There seems to be no limit to the kindness and genuine enjoyment of the barista craft exuded by Percy Ramirez, of Intelligentsia's Pasadena cafe. This was Percy's first performance in the USBC regional cycle; Mr. Ramirez has competed twice before (and enjoys dual eligibility) in Guatemala, where he lived until he was four. Percy competed using an Intelligentsia sourced-and-roasted offering from Finca Matalapa, El Salvador – it is not currently commercially available. We'll add that meeting and having a chance to share some conversation with Mr. Ramirez was a personal highlight for both your Sprudge editors last weekend. In an industry full of all manner of characters, Percy Ramirez is truly one of the nice guys.
One of our sport's (or whatever you want to call it) most electric performers, Charles Babinski of Intelligentsia Silverlake turned in two absolutely captivating performances over the SWRBC weekend. He's dancing as he pulls shots; he's mugging for the cameras; he's the perfectly devilish flirty barkeep. The audience is educated by Mr. Babinski seemingly by osmosis, as if knowledge could be transferred by charisma alone. Charles' routine broke down walls between judges and the competitor, by acknowledging the often very different expectations a barista encounters from his or her customers in a cafe setting. He encouraged sharing, dialogue, and playfulness among the judges, while advocating passionately for the very special coffee he was privileged to serve – Intelligentsia's Bolivia Takesi microlot, which is as of yet not commercially available. Mr. Babinski is a very special competitor, a barista's barista, and his is one of our very favorite routines of this year's competition cycle.
One of two competitors from Verve to reach the finals, Lizzy Sampson's routine stood out for a couple of reasons: she was the only SWRBC finalist to compete with a blend, using Verve coffees sourced from Ethiopia, Sumatra and Guatemala; and her routine was the only one to speciically focus on traceability at origin. Watching her twice, we were blown away by some of the bigger questions she asked of the judges. It takes guts to openly admit – indeed, to spend time on such admissions from the ever-ticking 15 minute clock – that certain components in your competition coffee are less traceable than others. But the truth is, that's often the truth, and we applaud Lizzy for acknowledging the complicated realities of many coffees from Ethiopia and Sumatra. For 15 minutes, Lizzy was able to compellingly argue that, while traceability in coffee sourcing is enormously important, so too is taste. Playing to a packed home crowd for both of her SWRBC performances, Lizzy Sampson and Verve were able to pull off an important, engaging pair of routines: the kind that makes you think.
Hailing out of the burgeoning Central Valley specialty coffee scene in Sacramento, California, Alfonso Portela made heads turn on Selection Saturday at the SWRBC, earning a spot in the top six for himself and Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters. A first time competitor, Mr. Portela's routine was a premiere example of friendly, warm customer service in the superchared barista competition environment. One of the joys for us covering the USBC cycle is to learn more about shops in emerging cities, of which the Sacramento-Modesto area is certainly one. Just as the routine from Camilla Ramos at the SERBC made us want to visit Panther Coffee in Miami, so too did Mr. Portela pique our interest w/r/t Chocolate Fish. Once an Ecco account, CF is now a small roastery in Downtown Sacramento with a pronounced New Zealand vibe. Mr. Portela competed using a coffee from Honduras that is not currently available via Chocolate Fish, but you can learn more about their other offerings here.
As a last note on Fonzy's performance, we present a hypothetical: pretend you're taking a friend out for coffee, and that this friend is a civilian, entirely unconnected from the specialty coffee industry and with very little experience visiting nice cafes. If we could draft pick a barista to spend time with that friend from behind the bar, we'd have to consider Alfonso Portela. We hope this is the first of many competition successes for him and the crew at Chocolate Fish.
Kevin “Tex” Bohlin
Sometimes barista routines have a very disparate set of influences. In the case of Ritual Coffee's “Tex” Bohlin, his 15 minutes on stage were a delightful melange, equal parts Guatemalan adventure and Hollywood picture, poured through a San Francisco filter. All coffees tell a story, but for Mr. Bohlin, the coffee WAS the story; watch the above interview to learn more about Tex's work in Guatemala at Finca La Merced. (For the full experience, pull this song from the “Drive” soundtrack up in another tab.) You were a pleasure to watch, Tex.
It sort of felt like destiny, for Jared Truby to win this year's SWRBC. A seasoned competitor who has lived and worked for years as part of Verve Coffee Roasters, Mr. Truby's routines were standing-room only affairs on the competition floor in Santa Cruz. He used a remarkable coffee, Verve’s Costa Rica Finale de Cosecha – we had a chance to write it up already here – and finished his routine with one of the more notably complex signature drinks we've seen all year, a multi-step experience involving cascara and molasses tea, vanilla cream espresso foam, and a re-imagined spherical coffee “cherry” made from apple and cherry juices. Mr. Truby never loses focus on stage, never breaks a sweat; he is a natural competitor, and he makes that which is most decidedly not easy look it. The first-round bye and the confidence he'll be bringing with him to Portland makes him a must-watch Championship contender at this year's USBC.
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