Wheels up to Denver: this weekend, March 3–5, we're headed out to the qualifiers of the 2023 U.S. Coffee Championships. And by "we," we mean the talented, passionate members of our team who have spent these past weeks in preparation mode for their respective events. Jake Donaghy, one of our green coffee buyers, will be competing in the Cup Tasters Qualifier. Meanwhile, Peter Shim from our roasting and production team will be trying his hand at the Roaster Qualifier. And then there's Reyna Callejo, our Training and Innovation Director, who will be going all-out to woo the discerning and diabolically demanding judges of the Barista Qualifier Competition.
Sound intimidating? Most definitely. But when it comes to competition, Reyna is cut out for the job.
"I'm crazy competitive, and this type of creative, high-intensity competition drives my personal creativity," she shares. "I was inspired to compete by Trevor Corlett of Madcap Coffee in 2016, and have wanted to do the same ever since!"
But what is the U.S. Barista Championship?
Perhaps you've heard of the Specialty Coffee Association, or SCA. For the unfamiliar, this trade association is a global platform built to cultivate a network supporting the education and empowerment of coffee professionals in communities worldwide. It basically constitutes The Powers That Be in specialty coffee: maintaining industry protocols and best practices, conducting research, organizing events, and setting the standards for coffee quality and sustainability in the specialty sector. SCA has a USA chapter, and this is the group that hosts the U.S. Barista Championships. The main event will take place this April in Portland, Oregon, where top performers from the qualifying rounds will converge at the Specialty Coffee Expo to face off in the most prestigious coffee competition at the national level.
So, if things go to plan in Denver, Reyna will be booking accommodations in Portland for the weekend of April 20–23. But, for now, she is blitzing a coffee-and-cream-colored concoction in a handheld blender. "Two for $70 at Costco," she says, beaming as she shows off the gadget.
A day in the life of a USBC competitor
For the Barista Championship and its qualifiers, contestants are charged with creating a coffee-based drink that they will prepare in front of a panel of judges. They narrate the preparation and story of their drink as they go, explaining the choices they made in devising certain methods or deciding upon particular ingredients. Reyna spends day after day honing her script and practicing run-throughs with her coach, Olympia Coffee Retail Director Nikki Nakashima, along with others across the company. When I join Reyna for one of her many practice runs, she's also assembled Wholesale Director Honor Forte and co-founder Sam Schroeder as judges. Both of whom have their own firsthand experience with this level of competition: Honor has five years' experience judging at USBC, and Sam won 2nd place in the U.S. Coffee in Good Spirits Competition in 2019.
Not that Reyna is any stranger to the USBC. She's competed twice before—first in 2018 with our Ariz Family Pacamara Natural, and then again in 2019/2020 with an assortment of our Ethiopian coffees and a rare yeast-inoculated lot from our friends at Maunawili Coffee on Oahu. This time, she's selected a remarkable lot and one of this year's early standouts: Gatta Anaerobic, our first-ever anaerobically-processed coffee from Ethiopia. Dialing it in on espresso, she strains the shots over chilled whiskey stones nestled into holders that she 3D-printed specifically for this drink preparation. As one does, of course.
The drink in question pays homage to the unique, colorful flavors of this particular espresso. It's inflected with elements of Reyna's upbringing in Hawai'i—and her own sheer effervescence. "I wanted [it] to be playful," she says. "To me, it tastes like the color pink. I wanted it to be a reflection of how the coffee tasted on the cupping table... After tasting the coffee repeatedly, I wanted to highlight some of those cool tropical fruit notes. Those are really the flavors that I love. The idea is a Trinidad Sour, but with flavors like dragonfruit and lactic acid."
Atop the table in our Columbia City Training Lab, the drink's elements are all present and accounted for: bright magenta dragonfruit-lime juice, fizzy-sweet-tangy Calpico concentrate, elderflower syrup, aromatic bitters, egg white, bubbly water. And, of course, the espresso: four perfectly-pulled, chilled shots. Reyna smoothly delivers her spiel, narrating her process and inspiration over her movements while her practice judges stir espresso, sip deliberately, and scribble notes. It's only after she calls time that the nerves show. "Holy frick!" she exclaims, physically shaking off the stress. But it's only a quick break, as her judges are eager to get into their feedback, asking questions and suggesting edits to the script. They offer slight tweaks to her tasting notes of pineapple, light-fleshed stone fruit, and baking spices. And Honor and Sam point out the many nuanced ways a contestant can get docked or disqualified, from not incorporating an ingredient thoughtfully enough to not using enough towels during prep.
Reyna takes it all in stride, swiftly making changes and running through them over again. "The hardest part is getting my script written! I'm horrible at script writing," she admits. "I've got all these ideas, and they just come out of my head in the most inelegant way." But from the challenges of writing to the actual preparation itself, the rewards of this work are—ultimately—worth the strain.
"Personally, I think of it as the hardest way to push myself," Reyna shares. "Competition is a great outlet for me to pursue all the things that I want to do: a crazy menu, rare, unique coffees, and a high level of hospitality. Barista Competition is an amazing platform to begin important industry discussions. People who have something to say use this stage as a conversation starter. And, as a part of the team at Olympia Coffee, I'm hoping to use the stage to get folks to reflect on why [this competition] is important and who it benefits."
And in these days leading up to the competition, she's reflecting not only on the coffee industry, but also on her gratitude for the community that's supported her. "Big props to Sam and Nikki, who've been helping me with everything from scripting to dishes. To Jon and Peter, who helped develop the roast profile for this coffee and have been tasting with me every week. And major props to my sweet husband who has been to every practice, tasted every drink... and who went to Crate and Barrel with me, like, seven times, only to end up with the same glasses I've used for the last two competitions."
If that isn't love, we don't know what is.
Follow along with Olympia Coffee at the USCC Qualifiers in Denver on Instagram and Facebook! And follow along with Reyna's Gatta Anaerobic espresso recipe at home: it's a spicy ratio of 1:3.5, with our fearless Training Director dialing it in at 20g in and 63g out over 26 seconds. Not for the faint of heart—but then again, Reyna's the last person we'd ever call faint of heart.