blog: Scott Carey / photos: Matt Piva
Here it is, very tardy Nashville Coffee Fest post from several weeks back. Enough time has passed so that all the details have blurred into a collect myth (all of which I swear is true and not fake) on how we won the espresso competition and threw a baller party in Nashville.
This Coffee Fest story begins as all our Coffee Fest stories start, with the actual event a mere days away and us undecided on what coffee to bring to competition. As I recall, the story really began in earnest eight days before we were scheduled to leave for Nashville. We were leaning towards a washed Ethiopian Limu we had in the shop because our prior two wins were accomplished with washed Ethiopian coffees (but with Yirgacheffe, not Limu). However, Limu had been a fight for us to get the roast right from the day the coffee graced our doors and I didn’t want to invest in a pricey trip to Nashville on nothing more than a lukewarm feeling for the coffee -which is what I had.
Also at this time, it just so happened that we were sitting on two different small (different varietals) from the same farm that we were saving to run a limited release varietal series. However, to round out our diligence in preparation from the competition, we roasted preproduction roasts of every green lot we had in the roastery. Dylan and Robert volunteered to come in after hours and pull shots of everything we had roasted. Both of them ended up with a serious case of caffeine intoxication. At one point, during this hours long adventure, Robert dropped to the floor and performed the equivalent of a UFC tap out. But it was not for nothing, at the end of the evening we had a new lead coffee candidate -an Ethiopian bourbon heirloom varietal grown in Ecuador from Murray Cooper. It was very thin and delicate, presenting like a soft Yirgacheffe on the front half of the cup and finishing like a coffee from Ecuador. It also upheld our long standing tradition of competing with Yirgacheffe coffees -or now Yirgacheffe-like coffees. Now we just had to find a way to produce a shot with a body and crema -and we only had 8 days to do it.
Yadda, yadda, yadda and we’re in Nashville. Side note here. Dylan weeks earlier thought it would be a good idea to enter the shop in the cold brew competition, which was also being held at Coffee Fest the same weekend. I agreed provided he put his best efforts forward and run every aspect of the competition. Well the espresso competition scheduling overlapped with cold brew competition, so everything fell to me. Long story short, we were knocked out by the guy, Pilcrow, who won the whole thing -and honestly it couldn’t have been to a nicer more deserving guy. I could bore you with lots more details, about how we were the closest public vote in any bracket at that time -separated by three votes (again the details are hazy now), or how we competed with a still coffee against a velvety nitro coffee. But I won’t, I mean I did. I’ll just leave you with this detail, after our bracket concluded and we advanced to the next bracket -I tried all the coffees from the next round, and without knowing that we might be up against Pilcrow -his was the standout coffee by a clear margin. It’s never fun to lose, but to lose in a tight race against an awesome tasty beverage and to a guy, who turns out is probably one of the nicest and most talented people in coffee -well that’s actually a win, because now our shops are buds.
Enough about cold brew, now on to the end of our espresso story.
Honestly, I missed most of the espresso competition because I was doing the cold brew competition. It was for the best too, because I get really nervous watching anyone from the shop compete. I received text updates on the initial rounds and the wins -and that’s pretty much how I like my sports too, just the box scores and the W or L. Too much emotion otherwise. However, when it came to the final rounds, I had already made my exit from the cold brew competition and had no more excuses not to sit nervously by and watch Dylan do his thing.
