Photos by Asia Morris.
This past weekend's U.S. Coffee Championships (USCC), presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCCA) and the Barista Guild of America (BGA) and hosted at Long Beach’s revamped Convention Center arena, were a testament to just how quickly Long Beach is becoming recognizable as a destination for craft everything.
In the realm of artisanal, organic, high quality food, craft beer and craft cocktails, Long Beach’s growing craft coffee culture is slowly but surely making a name for itself. And while Long Beach’s Nicholas Rodriguez of Rose Park Roasters, who tested his taste buds during the Cup Tasters Competition, was the only one of our city's myriad roasters, baristas and shop owners to compete this year, they were certainly there with bells on to spread awareness of the local bean scene to those visiting for the competition. The USCC provided a forum and collaborative space for competitors and attendees alike to learn about and experience coffee culture as it exists nationwide.
Nathan Tourtellotte of Rose Park Roasters couldn’t have said it any better. “We don't have the flashiest coffee venues or the biggest names here,” he explained, “but some of the hand crafted culinary experiences we have to offer rival anything you can get anywhere else in the country. Not many would believe that without coming here and experiencing it for themselves, and I think many did have that experience while visiting for the competitions.”
Lord Windsor Roasters hosted a latte art throwdown and kickoff party with event partners OCTNT, BGA and SCCA to kick off the competition, while Wide Eyes Open Palms hosted a karoake and cocktail party at MADE on Friday, the second night of the competition, which boasted a hefty turnout of both locals and out-of-towners.
“It was about welcoming the coffee world into the small coffee corners that Long Beach keeps for itself,” said Tourtellotte.
He gave kudos to The Flea Espresso Bar, where “there is literally standing room only, but the espresso is masterfully dialed in,” to Wide Eyes Open Palms farmers market pop up shop where Kat McIver and Angie Evans create delicious food and high quality coffee out of a tent and to Makai Coffee, where “they do an amazing job of staying plugged in to some of the best coffee roasters from around the country and bringing those coffees to Long Beach.”
“It’s these kinds of unique coffee experiences that may not make headlines the way that Stumptown or Blue Bottle or Sight Glass locations do. But the pleasure of coffee experiences available in this city have a tone all to its own: understated, locally rooted, accessible, and yet still exceptional in quality, creativity and presentation. We are a city of pop-up coffee spots, garage roasters, and bicycle couriers. That's why we love living here and we were really excited to share some of that with the broader coffee industry for a few days,” Nathan concluded.
Walking through the front doors of The Arena, guests and competitors were greeted with the overwhelming sounds and smell of coffee being brewed, coffee being drank, coffee being made in hundreds of unexpected, unique and creative ways in the competitors’ effort to please and awe their judges.
A painstaking attention to detail was displayed by all baristas during the latte art competition, where the jittery rattle of a finished masterpiece being placed on a saucer to be set down in front of the scrupulous gaze of the judges, depicted the nervousness and utmost care of the competitors.
Angie Chun of Coffee Code, from Garden Grove, CA, who would go on to become the 2015 US Latte Art Champion, was judged, along with the other contestants, on the quality of her foam, the difficulty of her design, how closely she'd recreated her intended design based on a picture she'd submitted before the competition and lastly, creativity. Two visual judges, one technical judge and one head judge watched as each competitor created their pour twice, to prove their consistency, within the allotted eight minutes.
Competitor Chun breathed a heavy sigh of relief after submitting two beautiful designs—four beverages total—one depicting an elegant swan, whose tiny details and flourishes impressed judges and onlookers. “I was so nervous!,” she exclaimed.
Simeon Bricker of The Roasterie from Kansas City, MO came in second place and William Chun of Coffee Code from Buena Park, CA took third.
The 2015 U.S. Barista Champion, Charles Babinski co-owner of G&B Coffee and Go Get ‘Em Tiger, heralding from Los Angeles, who will now move on to represent the United States at the 2015 World Barista Championship, created for his signature beverage portion of the competition a concoction of pine tree honey, juniper syrup and a grapefruit reduction, which he blended together in front of an enthusiastic audience and seven fastidious judges. Cole McBride of PublicUS from Las Vegas, NV took second and Sam Schroeder of Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. from Olympia, WA took third.
Also representing our neighbor to the north, Sarah Anderson of the renowned Intelligentsia Coffee was named the 2015 U.S. Brewers Cup Champion, and the 2015 Roasters Choice Champion was Brandon Despain of Caffe Ibis from Logan, UT. Last but not least, the 2015 U.S. Cup Tasters Champion was James Tooill of La Colombe Torrefaction in Philadelphia, PA.
The U.S. Coffee Championships is not only an event for the competitors, but a chance for aspiring competitors and participants in the craft coffee scene to observe and learn from their contemporaries. Louise Skaare, who runs Lantern Coffee Company in Williston, ND, signed up to volunteer for the USCC in hopes of competing in a couple of years, but not before attending Barista Camp and garnering more hands-on experience herself.
Even more interesting, however, is Skaare’s attempt to introduce good coffee to working class Williston, where, in her words, “their coffee is coming from gas stations.” According to Skaare, two sushi restaurants just opened in town this year and for a coffee shop like Lantern Coffee Company to claim, “Hey, coffee is a fruit! There’s flavor to it!” is kind of crazy, she said.
“So that’s where it’s scary, in a will-this-business-thrive kind of way, because there are tons of people there, that’s not the issue, it’s not getting people in our door, it’s getting people to come to a shop that’s more along the lines of ‘We want to spend some time with you and help you understand this experience,’ it’s not just in and out.”
“Because these guys are working 13-hour days and seven days a week,” she continued. “It’s pretty crazy. I think when I first met my husband, because he’s from Williston, he had never had avocado before. So it’s that palate and getting people to understand it. But it’s there, soon as they get it, it’s like anything else. If it’s good, it doesn’t matter. I had one lady say, ‘This is so good, I don’t have to choke this down.’ I was like, ‘Yes!’”
The lack of competition—the closest specialty coffee shop to Lantern Coffee Company is The Plantation Coffee Bar, a five-hour drive away in Jamestown, ND—leaves little opportunity for her baristas to grow their skill set, explained Skaare, so being able to attend a competitive event like the USCC gives her the opportunity to meet new people, learn new tips and tricks and bring that back to the baristas at the shop. It’s important for her and her team to get out of Williston and get a feel for what else is going on nationwide, and to not to get too comfortable, she said.
Eva Lee, a volunteer from Rancho Cucamonga who just graduated from culinary school, signed up to help out and learn about Long Beach’s baristas and the City’s tastes and flavors. Lee said that over the last couple of years, Long Beach has been growing exponentially as a destination for events like the USCC.
The USCC “not only brings visitors from all over the states, but it also gives Long Beach a chance to showcase itself on a state stage, saying that Long Beach has the ability and is able to hold a competition like this. Hopefully, maybe, they can host a cooking competition in the future,” said Lee.
Peter Giuliano, SCCA Symposium Director said, “Long Beach is the next island in the metaphorical coffee archipelago[…] It's an up and coming coffee mecca, much like Austin, Portland, and Asheville, all the parts are in place from the culinary aspect to the music, and it’s only a matter of time.”