U.S. Coffee Championships

Attending the U.S. Coffee Championships – dubbed CoffeeChamps by its organizers, the Specialty Coffee Association – is a complete sensory experience. If you didn’t make it to this year’s qualifying rounds on Jan. 21 and 22 at the convention center in Knoxville, Tenn., the experience starts with the unmistakable aroma of coffee, which you can smell in the venue well before you locate the main entrance to the ballroom where the event is held.

Once inside, there’s a lot to take in. The CoffeeChamps event actually consists of four competitions – the Barista Championship, Brewers Cup, Cup Tasters Championship, and Roaster Championship – that happen concurrently in areas designated by large rectangular signs. Noise from applauding spectators and talking competitors carries from one area to the other, creating a buzz of excitement as you walk around.

Vendors and baristas are on site to offer samples of coffee with sweet, fruity, and herbal flavors that are meant to be enjoyed black, which can be a revolutionary adventure for those uninitiated into the world of specialty coffee.

“I think that the highest compliment you can pay to someone in specialty coffee is to go, ‘Oh, I can drink this black!'” says Wade Preston, owner of Prevail Coffee Roasters in Opelika, Ala., and the Prevail Union coffee shop in Auburn, Ala. “[When people say they] can’t drink black coffee, I’m like, ‘That’s because you’ve never had black coffee. All you’ve had is some almost-reasonable facsimile of black coffee that doesn’t taste very good.'”

Preston, who placed second in the Brewers Cup qualifiers, wasn’t the only person who expressed that sentiment. To get an inside scoop on coffee competitions and learn more about what they mean to competitors and the coffee industry, we talked to some of the specialty coffee connoisseurs who competed in the 2017 CoffeeChamps in Knoxville.

Coffee Competitions

SCA Signage and Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel

Signage at the 2017 CoffeeChamps in Knoxville, Tenn., featuring the Specialty Coffee Association’s coffee taster’s flavor wheel.

The four competitions that take place at CoffeeChamps are very different, despite all using the same medium. This was the first year for the Roaster Championship, adding a level of difficulty since those competing it in did not have any past performances to learn from.

“I just focused on studying the rules and score sheet,” says Chris Vigilante of Vigilante Coffee in Hyattsville, Md. He competed in both the roaster and barista competitions, grabbing sixth in the roaster qualifiers. “I made sure to hit every single subject that is scored and put emphasis on what I think most impacted the cup quality.”

Roasters were sent a 20-pound bag of a specific coffee the month before the competition, which they roasted and brought to the competition for brewing. They also brought along a roast of their choosing to be judged.

The Brewers Cup is similar to the roaster’s competition in that competitors are provided with one coffee and get to bring one coffee of their own, then brew each for the judges and one of their choosing for the audience. The compulsory coffee is judged solely on the merits of the final product, but a presentation is given with the open service.

“Every year is a little different,” explains Todd Goldsworthy of Klatch Coffee, which has multiple locations in California. He won the 2014 and 2016 Brewers Cup and participated in the 2017 CoffeeChamps event as a coach. “There are always new rules and regulations for one reason or another. The new rules are rewarding competitors who are simply the best coffee brewers out there and that’s what this competition was created to do.”

“You get half an hour to brew [the compulsory] coffee a few times, taste it and see what you like, and then you have to serve it,” explains Preston. “Then it gets judged completely blind. Then you have your open service, and open service is what the audience sees. There’s three judges in front of you and you’re brewing three individual cups of coffee, and you’ve got a routine where you’re telling about the coffee and the brew method. [You’re] letting the judges know what to expect in the cup, and why you chose the coffee and the brew method and what you’re trying to express through that.”

The barista competition consists of two drinks served to a panel of judges: an espresso drink and a signature beverage. The espresso drink is made with pure, unflavored coffee, though the competitor can choose which coffee to use and how long of an extraction it needs. The signature beverage is meant to display the competitor’s creativity and can contain any ingredients except alcohol. It can even be served with food, though only the drink is judged.

“As a tech judge, my job is to watch and record every movement made by the competing barista,” says Diana Sapp, the director of coffee at Undercurrent Coffee in Charlotte, N.C., who volunteered as a technical judge for the competition. “I note espresso waste, [the] tamping, dosing, [and] distribution techniques, bar cleanliness, shot times, [and] consistency. Being a tech judge is a lot more black and white than being a sensory judge. Either your shots pulled the same, or they didn’t. Either your station was neat and organized, or it wasn’t.”

The Cup Tasters Championship does not involve competitors preparing coffee; instead, these competitors are displaying their abilities to distinguish between different coffee flavors. Competitors are given six sets of three cups of coffee. Each set has two identical and one unique coffee, and the goal is to determine which cup holds the different coffee as quickly as possible.

Coffee Competitors

Competing in CoffeeChamps isn’t a decision made lightly, and for most entrants, the competition follows months of training.

“I began practicing months prior to the competition by cupping many different coffees to find the one that I would want to use,” says Jessica Rodriguez, also of Klatch Coffee in California. “Once I put together a presentation and routine for my open service portion of the competition, I would do multiple run-throughs of my presentations [each] week in front of my coaches.”

Rodriguez’s hard work helped her place third in the Brewers Cup to advance to the national competition. Cameron Heath, the winner of the Roaster Championship qualifiers, had a more roundabout road to CoffeeChamps.

