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    Walking through the courtyard of Quills Firehouse in NuLu this past Friday, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Kentuckiana U.S. CoffeeChamps Preliminaries were taking place in the 123-year-old former firehouse. Baristas and brewers from about 10 states had come to Louisville for a chance to win a spot in a competition scheduled for later this year that will determine who gets a shot at nationals in April. Hipsters in cuffed denim filled the sort of minimalist-meets-industrial interior. For a coffee-virgin like myself, someone who has literally never had a cup of coffee before, a competition revolving around brewing coffee and extracting espressos seemed alien.

    In a small building past the courtyard, people fiddled with cameras and stop watches. The place looked more like a chemistry lab than a coffee house. Besides the low hum of coffee beans grinding, there was little noise. The aroma of freshly ground coffee was ubiquitous. Tape on the ground formed a square pattern to designate the areas where the brewers and baristas would compete. The square on the right would play home to the baristas, and the square to the left would be the playing field for brewers.

    Let’s take a step back. Baristas? Brewers? Aren’t they the same thing? For the sake of the competition, the baristas would be pulling (that’s the technical term) espressos as well as making a drink with a milk component (think cappuccino). Brewers, on the other hand, would strictly be brewing coffee. No milk, no foam, just coffee. These drinks would be presented to the judges, who would score them on things like flavor, acidity and body.

    by Nick Beckman

    After clarifying with a volunteer that I was in fact at the U.S. CoffeeChamps Preliminaries and not Area 51, I met Mike Greene, a 26-year-old from Holland, Michigan who works for a coffeehouse called Stove Top Roasters. He was the only competitor competing as both a barista and a brewer.  

    When it was Greene’s turn to present as a barista, there were no referees or screaming fans, but the sweat on his brow was as real as the sweat that drips from a basketball player standing at the free throw line. Two judges sat at a table in front of Greene, and one lurked around the taped area. All of them hugged their clipboards close to their chests. After a few deep breaths, Greene signaled he was ready to begin. With seven minutes to wow the judges, he explained that he had chosen an Ethiopian coffee, describing what tastes and textures to expect. I had no idea there were citrus flavors to be found in coffee. Greene’s time went by quickly, and it was impossible to tell what the judges thought of the presentation. They were as stone faced as the judges at the Westminster Dog Show.

    “Not to overstate it,” Greene told me, “but to some degree, this is us showing up and making a statement about who we are as baristas. For most of us, we are career coffee people, so winning this at the national level is like us being able to say for a year, ‘I am the ambassador for specialty coffee.’”

    by Nick Beckman

    Argus Keppel fit the bill of someone you’d expect to find behind the bar at a coffeehouse — he was covered in tattoos, wearing a corduroy thrasher hat. When the 31-year-old of Goshen Coffee in Edwardsville, Illinois took his turn with the judges, he appeared cool and collected, which stood out, since most of his peers had been shaking during their presentations. “Did I look calm?” he asked me later. “Because that is not how I felt inside.” Keppel was competing as a brewer, so there were no espressos to pull or foam to concoct. He was, in his own words, “not taking coffee too seriously.” He worked deftly, using what appeared to be basic tools (such as a V60 dripper) compared to some of the other machines available. I tried to gather what the judges thought of his presentation, but they had no tells — no stray eye contact, no extra sips, nothing. They were like Fort Knox.

    Regardless of what the judges thought, both Green and Keppel planned on registering for the next round of the competition, which takes place sometime between November and February and gives competitors a shot at the national competition in Seattle, Washington. (The top eight baristas and top four brewers in the Louisville preliminary would win free spots in the next round, which usually require a registration fee.)

    The competition picked back up on Saturday. It remained impossible to guess where anyone stood. Restlessness swelled in the courtyard, which became a sort of waiting room where people tried to gauge how well they did. “I just want this to be done with,” a competitor said. “Any idea when they’ll be announcing the results?” asked another. Greene’s nerves had settled from the day before, and he waited for the judges in the courtyard, nursing a pint of beer. Keppel appeared to be napping on a bench, soaking up what the sun had to offer.

    A few hours passed after the presentations as the judges tallied their scores. Then it happened. The judges emerged from a back room. “I hate this part,” a competitor said. The top eight baristas were announced, and Greene’s name wasn’t called. On to the brewers.

    Both Greene and Keppel placed in the top four. Relief and excitement painted their faces as they stood behind the judges, holding the new Louisville Slugger baseball bats they’d won. Now they both had a shot at becoming this year’s ambassador for specialty coffee. As for this coffee-virgin, I’d begun a relationship with a drink I never knew I would have.  


    Cover photo: Pexels

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