In a couple of weeks the best baristas in the East will converge upon Durham, North Carolina to compete in the Big Eastern Barista Competition. We're thrilled to be sponsoring and participating in the event. One of our baristas, Sarah Funnel, will serve as a sensory judge, and another, Michael Butterworth, will compete. (Sarah won't be judging Michael for obvious reasons!) Last year Michael placed fifth in the Southeast, earning a spot at the 2014 United States Barista Championship. We sat down with Michael and asked him about training for the competition and what he expects his second year competing:
What exactly is a barista competition?
A barista competition is something like the coffee version of Top Chef. Each barista prepares four espressos, cappuccinos, and signature beverages while giving a presentation about their coffee. It's a bit like juggling while giving a speech at the same time. Four sensory judges evaluate and score your beverages while two technical judges grade your use of the equipment.
What can you tell us about your routine? Or is that top secret?
Ha. I don't think anyone is interested in plagiarizing my routine, so I think I'm safe to share it. The theme I'm exploring is flavor complexity in coffee, specifically how baristas can clarify complexity for our customers. Practically, this includes helping people navigate our menu and café, but it also entails helping customers understand what they're experiencing in the cup.
What coffee are you using?
For my espresso course I'm using Konga, Ethiopia. It's one of the best coffees I've had all year and it tastes wonderful as an espresso. For my cappuccino course and my signature beverage I'm using El Eden, Mexico. It's a delicious naturally processed coffee with a fascinating story. More importantly, it holds up very well in milk.
How are you preparing for the competition?
I spent a lot of time conceptualizing the routine. Thinking about the theme, the mechanics. After that it I had to nail down my recipes. Once I figure out how everything should taste, it's just a matter of drilling the routine until it sticks. I'm in the middle of that right.
Has anyone been helping you?
I've been blessed to get a lot of input from other coffee professionals. Obviously, the team here at Quills Quills has been crucial, especially our lead roaster Houston Miller. Some of the things I'm doing in the routine are unchartered territory for me, and its nice to get a second opinion from a palate I trust. Our former roaster John has been something of a coffee mentor for me since before either of us worked at Quills- so we talk a lot on FaceTime about the routine. Friends from Sunergos, Please & Thank You, Prima, and Barista Parlor have all sat in on my routine. It's amazing how supportive the entire coffee community has been. In many ways I feel like I'm representing all of Louisville- not just Quills. That's very humbling and also terrifying.
Have there been any surprises?
I'm very surprised by what espresso recipe I'm using. 2 years ago I would have never believed you could make delicious espresso with a 3/1 ratio.
Is there anyone you want to thank?
My wife Julie has simply been incredible. She tastes my drinks, critiques my diction, and is very patient with me when I'm caffeine crashing after far too many espressos.
I also have some incredible sponsors this year for whom I'm very grateful. Doing a competition like this is a bit like that Tom Hanks movie The Money Pit. Unexpected expenses keep coming up. Thankfully General Knot & Co., Taylor Stitch, Ancap USA, Olive and Sinclair, and of course Quills have all helped provide something I needed for the competition. All of these companies pursue excellence in their fields similarly to the way we pursue coffee.
Photo by Darren Jennings