“I competed in the [Charleston Coffee Cup] in 2015 and won, which was awesome,” says Heath. “So I figured that I should keep this win streak going into other competitions and with that mentality, I got my butt handed to me in about five roasting competitions back to back to back, usually placing last. It’s a very humbling feeling. I highly recommend losing a bunch of times; it really pushes you to step your game up.”

Heath got his start in the business after initially obtaining a job in the warehouse of a Raleigh, N.C.-based roastery the week before an apprenticeship opened up. He’s now the head roaster at Revelator Coffee Company in Birmingham, Ala.

“I took the leap to see if all my hard knocks paid off or if I had some more growing to do,” Heath says about competing in the 2017 CoffeeChamps. “I don’t have a long tenure in the coffee industry, so just to have some of the coffee roasting greats tell me, ‘Good job,’ blew my mind.”

U.S. Coffee Championships - Cameron Heath

Cameron Heath competes in the 2017 CoffeeChamps qualifiers.

Although he’s now a two-time champion, Todd Goldsworthy had a similar competition experience.

“My first year competing I placed dead last and I thought I was a good brewer,” says Goldsworthy. “I took the feedback I received and I spent the next year learning everything I could about the brewing process and improving my palate. The following year I won the US Brewers Cup. You never know until you try.”

For Wade Preston, much of his focus was on the presentation part of the Brewers Cup.

“As far as the scripts, for me as a competitor that’s kind of my wheelhouse. I do well with the script and the presentation. I typically start working on that months before competition, usually a good bit before I even know what coffee I’m going to use. I go ahead and start developing the theme, I know I’ve got 10 minutes to get across a theme, and I can usually plug in the coffee and the brewing method to that theme,” says Preston. “You’re doing a lot of stuff at once, so as much as you can make things automatic and build muscle memory for it, the better you are. If I don’t have to think about what I’m saying as much, it just kind of falls out of my mouth, then I can pay attention to what’s going on with the service and keep an eye on my brews and what the contact time’s looking like.”

Because Chris Vigilante was competing in two categories this year, the competition required double the preparation.

“For the roasters’ competition, I did tons of sample roasting, honing in on the coffee and trying to achieve what I believe to be great taste in the cup,” explains Vigilante. “Lots of roasting, lots of cupping, and then lots of time spent perfecting how to deliver the information to the judges.”

Videos of previous competitions are available online, which Vigilante says helped with the preparations.

“I relied heavily on YouTube videos of past years’ winners in the USBC and World Barista Championship, studying the great coffee pros of past competitions who had come in and delivered incredible performances,” says Vigilante. “I must have went through my run at least 25 or 30 times leading up to the competition.”

Coffee Culture

For competitors, changing the way someone sees, tastes, and thinks about coffee can be as important as showcasing their skills and knowledge, and gaining recognition for their hard work. National competitions like the U.S. Coffee Championships also connects baristas, brewers, and roasters with others in the industry.

“These competitions are all about enhancing the coffee experience and as coffee professionals, we should always strive to provide that amazing experience to our consumers,” says Rodriguez. “Being a competitive barista has always been intimidating and challenging for me, but competing has always pushed me to improve and develop my skills as a professional and it is so rewarding.”

“The biggest benefit is becoming a better coffee professional,” says Vigilante. “Getting outside your bubble and meeting folks who are doing the same things you are in this industry; it’s a breath of fresh air to connect with like-minded people and pursue great quality from seed to cup.”

“There was this time where I thought roasters were being really tight lipped about their findings and techniques, as if they were roasting nuclear codes,” says Heath. “Being able to reach out to my peers and to compare roasts, talk shop, and bounce ideas off each other has made me a better roaster.”

Heath adds that anyone hoping to get involved with specialty coffee should consider volunteering at a competition.

“It’s a good way to see the inner workings of these things,” says Heath. “I recommend this for folks that are new to the game and want to meet like-minded folks, too. Some informative conversations can happen while cleaning someone’s glassware.”

Coffee competitions also give participants the chance to learn more about the entire process, from farm to cup.

“Every year I learned more and more about the science behind coffee and the brewing process,” says Goldsworthy. “I’ve also learned so much about what happens at the farm that affects our cups. Every person has their own experience they are bringing to the presentation and even just being in attendance you can learn a great deal about every avenue of the supply chain.”

The CoffeeChamps qualifiers in Knoxville drew competitors from nearly every region in the country, including Hawaii. The diverse competitor pool reflects both the growing appreciation Americans have for specialty coffee and the enthusiasm the industry has for its product.

“It’s a community, a really, really cool community,” says Preston. “It sounds really trite and predictable, but it’s like a big family reunion. There’s such a variety of people who are interested in coffee and work in the industry. You can talk to importers to hear what’s happening at harvest, at origin. You can talk to roasters about what they’re doing and what coffees they’re liking and how they’re liking roasting them. You can talk to different baristas about what’s going on in their shops and in their areas of the country.”

“After all, that’s what these events are about: community, coffee, and expanding the horizons of the specialty coffee industry,” agrees Sapp. “I’m already counting down the days until [the next competition].”

Upcoming Championships

The next qualifying round of CoffeeChamps will take place on Feb. 11 and 12 in Austin, Texas, and the final stage of the U.S. Coffee Championships will be held in Seattle on April 21-23. If you’re interested in keeping up with the U.S. Coffee Championships, you can follow the Specialty Coffee Association on Facebook and Twitter for comprehensive coverage of coffee competitions in the United States and around the world.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's degree in English. She spends her free time playing tabletop and video games and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.