If there’s a story behind every door in New York, you’d better believe there’s a story behind every coffee counter. A few months ago, we discovered Patrik Vilhelmsson–a friendly barista working, at the time, at Bluestone Lane. That Swedish-born Vilhelmsson was pulling shifts at a Midtown espresso bar in an office building wasn’t a tremendous shock. That Vilhelmsson was also the former Barista Champion of Bulgaria, and was also pulling shifts at two other Manhattan cafes…well, that was a little bit strange.
This barista clearly had a story. Sprudge sat down with him at Ground Central Coffee Company—a shop he’s never worked at, but which is near several he has—to find out more about how a Swedish barista ended up an international champion in Bulgaria…working in Midtown.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Sweden, I grew up in a small town out of Gothenburg on the west coast. When I was 19 I got hired by a coffee company–a British company, Coffee Heaven, who were opening up a business in Bulgaria. I got hired and moved over to Bulgaria–that’s actually how I got into the coffee business. It was not really third wave, it was more than 10 years ago, but they were doing, at that time, really good coffee. And that was something they didn’t know anything at all about in Bulgaria. We were trying to open up the market and develop specialty coffee over there.
How did you get connected with that?
I was working as a bartender, nothing serious at all, and I had a friend who knew one of the guys working for them. It was really cool! They liked me a lot, and we worked well together, so they started investing a lot of money and things in me. They sent me to all kinds of different workshops, trainings, I was doing a lot of things. I worked with them almost six years, until they sold the company.
I got hired then by a Greek company that wanted to open up a barista school in Bulgaria, so I opened up the Barista Academy in Sofia. That was the same period that I won the Bulgarian Barista Championship. After that, I went to the WBC in Bogota, two years ago, 2012.
Because I lived in Bulgaria, I competed in Bulgaria. But the funny thing was, they were making fun of me in Sweden, that I went to Bulgaria because it was easier to win. But the funny thing was, I beat all the Scandinavians at the WBC–the Swedish guy, the Finnish guy, and the Norwegian guy.
What about the Danish guy?
(laughs) She was really good. She ended up in the top 15.
What was your experience like in Bogota?
First of all, with competition, you need to invest a lot of money and have a strong team supporting you. It’s hard in Bulgaria because it’s a poor country, and it’s hard to find sponsors, they don’t want to invest money in anything at all over there. I was completely alone there, I had no sponsors, I made everything alone. The only thing I got from the Bulgarian barista association was the ticket. But even that was difficult. It was a lot of struggle. And that was the last year they existed, they closed down after that. So, I got everything set up alone, and I got the ticket, and I went to Colombia. I arrived one night before my presentation, and when I arrived, my luggage did not arrive. It was in Venezuela or something.
I arrived in just shorts and flip-flops and a tank top, and I didn’t have my things, I didn’t have anything.
No! Nothing! I was just standing there and watching other guys preparing for the thing, and I was like, no, fuck, I don’t do this, I give up. And then I was standing there thinking come on! You made it all the way here…you need to do something. I need to do whatever. I’ll blend coffee, or grab coffee from someone. So I started walking around asking other baristas to lend me cups or coffee spoons or whatever they can!
I was collecting one spoon from him, one cup from there, napkins…I had like, so many different things, my setup was the worst ever. But it was cool though! I got coffee from a Swedish roaster–Johan & Nystrom–they are my favorite roasters over there, they are awesome.
How long did you have to practice with it?
I didn’t have practice time at all! I was just like, dial in the coffee and just do whatever!
What about your signature drink?
Yeah, you know, that was also a problem. Because, okay, setting up a signature drink in 15 minutes with a coffee that you don’t even know, that is hard. So yeah, I did something kind of basic, but I ended up, it was not bad. I made two different extractions, and I made a reduction of cranberries and I just highlighted the notes that were already in the coffee. It worked out good. After all, I ended up 25th or 26th of 52. For all that–all the others–teams of ten people surrounding them and helping them with everything, they had everything set up, they were sleeping well, they were rested–everything was perfect. I didn’t even have clothes. I borrowed clothes from a Colombian guy! Yeah! I gave him my shorts and my tank top and he had suit pants and a shirt. It was crazy.
It was a really good experience, and after all, you understand, you need to be ready for whatever happens. You can’t depend on airplanes or trains or whatever. Because you see what happened? For me, that shows that if a barista is good or not, if you’re able in an hour to just set up something and do it.
Wow. What happened next?
It was a really good experience, I met a lot of new friends, new guys. And actually, I stayed in Colombia after that. I went back fast to Bulgaria, and the barista school I was working for, they had problems so they closed down around the same time, so I ended up without a job, without anything, so I thought I’ll go back to Colombia, it was great over there. I’d been doing the barista thing, I’d made a lot of educational parts like trainings and stuff like that, and I always wanted to do the farming part, the growing process, go to a producing country and see how it works. I stayed for one year and a half traveling around in Colombia. Different coffee farms, different places. So that was one year and a half of growing and farming experience, which was very important to me.
Tell me how you ended up in New York?
So my goal was to close the circle, to have experienced everything. So what I needed to do, the thing I had left, is roasting. I knew New York was a really good market, a growing market, a lot of good companies popping up, and a lot of roasters, and a lot of opportunities here in the city. So that brought me here. So what I hope is to get into roasting soon, get some roasting experience The barista job is good, but I think it’s too stressful. Especially here in this city. It’s like killing you if you work here. I worked for three companies when I moved here in September.
Which cafes do you currently work at?
The first company I started with was Bluestone Lane, and a week after that I got hired by Penny Lane Coffee, too, and after that, Irving Farm. And now I cut down Penny Lane and Bluestone and I work full time for Irving Farm.
Which Irving Farm cafe do you work at?
I work at 71 Irving Place. It’s very good. The other guys, Bluestone Lane, I think they’re opening up two more stores? They have one down here on Third Avenue, and one in the Financial District, and now they’re opening up one in the West Village. They’re expanding really fast! I mean, they’re different, they’re Australians!
It’s just how NYC is; everything is so, the tempo is so high, everything is like, everybody rushes somewhere, and everything is rushed! That’s what I don’t like here, it’s very hard to find the balance between rushing something out and to keep quality, because usually quality is going down a lot when people are throwing out things during a rush. And it’s also hard to keep things clean and hygienic, and you know, people are really unfriendly, too, because they’re so stressed out! That’s the part I don’t like with this city, because the spots, and everything, they’re perfect. The coffee’s very good. it’s just very hard to manage.
What do you LIKE about making coffee in New York?
The good thing is that you know, you have a lot of work…you practice a LOT. You’re never standing there doing nothing. You’re always standing there and practicing things, which is very important. You meet a lot of people. I haven’t been outside New York to other cities in the US, so I don’t know how it is on the west coast, San Francisco, LA and so on, the coffee situation. I’d love to go though.
Where in the world will Patrik pop up next? Time will tell! In the meantime, look for him behind a coffee counter in the most stressed out city in North America.
Liz Clayton is the author of “Nice Coffee Time“, a regular columnist for Serious Eats: Drinks, and New York City chief at Sprudge.com. She writes about music for the New York Observer, and lives in Brooklyn. Read more Liz Clayton here.