The Kansas City Convention Center is alive with an energy unlike anything else. Hundreds of people are packed into the Grand Ballroom, all eyes are at the staging area where six nervous - yet smiling - men are the center of attention.
One by one, their names are called until two men are left standing, unsure of who could be taking home the victory. The announcer, Marcus Boni, takes a look at the second runner up’s name and smiles. Suddenly the crowd erupts into cheers and the bubble of anticipation has burst as Matt Foster is named the first ever U.S. Coffee in Good Spirits Champion.
2019 marks the first year the Coffee in Good Spirits [CIGS] competition made it to the U.S. Barista Championships [USBC]. When Foster first heard of this opportunity, he was excited. “Over the past four years or so I decided that I wanted to learn more about wine, spirits, and cocktails because that’s what I do; I can’t do anything casually,” Foster said. “I can’t be a normal person and just have a hobby out of pure enjoyment, I need to take this to a really extreme degree even though I work in coffee.”
Foster and his competitors were given the chance to create specialty cocktails based around a specific coffee and experience. For the first round, they were asked to design a hot cocktail and a cold cocktail. If they were to make it through to the finals, they would also have to prepare an Irish coffee. “All of this has been ‘brewing’ for about four years, so when they announced this competition I decided I really wanted to try my hand in it because it made sense,” Foster said.
Since realizing his interest in craft cocktails, Foster has been able to connect with some of the best bartenders and mixologists in St. Louis. “I was able to shoehorn my knowledge of coffee and tea into talking with other bartenders and mixologists,” Foster said. “The first real experience was when I went to the Gin Room to meet with [owner] Natasha Bahrami. In a brief hour and a half meeting, she was able to walk me through how to do cocktails the right way. She really set me straight on my ratios and recipes.”
Since this was the first year of the CIGS competition in USBC, it came with its own unique challenges. “There were a lot of unknowns because this was a new competition,” Foster said. “On some level it worried me, but at the same time I knew everyone was facing those same fears because it was a new competition.”
Foster has over 10 years of experience in the coffee industry, and recently celebrated his eighth year with Kaldi’s Coffee. He started at our Kayak’s cafe in St. Louis before moving to the sales team at our Roastery in 2015. His first experience with competition was in 2012 when he was a tech judge at USBC. He first competed in the Brewer’s Cup Competition (another competition within the U.S. Coffee Championships circuit) in 2014.
Being around other competitors at Kaldi’s gave Foster the opportunity to learn in a different way outside of the cafe. “I originally wanted to try the barista competition,” Foster said. “but Kaldi’s back in the day was a very crowded field of very high performing competitors. I never tried the barista competition because I wanted to see how far I could take the brewer’s cup. [There were] mixed results. The first year I did it I did not qualify for nationals, the second year I qualified for nationals and made it to eighth place, last year I qualified for nationals, but I did not do well at nationals.”
Although he wasn’t getting as far as he would have liked, Foster continued to put himself around others who were competing year after year. “All of these people I was surrounding myself with were going on and doing really well, and I was just not,” Foster said. “That was really hard to take at first. It was intentional, I knew that these people were better than me at these competitions and that’s why I wanted to be with them so I could learn from them.”
Foster persisted in learning more about his craft. By focusing on perfecting his routine, he has advice for his fellow baristas who may be looking to compete. “If this is something you want to do,” Foster said. “Competitions in and of themselves are a different beast entirely. You really have to enjoy the process, you have to really want to put something together and feel like you have something to say or something to offer. I like the work, I like the process. The late nights, while hard, definitely makes me feel accomplished, like I’m moving towards something.”
There is another reason Foster felt the push to do well in competitions, and his hobbies. “I blame my parents,” he said. “They never let me quit anything when I was a kid, not without there being some sort of trade off.” The push from his parents helped him process when he was diagnosed with kidney failure almost seven years ago. Five years ago he was lucky enough to receive a kidney transplant.
With the lessons he has learned from his parents and going through his kidney transplant, his love for coffee and learning new things has remained constant. “I love my job,” Foster said. “I love everything I do. Wholesale is super challenging because all of the customers and accounts we work with are all super varied, so every one presents a new challenge.”
Through his experience, Foster has seen a lot of changes in the industry. Competitions are a good indication of where the industry is heading and the baristas who are competing each year spend months focusing on one thing to stand out. “If this is what these people who are at the top of their craft are talking about,” Foster said. “And if this is where they’ve invested the last four months of preparation and research, then this is a fair indication of where the industry is and where it could go.”
Having the opportunity to compete in CIGS is something Foster was excited about, and having the support of his team made the process much more exciting. “For me, personally, [Kaldi’s] has always been super supportive,” Foster said. “I love all the people I work with. I’ve always received a lot of support from Kaldi’s and the people I work with. That’s why I’ve wanted to represent Kaldi’s at competition and I’m very excited to bring a championship back to Kaldi’s.”
All of these experiences have given him a new appreciation of everyday things many people take for granted. “This ball of energy that I am now, there’s a time limit on it. Transplants have expiration dates.” he said. “I essentially want to get as much out of these good years as I can. In order to do that I feel I want to get really good at kind of making a name for myself and leaving a positive mark on whatever it is that I’m doing while I have the energy to do it.”
Wherever Matt Foster ends up within the industry and the Coffee in Good Spirits competition, we at Kaldi’s Coffee are proud to have him on our team.