This past June 2019 I was afforded the opportunity to visit Berlin, Germany in order to attend the World Coffee in Good Spirits (CIGS) Championships. Even though I was unable to compete as the US champion (this was the first year the competition was held in the US), friends and colleagues within the industry supported my desire to be present in order to observe and represent our part of the world from the stands nonetheless. So, thanks to my family at Kaldi’s and my friends at Pacific Foods and Franke Coffee Systems I soon found myself with the ability to bear witness to the amazing, if not niche, spectacle that would be 24 other national champions trying to serve the best coffee cocktails in the world.
The weeks leading up to the competition flew by. Time did somehow resume its normal pace during my 22-hour travel itinerary, but I was just as elated to take my first step onto German soil as I thought I would. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling on my own overseas, but this was my first time visiting Europe proper. There was plenty of English around, but sorting through a new unfamiliar language both on the signs and in my ears was equal parts challenging and nostalgic. I was staying at the Hotel Seehof Berlin, which was located in Western Berlin and within walking distance of the center where the competitions were being held. It also happened to be an extremely short walk to a beer garden that bordered the same small lake. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a good time, but lord knows I won’t turn it down if it finds me.
The following day was the first round of competitions. After a thoroughly confusing adventure to find the correct convention center (there was an engineering convention taking place in the same complex) I registered for my attendee badge and starting exploring the vast show floors. For those who have never had the pleasure of attending one of these trade shows in person, let me tell you, they are a sight to behold. Think part flea market, part labyrinth, but less minotaurs, and more coffee. Every link in the coffee (and tea) chain is well represented at these events. At any given booth you can meet coffee farmers and importers at tastings who came directly from origin looking to meet new buyers. You can try the newest espresso machine, grinder, coffee brewer, or roaster for yourself while an expert talks the details with you. You can see the latest designs of conveyer belts, bags, scales, mugs, counters, seating, or anything else that could go into a roasting facility or coffee shop. A veritable smorgasbord of all things coffee is at your beck and call.
However, as alluring as all that was, I was there for another reason. After another short game of ‘little needle big hay’, I found my competition. Here’s a quick run-down on how the World Coffee in Good Spirits Champion is decided. The competition is held over 3 days and is comprised of a Preliminary round and a Finals round. The Preliminary round takes up the first 2 days and is made up of 2 performances; the Spirit Bar and the Stage Performance. During the Spirit Bar performance the liquor competitors are required to use is chosen at random 5 minutes before they present their drinks. They will then have 6 minutes to serve 2 identical coffee cocktails to two taste judges. All the coffee in the drinks must be brewed on stage during their performance time as well. During the Stage Performance the competitors will have 10 minutes to perform a practiced routine and serve 2 identical hot coffee cocktails and 2 identical cold coffee cocktails of their own making. Espresso must be used in at least one set of the drinks and, again, all coffee must be brewed during their performance time. The scores from the two performances are added together and the top 6 scoring competitors make the Finals. Once there they will do another Stage Performance, but one of their cocktails must now be a classic Irish Coffee containing nothing other than whiskey, coffee, sugar, and cream. The competitor with the highest Finals score will be crowned champion of the world for that competition year. Alcaldes abound, champagne rains from the heavens, and people weep in the street. Or at least that’s what I’m told.
(left) Spirit Bar • (right) Stage performance
Even though I did travel to the competition alone I was by no means the only coffee professional from the US. The competitions manager Carllee Curran was of course present. As was the editor of Barista Magazine Sarah Allen, Marketing Manager at Urnex brands Lee Gordon, and the US Tasters Champion Jennifer Apodaca (who made it to the semi-finals in her world competition!) I was also able to meet and hang out with the likes of the vice president of the SCA Colleen Anunu, Stephen Vick of African Coffee Roasters, Anna of the German coffee podcast Kaffee Sahne, and the German CIGS champion Nicole Battefeld (who got 5th in the world!). I felt incredibly fortunate being able to converse and spend my days, evenings, drinks, and meals with all of these amazing people at one point or another and they definitely made my trip all the more memorable.
(left) Left to right: Matt, Ben, Jennifer • (right) Left to right: Matt, Lee, Anna, Nicole
The next day I had the opportunity to explore the city itself a bit. By making use of public transit, my portable phone charger, and a sense of wonder usually reserved for kids in candy stores I managed to see a fair amount considering I only had the one day. Berlin is an amazing city where, if I can quote Anthony Bourdain, old memories and new ideas live side by side every day. I saw this concept expressed many times in the food, art, people, and scenery during my brief time there. I may have been looking for it at the time, but it only helped me appreciate and savior what might have otherwise seemed mundane.When the competition wrapped up it was an amazing finish. The 2013 CIGS champion Victor Delpierre of France performed on stage for the audience and demoed 4 different inspiring and creative cocktails. He invited several people from the audience to taste the first 3 and the last drink he made was punch large enough for many to sample. Finally, when the results were announced, Dan Fellows of the UK won the World Coffee in Good Spirits championship for the second year in a row. This is incredibly rare and has only happened a handful of times in the almost 20-year history of the coffee competitions and a first for the CIGS championship. His presentation explored a new processing method he called the Frozen Natural method where coffee cherries were frozen for 7 days and then dried on raised beds for another 17 days. His cocktails used this coffee along with other natural ingredients that were affected by freezing temperatures, such as blood oranges and ice wine. Sadly, I could only imagine how everything must have tasted, but it was impossible not to feel inspired and motivated after watching his and all the other champions perform on stage.
(above) East Side Gallery, the longest expanse of the Berlin Wall still standing
(left) Checkpoint Charlie • (center) Victory Column, commemorating the victory in the Prussian-Danish war • (right) Aperol spritz at the Teehaus im Englischen Garten Berlin
I had an early flight the following morning, but decided walking the streets of the city in the late/early hours of the night was better than spending them asleep. So, after a late dinner with Lee I made the 30 minute walk to the amazing cocktail bar Becketts Kopf. This was a small, dimly lit bar with a welcoming atmosphere, warm owner/bartender, amazing drinks, and a clientele that (I kid you not) had no less than 2 older gentlemen who resembled Winston Churchill. Never had the expression “home away from home” rang so soundly in my head. The experience to be had here was one of the main aspects that drew me into the cocktail culture. It’s in these intimate spaces, small hours, and novel conversations with perfect strangers where your ideas can be tested, views broadened, and sense of self redefined. I couldn’t have asked for a better send off and the all-nighter was well worth it.
The US Coffee Championships have been many things to me over the years. They have been an ever-present drive for my professional development and the standard I hold myself against in regards to quality, service, and depth of knowledge. They have been a beacon of newly found pride and a shadow of familiar humility. They have been the last thing I curse at night and the first welcomed thought of the morning. Through it all they have allowed me to visit, become enamored with, and eventually miss incredible new places and people. This trip to Berlin was undoubtably a once in a lifetime trip given everything that went into it, but thanks to the competitions and everyone that make them possible I know other equally amazing opportunities are still out there for me and anyone else willing to work and take a chance.