It’s 11 am on the first weekend of February and hundreds of people are gathered in SODO at the sleek and confidently out of place wine playground, Urban Enoteca. They are there, not for some well-earned weekend day drinking, but for the Northwest Regional Barista Competition and Brewers Cup.
If you keep reading that last line, thinking to yourself “the Northwest wha-huh?” you’re not alone (professional coffee types can often be as insular as they are nerdy)
It goes like this: every year, baristas from different regions of the US battle it out to find the six best in their region. The six finalists are given a spot in the national competition, the winner of which represents the US in the world competition, held this year in Melbourne, Australia.
The competition itself is actually two competitions, the rigorous and technical Barista Competition and its more relaxed younger sibling, the Brewers cup. In the barista competition, participants make four single espressos, four cappuccinos and four “signature beverages” (which have to predominately feature espresso) in less than fifteen minutes. Every word, movement, spill and stray bit of ground coffee is noted and judged against a 24 page rulebook by a panel of four sensory judges, two technical judges and one head judge (who themselves go through a rigorous training and testing process). The key criterion is that the drinks be balanced. For espresso this means a harmony of sweetness, acidity and bitterness without one element dominating the experience. For cappuccinos this means that the espresso and milk have to work together to form something greater than the sum of their parts. The top competitors use each course to make a point or tell a story, earning them points for professionalism. Generally, it can be a little hard to describe but I recommend watching at least some of the routines (the whole competition is available for streaming here)
Two of Slate’s educators, Timothy Robert Graham and Myself (Brandon Paul Weaver), competed this year and we are proud to announce that Tim made finals! This means he will be flying out to the national competition in Boston this April. If you see him, make sure to congratulate him as people often work for many years, training for months before each competition, to get to this level. We are ecstatic to have him represent Slate!
As for the brewer’s cup, this fledgling three-year-old competition is much simpler though still incredibly challenging. The competition is meant to showcase and advance the art of manually brewing coffee i.e. brewing without the aid of automation (unfortunately, no Mr. Coffees). People use a variety of pour over drip cones, immersion steepers and press devices but however you go about it, the goal is to brew the tastiest coffee. Prior to the competition, each competitor is given a bag of mystery coffee (everyone gets the same one) and without knowing what it is, has to find a way to brew it so that it tastes best. In round one, competitors have seven minutes to brew three cups, one per judge, with whatever method they choose. The judges rank each coffee on flavor, aftertaste, acidity, aroma, body and balance and the six highest scoring baristas move on to the finals, where baristas prepare and present a coffee of their choosing. This is the really exciting part as people always bring some incredible coffees and each one is batch brewed and available for tasting just to the side of the stage. Judging criteria is the same in this round, however there is an added presentation score based on customer service and how accurately the baristas can describe their coffee.
This year’s brewers cup had an astounding 22 competitors and I have the good fortune to say that Slate topped them all. Using a custom blend of our Ethiopia Hawisa and Ethiopia Tencho Wolenso, I was able to brew my way to victory, winning a Baratza Vario-W grinder, a fancy trophy from Reg Barber, and a trip to Boston with accommodation for the national competition. Of course none of this would have been possible without hard work from each and every one of our staff: our fearless leader Lisanne, our roasting team of Keenan and Josh, our one women Swiss army knife Chelsey, Jared who has literally built Slate (and once drove me to SODO to practice my brewing), Timothy who taught me so much through practicing along side me, Tommy for designing brilliance on a whim and my coach Nik, who once tasted almost 50 separate cups with me in a 24 hour period, advising and adjusting all the while. I owe you guys.
All in all it was a great weekend. With finalists in both competitions, we’ve just started to demonstrate what we are about, and for a company’s first competition ever, I would say we aren’t doing too bad. Not too bad at all… Stay tuned!