The Barista Championship Qualifiers in Nashville in January was characterized by cool, collected baristas delivering academic routines and meaningful conversations (revisit all the action on Sprudge Live here and here). But in an afternoon of weighty work, a barista named Sarah Gill—owner of Mama Mocha’s in Auburn, Alabama—stepped up to the stage and delivered a perfomance full of life and self.
“Most people call me Mama Mocha,” she started, then delivered a performance so full of infectious laughter and Southern charm that the crowd erupted into delighted cheers every time she addressed them. When the lid to her ice cream popped off and unexpectedly hit a judge, she turned to make a joke out of it with the crowd, encouraging everyone (including the judge) to laugh about it with her. If you missed her performance, you really owe it to yourself to go back and watch—it’s available here. (Start at 6:44:19)
Gill ended up officially disqualified from the competition due to time, but did so with such grace, humor, and charm that she walked away a deserving crowd favorite. There is no “People’s Choice” honorarium in the USBC circuit; perhaps there should be.
I caught up Sarah Gill by phone a week later to talk about all things Southern, being a mama and entrepreneur, and what competing in Nashville meant to her.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Introduce us to your work as Mama Mocha.
I’m a mama to one rambunctious son. Our family is the most important thing, and that means doing business the old fashioned way. He comes with me to work, and someday he’ll help out in the shop. I started Mama Mocha’s Coffee Emporium about 10 years ago. We were born in a tiny 11 ft x 16 ft room in the back of Newsroom, a used book store where all the baristas went to hang out in Auburn, Alabama. The store was doing a tiny espresso bar with pour-overs, no batch brewing at all. Everyone was like, “What is this?” It was very new for people then.
When I bought the bar and started Mama Mocha’s, I wanted to do it without the trendiness, which I think has been to my benefit. I was able to make my own flavor, my own style of how I roast and brew. We aren’t the million-dollar white box that is trendy other places. Where I am it’s a bunch of thrift store velvet couches with classic darker roasts in mismatched cups. Our location in Opelika has a covered front porch and a bodega where people walk up. It’s the South: We still love biscuits and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but we’re drinking specialty coffee.
How did you get into coffee in Alabama? How did you get into roasting?
I was working at a Starbucks, and they wanted to make me a GM at 19. But I saw the hard lines on all of the managers faces around me, saw my future in that, and thought, “Hell no.” So I moved to Auburn and started working in independent coffee. In 2009, I went to the SCAA conference and realized, “Oh, I can open a roasting company.”
I learned roasting all my dang self. Auburn was very much an island. I didn’t have anywhere to go to learn coffee. I talked to people in Atlanta, I went to SCAA conferences, I read everything I could online, I got books. When I bought a tiny three kilo roaster, I didn’t know anything about anything. I roasted 14 hours a day over and over again until I liked what I was making. It was hard, but I didn’t have any choice but to make it work. It was bootstrapping times 10.
What is it like running an independent specialty shop in a small town?
Today, we have a full roastery in the Lebanon Art District of Opelika, Alabama. Opelika doesn’t allow corporations in; there’s only small businesses, families supporting families. So we bootstrapped again and opened in an old warehouse there, where the streets are rough and it’s just gritty enough to be cool. My husband (Taylor Gill, but everyone calls him Papa Mocha) did all the construction to make it work for us. Now there’s a bodega in the front, and a sensory lab in the back where we cup all our coffee. We use language that mimics the Sensory Lexicon. Our baristas are all career baristas, they’re the shining light of Mama Mocha’s.
We’re not in a giant metropolis. I’m happy in my small community, roasting for shops close enough to personally deliver to. We love supporting local, and supporting women-owned businesses. I am all about community over competition and supporting other cafes in my neighborhood. I feel sad that I have to say this, but we’re a safe space. I’m a cisgendered straight married white woman, but I’m progressive and an LGBTQ ally. I’m a Christian but Mama Mocha’s is not a Christian company. Christianity and coffee are real close in the South, but one of our only rules is no proselytization in the cafe. I want anyone to come in and not feel like there’s an agenda against them.
How did competing in Nashville feel to you?
The other people in this competition are totally unlike me, a different breed of barista. They are like mixologists and I’m not doing that. When I was training, it was on a $1,000 espresso machine and a KitchenAid burr grinder. When I got there, I thought I was going to be nervous, but it was really easy to hold my head up high because I’ve already built my legacy. I’m not trying to prove myself. Even though it was the most glorious display of crash and burn I’ve ever done [Gill went more than a minute over time and didn’t finish her signature beverage] it felt awesome to tell my story and let go of the point system.
As soon as I let go, I could feel the audience’s sense of relief. It was an energy shift that erupted into laughter and cheers. They knew I didn’t give a shit, that I wasn’t restricted by the same scripts and cadence that’s been done in the past. I wasn’t trying to make a mockery of the point system and everything US Coffee Champs has built—but there’s more to being a barista than just those parameters. The process was so good for me. Developing the routine got me back to my roots, it developed a fire behind me that I haven’t had for a while. I left Nashville with such a great feeling of accomplishment.
Talk us through the signature beverage you made.
I was originally going to do a play on the beverage-that-shall-not-be-named, a dark brown sugar quad latte over tapioca pearls, but was told I couldn’t because it had to be drinkable. I watched videos of people smoking stuff and adding two grams of God-knows-what and thought, “This is so extra.” I wanted to honor what Mama Mocha’s coffee style and come up with a compromise between what I know and love as Southern coffee culture and what I saw in the videos, so I came up with something similar to a classic espresso affogato.
But I can’t make ice cream! My ice cream would be awful. I love Häagen-Dazs, so I used their vanilla. I muddled it because when you just pour espresso over ice cream it doesn’t drink well. So it was essentially a hand-muddled espresso milkshake. Monin makes this dope line of concentrated flavors, so I added their basil concentrate, as well as a wreath of rosemary around the bottom of the glass for extra olfactory herbal play. I smoked the glasses using a pecan log. On stage in Nashville I was behind, so I cut this out, but the drink was supposed to include smoking satsuma peels with the log, then I was going to rim the glass with the peel and use dragonfruit as an accoutrement to mimic the juiciness of the espresso. I call it The Bougie Bouquet, and it’s delicious.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
Sara Frinak, who manages Brewers Cup, was one of the starting baristas at Newsroom. She grew up in Auburn, she was a roaster and manager for me for a long time, and now she works for Ally, one of my importers. She was the one who came to me and said, “Mama, you need to be a competitor.” She encouraged me to go to preliminaries, and then she came and helped me piece together a routine and play mad scientist.
And of course I have to thank my sweet husband Papa Gill, my entire staff who are the heart beat of Mama Mocha’s, my mom and dad who always have my back, and God.
All photos by Charlie Burt for the Sprudge Media Network unless otherwise noted.