Beauty and the EastBaristas from New York, Maryland win top U.S. prizes
By Chris Ryan
Portland may be considered by many to be the epicenter of all that is cool in specialty coffee, with cutting-edge shops, quality-oriented micro-roasters and scads of competition-winning baristas. But as the city played host to the U.S. Barista Championship April 19-22, it was two out-of-towners who took the weekend’s main prizes: New York City’s Katie Carguilo won the USBC, while Annapolis, Md.’s Andy Sprenger took home the U.S. Brewers Cup title.
The science of victory
Carguilo, who works in customer support at Counter Culture Coffee’s New York City training center, started her competition season on the right foot with a win at the Northeast regional in February. She won that contest with an all-Ethiopian routine, and she didn’t deviate much from that course for her USBC performance. “The routine scored so well at the regionals that I didn’t end up making many changes,” she says. “I changed the proportions of the signature beverage slightly so it wouldn’t taste too sweet, and I thought more about how to better articulate the points I was trying to get across during the presentation.”
For her routine, Carguilo used Counter Culture’s Idido Natural Sundried for her cappuccinos, and another Yirgacheffe called Haru for her espressos and signature beverage. She then teamed with Counter Culture head roaster Tim Hill, who had been experimenting with sorting beans through different screen sizes to produce different tastes. He sent her samples of coffees pushed through different sizes; she chose screen size 16, and Counter Culture then hand-screened the coffee for her. Onstage, she showed the judges a small screen to illustrate the idea, then used it as her serving tray.
Carguilo says she formulated the routine in part by drawing on lessons she learned through Counter Culture’s educational series, Counter Intelligence. “Baristas have elevated their education to the point where we can go deeper than just celebrating and describing a great coffee's flavor,” she says. “We want to talk about what influences these flavors and where they come from.” For example, she came up with the idea for her signature drink—a drinking vinegar combining espresso with nectarine and lemon juices, jasmine green tea, carbonated water and white vinegar—by recalling a Counter Culture session during which she learned vinegar is the byproduct of fermentation. Carguilo’s routine may have been heady stuff, but she aimed to present it in a way the layperson could understand. “Baristas usually carry the message to the consumer, not the farmer, so I felt it was important to present the technical stuff in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand,” she says. “That’s why I chose to use props (like pitting a nectarine instead of a coffee cherry) so the explanation of the depulping and fermentation of a coffee bean would be easier to understand.”
Carguilo becomes the fourth woman to win the 10-year-old competition, and the first since Klatch Coffee’s Heather Perry won in 2007. The male-dominated nature of the competition is something Carguilo has considered. “Why aren’t there more women on the stage?” she asks. “I don’t have the answer for that question, but I do believe that having a woman do well at these things can be an inspiration for other women to get in there. And so in that regard, I’m super happy I did well, and I hope I continue to do well.”
She now moves on to the World Barista Championship, taking place June 12-15 in Vienna. Carguilo will celebrate her 29th birthday while in Austria’s capital, and she’ll also be deviating from her award-winning routine. “I don’t have any more of the coffees I used at USBC, so I’ll be using something else,” she says. “But the spirit of the routine will remain the same.”
Rounding out the top three at the USBC were Intelligentsia Coffee’s Charles Babinski in second and Chris Baca of Verve Coffee in third.
While the USBC now has a decade in the books, the weekend’s other main event—the U.S. Brewers Cup—is just two years old. And in those two contests, one competitor has reigned supreme: Andy Sprenger, head roaster of Annapolis, Md.’s Ceremony Coffee Roasters, who defended his title with another win in Portland.
For the second-straight year, Sprenger employed a Bee House ceramic coffee dripper to make his coffee. Whereas he went with an Ethiopian coffee in 2011—a move close to Sprenger’s heart, as he and his wife adopted their youngest son Joshua from the African country—this year he opted to use a Colombian coffee called Cerro Azul. The farm is part of a cooperative called Café Granja la Esperanza, owned by brothers Rigoberto and Luis Eduardo Herrera, which features several Colombian farms and one from Panama. Sprenger used a Geisha coffee—best known as the star varietal at Panama’s renowned Hacienda La Esmeralda—that was transported from Panama to Colombia. “They brought 35,000 Geisha seedlings from Panama and planted them at Cerro Azul,” Sprenger says. “The whole terroir aspect I felt was quite interesting. This coffee has a bigger body than Panama Geishas, and it has a Concord grape jam note, which I haven’t really experienced in the Geishas
While this year’s coffee may not have had the family ties that his Ethiopian one did, Sprenger said he still felt an emotional connection to his product: Rigoberto Herrera was on-hand to cheer him on. It was an exciting weekend for the Granja la Esperanza contingency, as the co-op also produced three of the 10 winners in the SCAA’s Coffee of the Year competition. “It’s very cool to win again, but even cooler to have the producers that grew the coffee winning along with me,” Sprenger says. “They were just really supportive
of all of this.”
Sprenger’s status as the only American to hold the U.S. Brewers Cup title begs the question: What’s his secret? According to him, it’s all about practice. “It dominated my thoughts for months,” he says. “I’d come in early to work to practice, go home late, work on my script and just put a lot a lot of time into it.” Sprenger will continue to hone that approach for the World Brewers Cup, which looms in June (at last year’s WBC event, he failed to make it out of the first round). But in the meantime, he’ll savor his repeat victory. “It’s kind of surreal,” he says. “It just feels good to be rewarded for the preparation and work that I put into it.”
Finishing behind Sprenger in the Brewers Cup were independent competitors Jon Ferguson in second and
Dut Goodman in third.