by Alex Hanson, Director of Education + Quality Control
Coffee competitions have been described as one-part Olympics, one-part dog show, and one-part personal crisis. While this may be an absurd combination of elements, it’s not far from the truth. Spyhouse sent myself, and our Director of Wholesale, Kathie Hilberg, to compete, judge, and coach at the US Coffee Champs regional qualifier in New Orleans, LA. With small yearly changes in venue setup, rules, and industry trends, there is always a nervous energy and tension behind the scenes of each stage of competition. New Orleans was no exception, despite the celebratory atmosphere of Mardi Gras season starting up.
After arriving for the competition the night before, our team took in the opening ceremonies, which serve as a chance for everyone to get together and enjoy food, drinks, dancing, and a latte art throwdown, before the stress of competing fully sets in. Whether a seasoned pro or a first-timer, all types of coffee professionals can be found hanging around during competition season. Importers, roasters, baristas, green buyers, owners, and distributors, all gather to compete, judge, coach, and volunteer. It takes a massive effort to make these competitions work smoothly, but year after year, the industry comes through.
The following day, the competition began at the Contemporary Art Center in downtown New Orleans. While Kathie had a full-day of judging the US Barista Championship competitors, I prepared for the Open Service round of the US Brewer’s Cup. The Brewer’s Cup is divided into an Open Service round and Compulsory Service round. For the Open Service round, I was tasked with manually brewing coffee for 3 separate judges, while presenting the coffee, methodology, and theme I had decided to incorporate, all in a matter of 10 minutes. Back in Minneapolis, I had spent weeks preparing a script and conducting brewing trials in an effort to find the right recipe and narrative to accompany the coffee I had chosen. I had decided to use a relatively new offering for us, Chelbessa / Ethiopia, but was confident in my ability to brew it well, while telling an intriguing story about its origins.
With my partner (and coach for the weekend), Christina, helping me out, we went about testing and tasting in the competitor area backstage. After a few grind adjustments, I had my recipe locked in, and all that was left was to rehearse my script a few more times. With time passing very slowly, my nerves threatened to get the best of me, and a walk around the event space was in order. The US Coffee Champs events are remarkably well organized, given the logistical challenges faced in setting up/maintaining equipment, supporting sponsors, and corralling competitors. We were able to sample some coffees from featured roasters, and check out displays and merchandise from a variety of folks within the specialty coffee industry. It calmed me down a bit, and I got out of my head.
Before I knew it, it was time to take the stage. With friends and colleagues looking on, I got mic’d up, took some deep breaths and got ready to brew. 10 minutes is both a blink and eternity in an event like this, but I was able to move through the 3 brews smoothly, spoke confidently, and just like that, it was over. All the pressure and preparation, leading up to a 10-minute slot on the stage. With the judges tasting and deliberating, I walked backstage feeling a combination of relief and anticipation. Having competed twice before, I had built up a better understanding of what to do (and what not to do) to perform well in this event, and felt like I had done my best. The rest was in the judges' hands.
With the first stage of competition behind me, it was time to wind down for a bit. As we walked through the downtown area, the city was buzzing with music, parades, and decorations. We watched people, young and old, marching, dancing, waving, and cheering as the afternoon sun faded.
The next morning we got to the Art Center early to watch some of our friends and colleagues compete. Kathie had been helping coach some our wholesale partners who had staff competing in the Barista Championship, many for the first time, and we cheered them on as they completed their routines. Before too long though, it was time for me to head backstage again to prepare for round 2 of the Brewer’s Cup. For this portion of the competition, all brewing competitors were given the same coffee blindly. We had no information about it, but were given 30 minutes to analyze and test brew it, before producing cups for the judges. With no script to memorize, and no further presentation component to worry about, I went into this round with a lot more confidence in my ability to dial-in a coffee quickly, and got my recipe into a good place. I brewed, placed the 3 cups on a nondescript tray, and it was whisked behind a curtain for final analysis. Just as before, it was up to the judges now.
With live scoring starting up in the late afternoon, competitors in each event started to get a sense of how they had performed. The Art Center morphed into a sea of relief, joy, and frustration. As the last round of live updates came through I found myself in 6th place out 32 competitors. With the top 13 advancing to Nationals, and some 15-odd competitors left to go, I felt I was on the bubble for making it through.
The afternoon wore on, and before long, a crew of volunteers and event staff began tearing down the competition stages to make room for award presentations. With all attendees packed into seats and standing along the walls, the announcements began. First, the cup tasters competition, followed by the roasting competition, and finally, the moment I had been waiting for, Brewer’s Cup. The top competitors would be announced in order from 13th to first. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous at that moment, but I felt, regardless of the outcome, truly happy with how I had performed.
Finally, the speaker began, “In 13th place….Alex Hanson, Spyhouse Coffee Roasters!”
I didn’t have to wait long. All the stress had been worth it. I was moving on to Nationals in Seattle.