Kyle Ramage works with Mahlkönig USA, but has taken on a new title: US Barista Champion. In a performance that showcased dry ice, long extractions, and Panamanian coffee from Finca Nuguo, he eeked out a victory over a field of veteran competitors. We caught up with Ramage and asked him about competition strategy, coffee celebrity, and next steps.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
What were some initial responses when you told people you were going to present frozen coffee?
The first time I did it, people thought I was kind of crazy. It’s the exact opposite direction than what we’ve been told by other manufacturers to think about. The first coffee I used was a Reko from Madcap Coffee, for the qualifier in Knoxville. Even some of the most progressive coffee minds out there were like, “What are you doing? This is a huge risk”. Lem [Butler] was nervous, Trevor Corlett who co-owns Madcap and sponsored my coffee for the qualifier was really nervous, but then they tasted it with me in Knoxville and they were like, “Ok, yes, that is spectacular.”
How did you ensure the judges didn’t have the same initial reaction?
In a barista competition, just like any spoken communication, you have thirty seconds to really link them into the routine, or to the talk. If you don’t get them in that thirty seconds, you’re sunk, it’s over. Even if you present good information or whatever else, it’s going to be hard for them to buy in, or mentally ascend to your thoughts and be able to go back and forth with you mentally.
In sports, I’ve always been about the risk-reward shot. I used to play competitive disc golf and still play a lot of golf; I love the risk shot, where you try and hit it over the water and it could be really close, or it could go in the water. That was kind of what this presentation was in so many ways.
How did you come to use the Nuguo for your USBC competition coffee?
[In working with frozen coffee], I did notice that the lighter the roast the better when combined with my extraction style. I make pretty large volume espressos for the judges and it freaks people out. Basically what I figured out is the dry ice makes coffee significantly more soluble. Because it makes the particles a little finer and a little more uniform. So you pull a lot more out.
I worked with Kyle Tush, who’s the roaster for Counter Culture. [Tush also roasted Lem Butler’s winning coffee in 2016, which also came from Finca Nuguo.] I told him what I was doing and what styles of roast worked best, so he roasted it pretty darn light for me.
Obligatory question: what was it like to be standing up there with Andrea and realizing it had come down to you two?
The whole time I did not expect to win. I have so much respect for all the people who stood on the stage. So many of the competitors I look at and think: these people are better at making coffee than me, for sure. I was blown away. I told Andrea when we were up there that they [Onyx] swept it— their roaster won, their brewer’s cup competitor Dylan won.
I totally thought she crushed it. Her presentation was so emotional and moving; I watched it in Austin and was like “Oh my gosh, you’re communicating about service in a way that I don’t know that anyone has ever done for competition, which is really cool.” I think it just came down to teeny tiny little points. It came down to four points between us, which is insanely close.
What do the next six months look like for you?
I’ve done a couple events, lots of interviews over the phone. I have Coffee Con this weekend, then I’ll be going to Panama to visit with Jose Gallardo and try to find a coffee for WBC, and then Brazil with Ally Coffee. I’m going to store some coffee in parchment in Panama. Hopefully I’m going to talk Counter Culture into letting me cryofreeze some, which I need to figure out what that’s going to look like.
What has the response been like from the coffee community in the wake of Seattle?
It’s been cool to chat with the barista competitors and champions from around the world who’ve sent me messages—it’s been really encouraging. It’s a pretty baller crew to step up on. You got like Lem and Laila [Wilbur] and Charles [Babinski], then you got this country boy from Mississippi up there so it’s a pretty different vibe.
I’m trying to balance what it means to be a champion and a representative of American specialty coffee. I think that means being personable and being who I am—being quirky and a little bit odd—but being super friendly and trying to make time for people.
—Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s editor.