It’s official. The field for the 2019 US Coffee Championships is set. After learning the first 62 competitors to punch their tickets at last month’s Denver Qualifying Event, we now know the other 70 coffee professionals to round out the field for the national stage of competition, taking place in just a few short months in Kansas City, Missouri.
From a list of 200 coffee professionals spread across five competitions—Barista Championship, Brewers Cup, Coffee in Goods Spirits, Cup Tasters, and Roasters Championship—the field was winnowed down by nearly two-thirds to a tight 70. There were names new and old—both in terms of competitor and coffee company represented—but as they so often do, the familiar veteran names often found their way to the tops of the list.
That’s not to say that the first-timers didn’t make a splash in Nashville. There were more than a handful of those new to competition who walked away with some wooden hardware, poised to take their rightful place as one of the wily vets in the 2020 season and beyond.
We’re still two months away from the US Coffee Championships storming the Kansas City Convention Center in March, and you can expect the 130+ coffee professionals making the trip will use those 58 days to ramp up their practice time and fine tune their performances. We’ve witnessed a lot of coffee competition already, but we haven’t seen anything yet. Now is when it gets really real.
But before all the really really realness, let’s take a few minutes to enjoy what transpired over the weekend. Let’s look back at the US Coffee Championships Qualifying Even in Nashville, Tennessee.
SprudgeLive’s coverage of the 2019 US Coffee Champs is made possible by Joe Glo and Mahlkönig. All of SprudgeLive’s 2019 competition coverage is made possible by Acaia, Baratza, Faema, Cafe Imports, and Wilbur Curtis.
A common thread throughout most of the 10-minute routines at the Barista Championship was a general sense of cool collectedness. Participants stayed within themselves even in the face of the oppressive time constrictions. Even though the competition was split pretty evenly between veterans and rookies, the overarching zeitgeist was one of, “we’ve been here before.” The event felt more academic than ecstatic.
Until it didn’t. Competitors like Adam JacksonBey, Rodrigo Vargas, Anthony Ragler, and the undeniable crowd favorite Sarah Gill—”you can call me Mama Mocha”—blew the roof off the Track One events space. Their energy was infectious, riling up the otherwise polite crowd into a frenzy of full-throated yowls and even the occasional post-routine interview bum-rush for a 20+ person 4:20 selfie.
Amid all the excitement, after the dust settled there was one clear winner: La Palma y El Tucan. The esteemed Colombian farm produced the coffees used by the top three finalists (who all just so happened to go back-to-back-to-back at the end of Day Two). The only other two competitors to use La Palma in the Nashville Barista competition, Juan Diaz and Shane Hess, also found their way to nationals by taking 14th and 16th, respectively.
It’s about as close to a clean sweep as you can expect from a single producer. But the question remains: can they finish the fight or will they lose out to other competition heavyweights like Hacienda La Papaya and Finca Nuguo, the coffees used by the last three years’ winners? We’ll just have to wait until March to find out.
Much of the talk around Track One (and even extending to Twitter) stemmed from the Brewers Cup, where innovative new brewing techniques found their way onto the stage and into the national round of competition in Kansas City. Most notably, 2017 US Brewers Cup runner-up Chelsea Walker-Watson had the people buzzing with her use of a sous vide bath to help keep her brew at a precise temperature.
Not to be out-innovated, Dune Coffee’s Felix Felix came with his own custom-design brewing device that he made using a 3D printer.
Even amongst the progressive takes on brewing, perhaps the most impressive feet was that of Grace McCutchan, a competitor unknown to the national stage of competition but still able to best seasoned vets Jennifer Hwang, Tyler Duncan, and 2018 US Cup Tasters Champion Ken Selby. She’s become one to watch. Will we have back-to-back newcomers taking it all down at the US Brewers Cup? McCutchan is making an argument.
Coffee In Good Spirits
After a slow start in Denver, the Coffee in Good Spirits competition found stronger footing in Nashville, where the number of competitors over quadrupled. The competition really ramped up for the second leg of the Qualifying Event stage. Fire, smoke, ice, the drinks here in Nashville looked as tasty as they did dramatic.
Though only in its first year on American soil, if Nashville is any indication, Coffee in Good Spirits is going to be around for the long haul.
In case you needed any convincing that Onyx Coffee Lab is really, really good at coffee competition (and, y’know, their Roasters title, Brewers Cup title, and multiple consecutive Finals appearances in the Barista Championship aren’t enough for you), look no further than the Cup Tasters competition in Nashville. Fielding three Tasters—roughly 1/16th of the total competitors—Onyx nonetheless found all three of those competitors moving on, one in five.
But it would be foolish to make any future predictions at this point. With five competitors correctly identifying all six sets and perpetual finalist Samuel Demisse lurking in the field, this is one is still anyone’s to claim.
Roasters Championship competitors found themselves with a unique challenge: how to roast a coffee without knowing a thing about it. That coffee, it turned out, was a natural processed Myanmar, which many competitors found to be quite the sticky wicket. How do you ramp up the sweetness and soften the nuttiness?
Ultimately, it was a nut that the roasters (first) cracked. Having personally tasted multiple roasters’ takes on the coffee—thanks in no small part to the Sprudge Live desk being very, very close to the Roasters Village—I can say that many roasters found that balance. The cups were sweet, not overly heavy, with little to no hint of ferment.
If these coffees are any indication of what’s to come in Kansas City, attendees are in for LOTS of really good coffee.
Photos for Sprudge and Sprudge Live by Elizabeth Chai and Charlie Burt.
Zac Cadwalader is the managing editor at Sprudge Media Network and a staff writer based in Dallas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.