Last weekend, Track One in Nashville, TN hosted the largest qualifying event for U.S. Coffee Championships of the year. The only event to host all five competitions – Barista, Brewers Cup, Cup Tasters, Roasters, and Coffee in Good Spirits – hundreds of coffee folks from around the country (and beyond) flooded Music City to watch dozens of the best coffee professionals in the country compete for an opportunity to move a step closer to the national finals, and ultimately, to representing the United States on the world stage.
Add to that the “Roaster’s Village”, featuring booths from companies demoing and selling everything from coffee & tea to espresso machines, as well as industry parties and events each day, and we’ve got ourselves a highly-caffeinated good time.
I made my way from Dallas to Nashville over the weekend to spread the good word of KLLR Coffee as well as to judge Coffee in Good Spirits.
Coffee in Good Spirits – or CIGS - is the most recent addition to the roster of United States Coffee Competitions, previously being an independent competition and only just incorporated into the USCC last year. 2020, in fact, is the first year that the United States Coffee Competitions will be sending on a national champion to compete at the world championship level.
I arrived in town Thursday and got a couple obligatory tourist activities checked off: hot chicken and honky tonk. One downside of having to judge is having to maintain a fresh palate and spicy food was off-limits for us the rest of the weekend so I was happy to sweat through some firey farm-bird to kick off my stay. Next, I trekked over to Broadway to take in some awesome live country music courtesy of the Don Kelly Band and enjoy a couple cold ones.
Starting Friday morning at 8:00am, it was back to business a la a long day of judges workshops. This entailed talking through rulebooks and scoresheets, tasting through spirits, coffees, mocktails and cocktails, and calibrating our scoring skills amongst judges to ensure accuracy.
It was an honor and a pleasure to work alongside talented head-judges like Rita Kaminsky, U.S. Coffee in Good Spirits Chair, and head judges Georgia Tookey, and Brandon Paul Weaver.
Over the next two days, 16 competitors performed the routines they had developed and practiced over the past weeks and months, each crafting two cocktails on stage before the audience and judges – one hot and one cold -each using coffee and at least one using espresso.
The field was strong and it was inspiring to see so much hard work, preparation, and creativity manifest upon the stage. By Sunday night, six competitors had been named to move on to the national level at the Specialty Coffee Association Expo this April in Portland, OR.
In other areas of the venue, the other competitions were going on simultaneously and in my down-time, I was able to catch a couple routines from each category.
Upstairs, and across from Artisan Guitars, whose shop featured some truly gorgeous acoustic guitars, the Brewers Cup saw baristas preparing pour-over coffees with accompanying presentations for their judges – takeaway: Geshas.
Downstairs, the main event hall was home to the remaining three competitions: Roasters, Cup-Tasters, and Barista.
For the Roasters competition, coffee roasters from around the country are given samples of coffee to profile, roast, and describe. After roasting, they then give a presentation to a panel of judges – who have already tasted and evaluated the coffees -explaining why the roasted the coffee the way they did, and what it tastes like.
Cup Tasters features four baristas on stage at a time, each with 8 sets of three cups placed before them. Within these sets of cups, two are identical coffees, and one – marked with a dot on the bottom of the cup – is different. Participants have several minutes to taste through the cups, pushing forward the cup they decide to be the outlier.
Suspense hung heavy in the air as the MC walked up and down the rows as competitors ceremoniously raised their selected cups to reveal either a dot, or a dreaded blank cup bottom.
The undeniable star of the show for most, and the one with the most competitors, is the Barista Competition. Barista competitors have 8 minutes to serve espressos and cappuccinos to two judges and two guest judges as a technical judge evaluates cleanliness, and technical prowess. While preparing their beverages, each competitor presents a cohesive routine to explain their coffees and techniques.
In the remaining time available, I made the rounds around the Roaster’s Village to view a variety of booths. The highlight of this was the opportunity to judge a super-automated latte art throwdown hosted by our friends and partners at Eversys.
On Saturday, attendees could go to the Eversys booth and pour latte art with milk automatically steamed by the Eversys Cameo espresso machine. Photos were taken of each beverage and Sunday morning, whittled down to three winners who left with cash prizes. Some of these pours were impressive, to say the least – takeaway: seahorses.
After the festivities wound down each day, various cafes and bars around town hosted a handful of industry networking events, parties, and throwdowns. Winding down with some interesting (and explosive!) tiki cocktails on Sunday with new friends was the perfect conclusion to a fun – and exhausting – weekend.
If you’ve never been to a coffee competition or industry event, it may sound like a strange concept but the engagement possible, access to education provided, and relationships formed at these functions is really something special. I never take the luxury of working in an industry I truly love and enjoy for granted, and these events make it clear that I’m not alone in that.
The dedication competitors put into their craft – the late nights practicing, the expense of traveling and taking time off, the exacting standards they hold themselves to - the countless hours of volunteered labor contributed by dozens of organizers, judges, and other volunteers, and the genuine desire to help one another learn, grow, and develop - regardless of job-title, employer, or level of coffee knowledge - is nothing short of inspiring. I always return home from these events feeling pump and ready to get back to work doing what I love.
If you have any interest in being a part of these events, you can find all the information you need at sca.org/events. If you want any additional perspective on how to utilize these opportunities, or how to be more involved with KLLR Coffee, reach out anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hopefully at the next event you’ll be there too, sipping a cold drink at the end of a productive weekend.