Quiet, humble, and effortlessly bright, regional champion barista and proud Kansas City resident Tyler Rovenstine opens up to Sprudge Assistant Editor Alex Bernson in a candid question and answer session. This interview was conducted as part of a Cafe Imports origin trip to Ecuador, a prize given to US regional and national winners and the World Barista Champion.
How long have you been a barista?
For over ten years now. I started working in coffee while I was going to school in Oklahoma, doing biblical studies. My aunt and uncle lived there, and they had just purchased an existing shop. They offered me a job—I was working at the Gap at the time, and yeah I wasn’t particularly attached to that job….
Later I moved to Chicago for three years, while my wife went to Columbia College. I worked first for West Gate Coffeehouse, then Bridgeport Coffee. After she graduated, we moved to Kansas City, where I worked at The Roasterie for 3 years, and then Oddly Correct for two years. I left Oddly Correct in April and am now managing Quay Coffee.
How long have you competed?
My first competition was the Midwest Regional, that would have been the 2010 season. I had no idea what I was doing initially, but I’m the type of person who thrives on a challenge, an obstacle. Next I competed at the 2012 Brewers Cup, in Chicago. Last year, I was back at the Barista Competition, competing in the 2013 Midwest Regionals in Kansas City. That year I got fourth. In 2014 I competed for Oddly Correct, winning the South Central Regionals.
Did you ever think competition would take you to Ecuador?
My whole approach for competition is that I just want to do well, to represent myself and my company well. I wasn’t even expecting anything. Especially since there are no finals this year [at Regionals], when they had gotten through calling places four through six, I was thinking there was no way I was in the top three.
Is this your first time on a coffee farm?
I went to Costa Rica for about thirty-six hours in February of 2013. I spent the day at El Roble. I left Monday night, got there at 6 in the moring, spent the day, the next day, then left early Thursday morning. It was an incredible experience. I had used that coffee to win regionals, and having that connection with producers before even meeting them was awesome.
What’s stood out to you about Ecuador compared to your time in Costa Rica?
Being in Costa Rica was frantic–when I pulled up in El Roble, the trees were red and bending down with all the cherry. It was a very hectic time, they had to get that cherry off the trees and processed as quickly as possible. Here in Ecuador, it’s been much more relaxed, we’ve gotten to see flowers and watch the process more.
Where are you going to go next in coffee?
There’s a lot great work to do at Quay. It’s in the Rivermarket, and it’s big. It’s in an old bank building, with the safe sitting in the middle of the space. I’m really enjoy doing retail right now. We’re an Oddly Correct wholesale customer, and we want to expand horizons there.
On the personal side, my wife and I just bought a house in Kansas City, and we have our first kid on the way, due in January. My wife is an artist, she works at the Nelson Atkins Museum in addition to selling her own paintings.
How did you explain to your parents, “I’m going to Ecuador”?
I think there’s this thing, it legitimizes what I’m doing to them. I mean my family, they’re supportive and all, but it does help legitimize it for them.
I think for my friends it is some of the same. I tell a friend, “I won a competition” and they’re like “Oh, that’s cool.” But then I tell them “I’m going to Ecuador as a reward” and they’re like “Oh…that’s really cool.”
Do you plan on competing more?
With a kid on the way, I’m definitely taking next year off. I would like to judge at some point, maybe even this year, and do what I can to help other people compete. I’d find almost as much satisfaction seeing someone I’ve helped do well in competition.