Recently Charles Babinski of Go Get Em Tiger and Sarah Anderson of Intelligentsia Coffee won first-place trophies at the U.S. Coffee Championships in Long Beach. After celebrating their big wins, Babinski and Anderson could be found the next day at their respective coffee bars doing what they do best, making coffee. This should not be a surprise.
If juggling their daily duties running bustling cafes isn’t enough pressure, Babinski and Anderson need to add preparing for world completion to their already busy days. Thankfully for them, access to caffeinated beverages are perks (so to speak) of the job.
A barista competitor has to make 12 drinks (espressos, cappuccinos and signature drinks) in 15 minutes with two technical judges following them around and four sensory judges sitting at a table in front of them tasting the coffees -- all while telling a detailed story about the coffees they're serving. Barista competitors prepare for many hours to choose their coffees, formulate their signature drink recipe, plan their presentation and practice how to execute everything into the allotted time.
Sometimes voices crack, ceramic cups break and hands tremble with adrenaline while trying to deliver a tiny espresso cup to a judge. But when everything goes according to plan, their story is entertaining and informative, and the coffee delicious, as well as all of the many details and rules followed, then you can start to understand what it takes to be a champion.
After three years of placing second in the U.S. Barista Championship, Babinski heard his name called for No. 1. “It’s a good feeling," he said. "I got so close so many times. When they called my name it was definitely a relief.”
Now Babinski needs to prepare for the World Barista Championship, which will be held April 9-12 in Seattle. Babinski and his coach Percy Ramirez of Compañía de Café will make calculated decisions about everything from whether he will prepare the same coffees to continuing to practice and tweak the routine.
When asked what his big wins means for Go Get Em Tiger and G&B, the two coffee bars he owns with Kyle Glanville, the U.S. Barista champion of 2008, Babinski says, “There is some pride there. Hopefully we will get a little bit more attention in Larchmont or downtown. I don’t know how much the barista competition stuff reaches out into the world.”
Babinski’s reasons for competing began for the sake of the challenge. “I kept doing it because I enjoy having that look into the bigger world. The coffee community is so spread out. There are many interesting people and places and things that for someone working in a retail shop, competition is an opportunity to get your name out there and to network professionally.”
In the Brewers Cup, a cup of coffee is prepared by hand in front of the judges. The coffee deemed best in presentation, preparation and taste wins.
Anderson of Intelligentsia Coffee in Pasadena brewed a Geisha Finca Takesi coffee from Bolivia immersed in a cylindrical teapot. She then poured the drink through a V60 filter. Anderson described it to the judges as tasting like red apples. Besting the 2014 winner Todd Goldsworthy from Klatch Coffee was also a sweet victory.
“Todd and I both worked at Starbucks back in the day. He was my district manager at one time. I wanted to beat him, just as a friendly competition. So when they called his name for third I thought, ‘I beat Todd!’
“I was shocked and so happy. It is still sinking in that I won the national competition. It is kind of hard to comprehend.”
The double L.A. win has added pride for the local coffee community. “It is pretty cool. It is almost like California is going to the world competition,” says Anderson. “It shows how dedicated the coffee professionals in Los Angeles are.”
Peter Guiliano, who is the director of the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America Symposium, says of the Los Angeles coffee scene: “L.A. has become, within the past three years, one of the most if not the most exciting coffee cities in the country. It's not surprising to me that the barista champ and the brewers cup champion are both from here.”
Next stop: Babinski and Anderson head to the world competitions, Babinski next month in Seattle and Anderson in Gothenburg, Sweden in June.
Being successful on the national and world coffee stages can transform a job making coffee into a career in coffee. Previous champions have parlayed their wins into book deals, business opportunities and key relationships with coffee professionals around the world. So if you have drinking a cup crafted by a champion on your bucket list, L.A. has two more winners. Maybe time to go get another cup.
Go Get Em Tiger, 230 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 380-5359, www.ggetla.com.
Intelligentsia Coffee, multiple locations at www.intelligentsiacoffee.com/.