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The Finalists: Essays and Photos From The 2014 Uni...

The Finalists: Essays and Photos From The 2014 United States Barista Championship

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The event’s Master of Ceremonies, Steve Leighton, surveys an empty judges’ panel.

Though we’re no fans of endings, all good barista competition coverage must, one day, draw to a close. In what’s become tradition here at Sprudge, we’ll close out the 2014 United States Barista Championship season by taking an in-depth look at the six competitors who advanced to the final day of competition: Finals Sunday.

The finals stage (would that it were a podium) is hallowed ground, where the overall field of 136 at the regional level is whittled down to just a half-dozen souls, each achingly close to being crowned the USBC champion. It’s a very private club, and past winners of gone on to start their own companies, advance high up the career totem pole, and even bring home the bigger prize at the world level. The USBCs are rightly looked at by much of the international barista competition world as a barometer of where the global competition field is at each year.

Have we mentioned it’s very hard to win this thing. You can compete for years without getting close to winning—or in some cases, getting frustratingly close—and almost no one in recent memory has advanced to Finals Sunday in their first year of competition. It’s a sports-and-entertainment cliché that simply playing in the Super Bowl is akin to victory, or it’s an honor just to nominated. But that doesn’t make it less true for this very young sport. Being called on Sunday–whether your name comes first or last–is a win.

All photos by Charlie Burt for Sprudge.com. 

Nora Brady, Blueprint Coffee, St. Louis – 6th Place

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Nora Brady has consistently wowed Sprudge staff for several consecutive seasons of USBC play. Just look back through the archives: we’ve been nothing short of ebullient for the competitor from St. Louis. Ms. Brady’s routine at this year’s competition was the sort of thing you want to show to art film geeks, music nerds, and assorted deep thinkers. She competes with such verve and vibe that the effect is almost trance-like on the audience. It’s a competition style you see sometimes in other parts of the world, a kind of effortless smoothness with script and movement that almost transcends the act of making coffee itself, and becomes a kind of performance art. Fabrizio Sencion Ramirez, a Mexican barista champion who appeared on Finals Sunday at the 2012 World Barista Championship, has it. John Gordon, a top UK competitor and 2011 WBC finalist, has it. And Nora Brady has it.

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Brady was one of three competitors on Finals Sunday who did not win their respective regions. Advancing through the open round of competition at USBC was the grand flourish on a tiny coup staged by Blueprint Coffee, a new coffee roaster that opened in St. Louis in summer 2013. It would be rare and exceptional for any new company to field USBC competitors in their first year of business, but it’s exceedingly rare and exceptional for a new company–just 8 months old!–to make an appearance on Finals Sunday.

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Blueprint Coffee’s Colombia Victor Molano, sourced via Cafe Imports, anchored Brady’s routine, tasting of “baked pineapple, caramel, apricot, and cherry” as espresso, and “caramel and malt” as a cappuccino. Her signature drink involved shots of the Victor Molan skimmed for crema, along with Meyer lemon juice and a beet & turbinado sugar syrup, charged with nitrous oxide. The routine floated on a tasteful, minimalist soundtrack that included Sylvan Esso’s single, “Coffee“.

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It was a pleasure to watch Nora Brady compete three times this weekend, and her last set was our favorite. Like many in the crowd, we didn’t even notice that Brady had gone over time, eventually ending her routine at the 15:25 mark. This resulted in an automatic deduction of 25 points from her final score, a balance that felt impossible to redress as other top routines poured in. Maybe that’s a good thing though–an easily defined issue like timing gives the competitor something to focus on for the next round. After all, it’s a seriousness and competitiveness that drives most great art.

Camila Ramos, Panther Coffee, Miami – 5th place

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One of three regional champions to advance through Semi-Finals, Camila Ramos competes with a cultural perspective foreign to many coffee-focused Americans, and yet utterly American. Steeped in the Cuban coffee culture of Miami, where she was raised, Ramos is now on the forefront of expanding Miami’s identity as not just a coffee city, but a specialty coffee city. She’s synonymous (at least professionally) with Panther Coffee, whose emergence as a respected player in the US coffee scene is inextricably tied to Ms. Ramos’ success at competition, beginning with her first appearance at the 2012 Southeast Regional Barista Competition. When we interviewed her at that event in 2012 her enthusiasm for coffee was palpable, and here now, at Finals Sunday in 2014, that same spirit is clearly visible in the way she competes, and how she chooses to spend her time on stage.

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The novelist Tom Wolfe said of Miami, in his essential Miami book Back To Blood, “Miami is a melting pot in which none of the stones melt. They rattle around.” Camila Ramos echoed that same sentiment in her US Barista Championship routine, telling her judges, “We’re here today not for the coffee itself, but for the flavor it carries. Espresso is a cacophony of flavor and texture at once.” Hers was an effortlessly modern barista competition routine, with flashes of ingenuity: presenting the judges each with a cooled cupping bowl to start their service; cappuccinos with notes of “salted caramel milkshake”, prepared with Florida dairy milk flown cross-country; incorporating a new-age ingredient like xanthan gum into her signature drink, a substance so American it was invented by the United States Department of Agriculture.