For the benefit of those of you who have no experience or knowledge of how Coffee Fest espresso competitions work let the following serve as a brief primer. The whole competition is like the NCAA March Madness bracket system. Two competitors are matched up (randomly) in a bracket, each competitor has 10 minutes to pull three shots of espresso. Each shot is served to one of three judge. An emcee builds drama and fills dead air and when the judges are ready he or she polls them for their vote (taken in serially) and the coffee that receives 2 of 3 votes advances to the next round. That’s it. This competition has no best, cleanest glassware element. No technical judges for how neat or efficient you work. The person pulling shots does no talking or explaining where the coffee comes from. There is no vest or fancy apron wearing. There is no soundtrack or personal play list. Some of the same people that compete in the USBC also competed during this competition -some of who finished in the top 3 of both Barista and Brewer’s competitions at the SCA US level. Coffee Fest is simply pull 3 shots within 10 minutes, smile and wait patiently (nervously) as the votes come in and once you have 2 of them there’s a small fist pump and on to the next round. This goes on for three days. This year’s competition was both unique and special because to hold a bracket spot you had to have won or placed in one of the last six Coffee Fest events held in the past two years. So a winner’s winner bracket so to speak.
One more few further side note. Often times these and other competitions turn out to be who can bring the most expensive and/or exotic coffees to the stage. This year turned out to be no different. The coffees that placed second and third reportedly cost more than $200 per pound, with one of them placing second in the SCA US Brewers competition just recently completed in Seattle.
At this point in the story, we’ve advanced through the bracket to the semifinals, my heart feels like it’s going to jump out of my chest and I only loosely understand how we’re guaranteed at least third, but have a real chance at first. Below is photo of the actual completed bracket.
The final round was between us and Dragonfly. They had a natural processed coffee from war torn Yemen. We rocked our washed heirloom varietal Ecuador. The price points for the coffees, kind of like a weigh in for a prize fight, were us at $5.35 a pound green and them at $200+ a pound green, a 37-fold difference. As the 10 minutes ticked by, I had to leave the competition area -getting far enough away so that my field of view was only a tiny slice of what was happening. As I attempted to both view and hide from the unfolding events, I ran two scenarios through my head -if we win it’s an amazing underdog story, but if we win then it could also be said that the judges didn’t know what they were doing because they picked a less special (market-wise) coffee than the heavyweight coffee (and we’ve had natural processed coffees from pre-civil war Yemen in the roastery before and they are beyond special) or if we lose we can make ourselves feel good by saying we didn’t have a chance -it’s like the Yankees playing a AA farm or college team. It turns out neither scenario mattered, because we won and winning is winning -there’s not introspection and soul searching when you win -it’s just winning and it felt awesome.
The other component of the weekend was a small aeropress competition we put together to introduce people to our soon to be opened (3rd or 4th quarter of 2017) second shop in Nashville. At times during the weekend, thinking about the aeropress party scared me more than the possible outcomes of the espresso competition. Would anyone come? Who would come? Would all the pieces come together? We relied on the good graces of a lot of people and I want to take a moment to acknowledge them and thank them here. Perennial Artisan Ales donated a lot of very special beer for the event. They have been a great partner to us over the last five years and continue to be amazing. ONEC1TY, our future landlord for our Nashville shop, pulled the permits and set up a food truck and lent us a space to host. And Radames, who at the last minute (and whom I still owe dinner) agreed to DJ -including bringing all his gear down from Saint Louis to make it happen. The three judges that took their jobs beyond serious -Robbie of Dynamite Coffee, Blake of Seven Seeds Coffee and our third judge of Sam Adams Beer whose name escapes me as I write this post. Lastly, a huge thanks to everyone that came out. When you throw an open invitation party you’re never sure who will show up. But when everyone who shows up is someone you respect, admire or just in general love to hang out with -then that’s a party worth throwing. Hopefully you can see from the photos what kind of rock stars and coffee luminaries came out to share a moment with us. I also have to thank Dylan -he’s won all three of our 1st place espresso titles. He’s been with us as a Freshman in college and now, just next weekend, he graduates going on to -I won’t say better things, but different adventures. What a weekend. What a flash the last 5 years have been.
The top three aeropress competitors competing in a three way head to head final.
A legend. This year’s US Barista Champion Kyle.
Our awesome judges and just all around excellent people.
The winner of our competition, the ringer from Bangarang Coffee out of SoCal.
The coffee celebrities arriving.
Dylan celebrating the win with hot chicken. I saw tears in his eyes.