This year's Big Central regional coffee competition took place at Uppercut Gym in Minneapolis, MN. The three-day competition included 46 baristas and 32 Brewers Cup competitors.
Kaldi's sent a contingent of competitors, employees acting as judges, and support staff to help and root on our team. David Fasman, barista at Kayak's by Kaldi's Coffee, placed 5th in the Barista competition, and Tony Auger, roaster and quality assurance technician, competed in the Brewers Cup and took 1st place for the South Central region.
I had the opportunity to talk with Tony about the competition and his big win. Here's what he had to say:
Chris: Tell us about your competition this past weekend.
Tony: It was the Big Central Brewers Cup - two coffee-brewing competition regions combined into one location (this year it was in Minneapolis). They combine the north and the south region of the Big Central. So south central is Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Chris: So the north and the south compete separately, but in the same location?
Tony: Yes. They used to have them separated, but now we compete in the same place. Those who place high enough then go on to Nationals. This year, first place through sixth place will go on to Nationals, which could be a pretty big competition - many competitors.
Chris: How many Brewers Cup competitors were at Big Central?
Tony: From the South Central region, there were 13. There are two separate rounds in the competition. The first round is called “Compulsory.” They give you a random coffee you know nothing about, and you don’t get the coffee until just a few hours beforehand. So you have to dial it in, make sure it tastes good. Only the top six from that first round get to advance and give their presentation using their own coffees. I got third in Compulsory, so I moved on to the final rounds. That first round is blind. The judges are behind a curtain, so they don’t know whose coffee they’re tasting.
Chris: So what coffee were you handed for this?
Tony: I’m still not sure. I think it was a Colombia or a Guatemala.
Chris: Oh, so it was blind for you, too!
Tony: Yes. We’re not told what kind of coffee it is. They don’t tell us anything.
Chris: So you moved on past the compulsory round. Tell me about your presentation.
Tony: They give you 10 minutes to make three cups of coffee. And then afterwards, they check the TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) reading to make sure it’s in a certain range. They then evaluate the aroma, the taste, and they evaluate my performance.
Chris: How do they test the TDS?
Tony: They use a refractometer. It’s a light that reflects and measures the little particles in the water. They’re checking to see how much of the coffee dissolved into the water. It can’t be above 2%.
Chris: How many years have you been competing in this?
Tony: This was my second year. Last year I got 2nd in regionals and 3rd in nationals.
Chris: And this year you took first. Were you less nervous? Or was it a matter of having the experience of last year?
Tony: I was definitely less nervous for a couple reasons. I think last year’s experience helped. My whole presentation this year was based around the idea of not being obsessed over things. It came from a very personal place - creating order out of chaos. It was about finding balance in randomness and chaos, and not obsessing over precision. So being in that mentality, I felt like I could relax a little bit more. Everything doesn’t have to be so precise and technical all the time!
Chris: That’s not how everybody thinks.
Tony: No, not at all. I still care about precision and exacting standards. But letting myself take a step back, and realizing I could still make great coffee without being so obsessed over it was huge.
Chris: What inspired you to go in this direction for your presentation?
Tony: It just clicked with me. I had a lot of stuff going on in my personal life, and I was trying so hard to control so much of it. We all try to control everything so much, but realistically, we can’t. So at that point, I related it to coffee. We try so hard to control coffee at every step. But when I started doing tests using really controlled, precise … like, even dialing in precise particle sizes to exacting parameters … I would brew coffee next to it when I was just going off my own sensory analysis, and the pot that was based off my senses always tasted better to me. So I said, “Let’s keep running with that, then.” It was a really good correlation between what was going on in my personal life and my preparation for the competition. So I started pushing it further - not observing extraction times while I was brewing, but just using my sense of smell to catch when the extraction was just right. Then I even roasted my coffee without using computers at all, just by my sense of smell. Or how I picked my coffees - the ones I picked … so much randomness that went into the production of the coffee … over 2,800 different smallholder coffee farmers produced the blend.
Chris: How many?
Tony: Two thousand eight hundred. And I had no idea what exact farms or even what varieties were in the blend.
Chris: If you had said “100 farmers,” I would have said “That’s a lot!”
Tony: I know! It’s an insane amount. Most people want to go up and give a story like, “This is the exact person who farmed my coffee. He did this exact thing, there’s only this one coffee variety.” That's a great story, but I said, “You know what? I can make a good cup of coffee and not know what the heck is in the coffee itself.”
Chris: What resonated with the judges there? Was it a message that was falling outside the norm for them?
Tony: Maybe. I think it was the honesty behind it, and how good the coffee actually did taste. And the best thing about it was that I used a coffee that we’ve had in our cafes for months now - the Kenya Kiamariga - and I blended it with a natural Ethiopia that we are using in our "Tis' the Season" blend. So I didn’t even use a Gesha or something like that. They were just good, solid coffees. I think message and presentation went well, too. And showing how, as competitors, we can pull things in from our personal lives and how that affects our work, and that makes it a story, and not just “This is the exact, precise thing I’m doing. You should congratulate me for that.” If that were so, we could just have machines make our coffee. It’s important to keep that individuality in coffee brewing.
Chris: What’s next?
Tony: The national competition in February, and then the worlds.