What Goes Down at the 'Olympics of the Coffee World'

It’s high season for coffee events. National Coffee Day is approaching on September 29. And as many Square sellers know, the U.S. Coffee Championships are just around the corner. Every year, the competition crowns the country’s top coffee talent — a huge honor that bestows the winners with industry-wide celebrity status. Much like March Madness, the event is organized by brackets, with the Western, Central, and Eastern regions each sending winners to the February 2015 finals in Long Beach. Things kick off with the Big Western in Palm Springs on October 7.

The event is broken down into three parts. Participants make four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four original creations of their choice. To level the playing field, all players get the same beans the night before.

We caught up with Jordan Michelman, cofounder of popular coffee blog Sprudge.com, to get his thoughts on what to expect this year.

Square: How big of a deal are the U.S. Coffee Championships for the coffee world?
Michelman: In some circles, the U.S. Coffee Championships are like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. It’s a very big deal in the admittedly small (but growing) world of competitive coffee.

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Are there certain coffee shops whose baristas always dominate?
Competition is part of the culture for certain American progressive coffee brands. It’s no accident that these brands are leaders in the retail and wholesale sectors of the American high-end coffee scene. Each year it’s likely that you’ll see top competitors from companies like Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, and Colectivo Coffee in Wisconsin. That said, competition can also be a way for new and up-and-coming brands to make a name for themselves. Companies like Panther Coffee in Miami and Everyman Espresso in Manhattan have helped grow their national profiles through competition.

Who are the biggest talents to watch right now?
Last year’s United States Barista Championship finalists are a good place to start — any of them could be back to the finals again this year. From that group I’m particularly excited to see what’s next from Nora Brady and Blueprint Coffee in St. Louis. The whole country should know Camila Ramos, too, from Panther Coffee; she’s a star, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she wins the whole thing in 2015.

What are some of the craziest creations in the free-form event?
Laila Ghambari, a barista from Seattle, won the United States Barista Championship last year. Her free-form drink — called a “signature drink” in competition parlance — included smoked coffee-tree wood and coffee cherry jam, made from the same plant her coffee grew on. She lit the wood on stage and incorporated smoke into her drink. The entire competition hall smelled like a wood fire. One time a barista in Ireland made his judges snort powdered glucose. That’s about as weird as it gets.

How much time do people dedicate to preparing?
Some people spend months or whole years perfecting what they want to say and do with their competition time.

What happens afterwards with the winners?
There is a degree of notoriety and admiration afforded to national champions that approaches celebrity. But more than that, the winners gain the attention and influence necessary to move up in their companies, or they get access to resources to start their own companies. I’m fond of saying that coffee competitions are like the minor leagues for specialty coffee — win one and you get a major league job. Becoming a coffee “celebrity” is cool; making a living from coffee is cooler.