Earlier this month, the 2015 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. Up next is Sam Schroeder, NW Regional champ and co-owner of Olympia Coffee Roasting Company in Olympia, Washington.
Tall, lanky, and understated, Olympia Coffee Roasting Company co-owner Sam Schroeder has an entirely unexpected—and therefore killer—sense of humor, one that belies the serious work and growth happening with his brand. Schroeder sported sideburns back in February of 2015, when he won the 2015 Northwest Barista Championship after several years of trying and placing first seventh, then fourth, and finally first. In Colombia, with the sideburns gone, Schroeder bonded with a tall white horse, stayed up late chatting competition with other barista champs, and gleamed like a proud papa when asked about Olympia Coffee's newly remodeled flagship cafe and roastworks. Interviewed in the Bogotá airport on the last day of the trip, Schroeder took the time to share about Olympia’s growth, finally winning a regional event, and his advice for new baristas starting out in the competition circuit.
Tell us about Olympia Coffee’s growth, your new location, all of it.
Sam Schroeder: Well, Oliver Stormshak and I own the company, and we were employees previous to buying it in 2010. Since then we’ve seen a lot of growth—we won Micro Roaster of the Year from Roast Magazine in 2013, opened another location, and just completed a huge remodel of our headquarters. It’s been just great.
Our mission is to improve quality of life for our coffee producers, employees, and customers. That’s the lens through which we approach everything, including our sourcing—we source most of our coffees directly, from eight different countries, which is a big thing for a roaster as small as us. We’ve grown from twelve employees when we purchased the company to thirty-four now, most of whom are baristas. Our stores are getting a lot busier. We’re looking forward to starting up our public cuppings again now that we have an expanded facility. Olympia just has a great culture of people who value quality products.
You anticipated my next question: what is the coffee culture like in Olympia?
Being in the Northwest, there’s a very established coffee culture—which has both advantages and disadvantages. A lot of customers expect coffee to be a certain flavor profile, which is more grounded in coffee’s history than where we are going in the future. That, however, allows us to say, “Hey, let me show you something new.”
I think if we were just looking from a growth strategy trajectory we could move to a really hot market and open up there, and things would grow fast. But I love the Northwest. I’m from here, and I want to stay here. Part of our small goal is to help bring the Northwest back up to a leading position in the coffee industry.
2015 was your third year competing. How did it stack up against the other years for you?
I entered competitions initially knowing that I wasn’t going to win. I really more wanted to learn about the competitions, which I’d had my eye on for years. I’ve been in coffee for fifteen years. I judged in 2011. A few years ago, I decided it was time: I had something to learn. I did have the goal of someday winning regionals, but I knew it would take a while.
2014 was good. It was super fun, since it was the first Big Western competition. I think “The Bigs” were awesome because it was a gathering of people from within our regions and outside. I got to check out a lot of shops in L.A. Competition was really stiff that year—Laila (Ghambari) won our region and then went on to win the United States. That year, I made eighteenth in the U.S., which energized me to keep going.
2015 went well for me. I won, then placed third in nationals.
That’s for sure! Tell me about your routine.
Well, it was tough because my mic fell off twice during my routine. I walked out super deflated. When you make a mistake in competition, it’s rough. And if you have two things go wrong, you lose your flow, you forget what you’re saying. I just counted myself out.
I did improv theater for a long time, and I feel like that helps me on stage. It’s definitely a performance, not just making coffee. When I won regionals, I knew I needed to step up my game for nationals. At that point, I spent more time than ever preparing, managing all my details, and resolving my weak points. I started with a forty-five minute routine and cut it down more and more. And it worked pretty well—I won third in the US.
Any advice for baristas just starting the competitive circuit?
I think approaching competitions with the perspective that you both want to learn and to perform is a healthy way. I’ve seen a lot of people enter competition and walk away with a sour taste in their mouths because they didn’t do well or it was different than they thought.
The other thing is that, like I said earlier, it really is a mix of making coffee and performing. If you don’t like performing, you shouldn’t do it.
Reflecting on winning this trip to Colombia with Cafe Imports, how has it been for you? What's been the best part?
I think the best part was being able to travel with other people who are in similar positions to myself, baristas who will be bringing back information to their companies. Usually when I travel to origin it’s pretty solitary—the people I know don’t speak much English, and they don’t know my reality back home just like I hardly know theirs. Traveling with people who run cafes and have relationships with customers and coworkers, having this window into where coffee comes from and the challenges farmers face…that’s awesome.