doing now. Trying to earn it. And represent it well.
Tell us more. How do you represent it well? What does earning it look like?
I was talking with Sasa (Sestic, the sitting World Barista Champion) about it the other day, and it was really encouraging that he feels the same things—though, of course, for me it’s regional and for him it’s world. I was put in this position I didn’t anticipate, and the responsibility is foremost. That means that here is not where I rest on my laurels. Now I have to step it up in every way I can. In my city, people are looking up to me, and I have to hold myself to the ideal in everything I do, the way I talk about coffee, everything. It could be anybody in my position.
I mean, anyone who put in the work could do this. Which is reassuring, because there’s nothing special about me. Recognizing that, I have the chance to talk with others about what I do, and share our passion. Me, sitting here in Colombia, is the result of so many people investing in me. I want to represent them well.
How has your first trip to Colombia been so far?
It’s been incredible! It’s my first origin trip, and I feel if there were an origin trip to take this is the one. The Cafe Imports team, they’ve done an incredible job of showing us the spectrum of what coffee is in Colombia. Always before, when people would talk about origin in competition, I never really connected with it. Now I have such a greater appreciation of coffee and where it comes from, and now I feel I may be able to communicate with others about it.
Do you plan to compete again? How do you feel about your routine?
Yep, yeah, yep. Last year, I won regionals and I didn’t understand why. And then I went to nationals and I failed and I knew exactly why. This time I have a plan of attack so yeah, I definitely hope to go back and do it again. Also being around these barista champions, I have to pull my weight and hold my own! I have a lot to say. Competition is a great platform to get me to the position to be able to say it.
And how is the coffee culture in St. Louis?
You know, I didn’t realize when I joined coffee that I had jumped right into the big leagues at Kaldi’s, where I worked for a year before I moved to Blueprint. What you’re seeing in St. Louis is outstanding groundwork being laid by everyone. Every cafe you go to you’ll find someone you know and hang out with at throwdowns. Through coffee I’ve gotten to travel around a bit, and St. Louis is still some of the best coffee you can find.
Any last words to other baristas?
I admire my peers. I look up to everybody. It takes so much discipline to do this well and that’s a good thing. You do the best you can and then you let go…and beautiful things happen.
Emily McIntyre is a Sprudge contributor based in Portland, Oregon. Read more Emily McIntyre on Sprudge. Photos by Emily McIntyre unless otherwise noted.