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Third Time’s the Charm

Third Time’s the Charm

Licata scores big win for Hawaiian coffee at USBC
By Chris Ryan

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HOUSTON—Pete Licata had been here before, standing onstage at the United States Barista Championship awards ceremony. Again, he watched as name after name was called until there were just two competitors left under the lights. In 2007 and 2008, Licata’s name was called as the second-place finisher. On the Houston stage, Licata pondered his fate once again. “I was like, ‘Well, here it comes,’” says Licata. “It was definitely a nerve-wracking time. Being up there twice and not winning, you get used to the letdown.” But there was no letdown on Sunday, as the director of coffee quality at Honolulu Coffee Company took home the 2011 USBC crown.

With the win, Licata became not only the first USBC winner to use Hawaiian coffee, but the first one to pick, process and roast the beans himself. Miguel Meza, owner of Hawaii’s Isla Coffee, worked closely with Licata to coordinate the selection of his coffee, and says Licata’s devotion to all steps of the process separated him from other competitors. “It shows he knows all aspects of coffee,” Meza says. “He understands production, he understands roasting, and he understands espresso and brewing. To really know all that, you have to live it and experience it yourself. He had to live this for the last six months.”

Licata’s presentation focused on a honey-processed coffee that he plucked from Rusty’s Hawaiian, a farm in the Big Island’s Ka’u district. His signature drink was a three-parter representing each segment of the seed-to-cup process: a tea made from the parchment and cherry skin he saved during the processing phase; a French press brewed from a lighter roast of the coffee; and espresso pulled from a darker roast. For his cappuccinos, Licata used a blend of a natural-processed coffee from Rusty’s Hawaiian and a washed coffee from Waiono Meadows in the Kona region. For his espressos, which he says aimed to unite all the flavors from the presentation into one cup, Licata employed a blend featuring 50 percent honey coffee, 35 percent washed and 15 percent natural.

Licata’s victory serves as a coming-out party of sorts for Hawaiian coffee and the quality movement under way there. Lorie Obra, owner of Rusty’s Hawaiian, says she’s excited for the international exposure the win brings. “That will really elevate Hawaiian coffee in the world,” she says. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, Hawaiian coffee is all hyped up.’ We’re showing them we’re not hyped up; we are the real thing.” Meza says he’s especially excited that Licata will be representing American-grown coffee at Bogota, Colombia’s World Barista Championship, which for the first time will be held in a coffee-producing country. “Hawaii is often overlooked as a true specialty producer, and we really wanted to show Hawaii can produce a diversity of great coffees,” he says. “The Hawaiian industry is near and dear to our hearts.”

As for Licata, he’s finally tasting victory after so many tries at the top prize. “I’m in disbelief in a lot of ways because this was my sixth USBC,” he says. “It’s a little wild.” He moves on to a field of 50-plus competitors vying for the top spot at the WBC, June 2-5. Because Mike Phillips’ 2010 WBC win positions the United States as the defending champion, Licata knows a lot of attention will be on him. “Because we won last year, more people are gunning for you,” he says. “More people are expecting you to do well, so people are stepping up their game. I think that it’s definitely within my grasp, but I think it’s within a lot of people’s grasps as well. You definitely can’t discount anybody at this point.”

Rounding out the top three at the 2011 USBC were second-place finisher Nikolas Krankl from Gelato Bar & Café in Studio City, Calif., and Ryan Knapp of Grand Rapids, Mich.’s MadCap Coffee.

Dan Leif provided additional reporting for this story.

For a video of Licata discussing the story behind his 2011 routine, go to

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