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Hers was a routine that did not need to celebrate coffee’s globalism and diversity–it simply, elegantly incorporated it as a matter of course. The panela in her signature drink, for example, is a Latin & Central American ingredient, uncommon in most parts of the United States, but widely available at coffee bars (both good and bad) in Bogota, San Salvador, Mexico City, and we’re assuming, Havana. The coffee itself was from Nicaragua, grown in the northern reaches of that country on the border with Honduras by a man named Maximo Ramos, and marked by Panther Coffee as Nicaragua Kailash. The word means “crystal” in Sanskrit, and is the name of both a mountain in Tibet and a town in Nepal.

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The coincidence in surname between Camila and Maximo Ramos is exactly that–there’s no relation–but the defining moment in Camila Ramos’ routine came in her choice to play a recording of Maximo Ramos talking about his farm and the coffee grown there. The message was delivered in Spanish, and translated for the judges and audience by Ms. Ramos. Most coffee information is translated from the farmer at some point; this is nothing new. But here’s someone doing it live on stage, a stage that happens to be among the very largest in the coffee world. That’s Miami and Nicaragua and Seattle, an intersection of cultures and backgrounds each striving together for quality in the same shared moment. That’s Camila Ramos.

Cole McBride, PublicUS/Velton’s Coffee – 4th Place 

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After placing second by just a breath in the Northwest regionals, there was little surprise on Semi-Finals Saturday when Cole McBride’s name was called as an advancing competitor for Finals Sunday. That said, this was Mr. McBride’s first appearance at USBC Finals, and clearly a culminating moment for a coffee professional who’s spent considerable amounts of his own time, money, and mental resources on becoming a world-class barista competitor. This was Cole McBride’s first Finals Sunday routine; should he choose to continue competing, it won’t be his last.

All barista competition routines are in some sense a collaboration with a roaster, but Mr. McBride’s was rare for Finals Sunday in that he teamed up with a roaster of whom he’s not an employee (Charles Babinski did something even less traditional, as you’ll see below). It’s as though there were two competitors on stage during Cole McBride’s 15 minutes: himself and Velton Ross, owner and roaster at Velton’s Coffee, an avowedly small coffee roasting company in the Seattle exurb of Everett, Washington. Velton’s might have a small footprint–they’re currently served at Seattle cafes like Morsel and Yellow Dot–but Mr. McBride devoted considerable time in his USBC script to extolling the nature of his working partnership with Mr. Ross, and their growth together as coffee professionals through the process of refining a competition routine. Some competitors don’t talk about their roasters at all; for Mr. McBride, Mr. Ross played an integral role in his professional and personal success at competition, a fact he was not shy about sharing with his judges and the watching world.

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Or maybe it was like having three people up on stage during Cole McBride’s routine. He also talked at length about the relationship he and Ross enjoyed with Joe Marrocco of Cafe Imports. Mr. McBride competed with Costa Rica Las Lajas and Ecuador TKTKTK, both personally selected for his competition routine by Mr. Marrocco, who himself is a seasoned barista competitor at US national events and the Southeast region.

MrMcBride competed at regionals under the Visions Espresso banner. At nationals, he represented PublicUS, a “canteen-style, neighborhood restaurant” in the East Village district of Downtown Las Vegas opening soon. Look for more Sprudge coverage on PublicUS soon.

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Perhaps befitting his routine, this recap has focused primarily on other people, other projects with whom Cole McBride is collaborating. However, there were of course flashes of Mr. McBride’s personality throughout his 15 minutes on stage: a violent green stage settings; the doses of science on the topic of solubility; his signature drink, using elements like sake decanters, yuzu drinking vinegar, and a sencha green tea concentrate.

If there’s one takeaway from this routine, it’s that barista competitors are exposed to a lot of input about how they should compete, from informal advisors to paid trainers and everything in between. None of that matters in the end if the routine doesn’t feel authentically yours. Only Cole McBride could have given this performance; so what if it wasn’t all about him?

Trevor Corlett, Madcap Coffee Company, Washington D.C. – 3rd Place

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What a treat, to watch Trevor Corlett up there selling it for the second consecutive year on Finals Sunday. Corlett’s from the old guard, from the same generation of competitors as current World Champion Pete Licata, and has done his thing in competition for so long that he’s got trophies for events that don’t even exist anymore (Great Lakes Regionals, anyone?). Watching him compete, you are connecting with a deep love and appreciation of the game.

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This was a professional barista competition routine, meant in the the same context as when baseball lovers talk about professional at-bats. You almost have to know what to look for, as you watch Trev rake points in on the little things like station maintenance, economy of movement, and, obviously, professionalism. His heartbeat kind of never rises. It’s like watching Edgar Martinez hit, or Jamie Moyer pitch.

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It’s no accident that Mr. Corlett competed with one of Madcap’s anchor coffees. Their San Sebastian, from the department of Huila, Colombia, is no one-off: Madcap has been buying from the producers at OCCICAFE for five consecutive harvests. This is a coffee that Mr. Corlett knows intimately as a co-owner of Madcap Coffee. In his hands, San Sebastian tasted like “cherry and dark chocolate, with a distinctive clean finish.” But when it came time for cappuccinos, he throws his change-up: a decaffeinated coffee from Las Serranias, part of a fascinating project in Colombia that uses fermented sugar cane to naturally decaffeinate coffee, while adding sweetness in the cup. This, too, is currently part of the regular offerings in Madcap’s roster, which gets to the bigger point about Mr. Corlett’s routine.

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Sometimes the cart comes before the horse, or the horse and the cart arrived at around the same time, years ago. There are many barista competitors out there who compete to make a name for themselves–that’s part of the game, part of why the game exists–but what do you do if you are, say, Trevor Corlett, and you already co-own a successful and well-regarded quality coffee company? Why do you compete then? It becomes a kind of calling card for the bigger thing you’re trying to do. Trevor Corlett competed at USBC with two coffees that Madcap has worked with extensively, and that you can buy right now, this very second, from the Madcap Coffee website. It gets to a place beyond blind ambition and becomes part of how Corlett, and others who’ve followed him, represent professional coffee in the 21st century.

Charles Babinski, G&B Coffee, Los Angeles – 2nd Place

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Barista competitions are a tiny little world, and one of the common refrains we heard throughout USBC weekend went something like this: “If Charles really wants to win, he’ll do it.” This implies Charles Babinski as being some kind of grand arbiter of fate, controller of the universe & the point spreads, capable of turning on and off the whims and fathoms of this mortal coil like a light switch. This is, of course, bollocks, as Mr. Babinski himself would be the first to assure you.

But it’s true that this year makes for an astounding third-consecutive second place finish for Charles Babinski at the United States Barista Championship. Should he never compete again, he’ll go down as the Sammy Piccolo of the United States (Mr. Piccolo placed 2nd at the 2004, 2006 and 2009 World Barista Championships), or the Susan Lucci of coffee. Is there an early-90s Buffalo Bills-like stigma hanging over Babinski’s head? Is he, like Lisa Simpson in her fictional supergroup with Garfunkel, Messina, and Oates, simply “Born To Runner Up”?

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Take one deep breath–are you taking it?–and feel bad for Charles Babinski. Now exhale, and look at the bigger picture. He’s the “B” in G&B Coffee, a business partnership with Kyle Glanville (himself a former barista competitor and 2008 US Champion) that lays claim to two of the very best coffee bars in the world at present date: an eponymous, extraordinary cafe in LA’s Grand Central Market, and Go Get Em Tiger a service-forward, neighborhood-redefining coffee bar that makes Larchmont almost cool.

Pride of ownership can change a man. For Mr. Babinski, ownership seems to have amplified the core values he built his career on: dogged dedication to customer service, serving delicious drinks, giving engaging conversation, and providing public edutation. When the owner’s up there competing, you know it means something extra.

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Mr. Babinski competed with a post-roast blend of two different coffees, one from Cauca, Colombia and one Antigua, Guatemala. He chose not to reveal the roasters for these coffees during his routine, but details eventually leaked out at the show that the coffees were from Heart Coffee Roasters and newcomers Onyx Coffee Lab. The routine included flavor notes like “jasmine, strawberry rhubarb, and cacao bitters” in his espressos, and “dark chocolate, raisin” in his cappuccinos. Mr. Babinski’s signature drink featured just three home-made ingredients alongside his espresso: grapefruit rind simple syrup, apricot kernel milk, & cacao simple syrup.

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His routine built upon a series of overlapping, contradictory conceits: what happens on the farm is the most important thing for coffee; no wait, what happens in the portafilter is the most important thing for coffee. No, wait. In the end the most important thing for coffee is the human contract we make when promising a quality coffee experience. “It’s about keeping a promise,” Mr. Babinski told his judges, and it’s a promise he and his team are making and meeting day in and day out at their cafes in Los Angeles. This was, almost deceptively nestled within the the larger statements about coffee and the buzz of the competition hall, a routine rooted in the humble satisfaction of service done right.

Charles Babinski didn’t win the 2014 United States Barista Championship. But if you think Charles Babinski isn’t winning this thing in a greater sense, in the wider cosmic sense, you’re wrong.

Laila Ghambari, Cherry Street Coffee, Seattle – 1st Place

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Laila Ghambari is your 2014 United States Barista Champion! You can read our in-depth profile of Ms. Ghambari’s routine here, including much more about members of her winning team like roaster Phil Beattie of Dillanos Coffee (above, at left) and producer Emilio Lopez Diaz of Cuatro M Cafes (at right).

But we couldn’t resist running more photos from this routine.

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Laila2 Laila3Sprudge.com’s coverage of the 2014 United States Barista Championship was made possible by direct support from The Wilbur Curtis Company and Cafe Imports, whose patronage aided us in the production of our in-depth competition content all weekend long in Seattle. All of Sprudge.com’s 2014 live competition coverage around the world is underwritten by the generous support of Nuova Simonelli.

We’re proud to produce this content in partnership with the Specialty Coffee Association of America.


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