When I last reported on the National Coffee Championships, Caffe Vita was preparing to send two baristas to Boston to represent Seattle in the competition. It turns out there’s a whole secret universe of super high-level molecular-gastronomical coffee going on out there—not just here in Coffee Town USA but across the nation and the world—and I’m just astounded. I had no idea these competitions even existed, and I’m already, like, fully invested. I’ve transformed into some kind of sports person, but for coffee.
Well, Sam Spillman and Gray Kauffman are back, with news! Spillman placed fifth in the Brewer’s Cup competition, Kauffman tied for sixth in the Barista competition, and they’re both pumped to compete again next year. I met with them at Caffe Vita at KEXP to hear about all the fascinating things they learned at the Olympics of coffee and what they’re planning for 2023.
THE STRANGER: Sam, tell us a little more about your background as a coffee athlete!
SAM SPILLMAN: So, I started out at Caffe Ladro, working with [2014 U.S. Barista championship winner] Laila Ghambari, who taught me about barista competitions when I was 21. My first competition was actually a disaster—I went over time to the point of disqualifying! But I learned so much. I took a couple years off, and in 2018, I competed again… and missed finals by half a point.
Wait, what did you do that cost a half a point?
SPILLMAN: I didn’t tell the judges where to put their dirty spoons! It had nothing to do with the coffee itself at all. Devastating.
But you lived to compete again!
SPILLMAN: Yeah! Then during another competition, I flunked out for a silly reason: For my signature beverage… have you heard of miracle berries?
SPILLMAN: They’re from West Africa [and are related to shea nuts, where shea butter comes from! -Eds.], and when you eat them, they manipulate your palate so you can only perceive sweetness. And so what I did for my signature beverage is I crushed up miracle berries, because they come in like a pill form. You can get dehydrated… I know this sounds really sketch. You can get dehydrated miracle berries online, right now, for like 10 bucks. And I did that, I crushed them up, I put them on spoons, and then I served them with my espressos as my signature beverage.
So you cheated.
SPILLMAN: Heh, yeah, kinda. I cheated. Or I tried to. But I forgot to tell them to eat the miracle berries! So when I realized it, I said, “Oh, fuck,” under my breath, and… two of the judges heard me. So that cost me. See, for the Brewer’s Cup competition, which I competed in this year, the majority of what you’re graded on is taste, how accurately you can describe a coffee, and the judges then experiencing what you described. But I was in the Barista competition that year, and that one’s an even split of presentation and professionalism, and they’ll dock you for something like swearing. Ha ha.
To clarify: Barista is one of the categories in which one can compete, within the whole National Coffee Competition? And Brewer’s Cup is another?
SPILLMAN: Right, there are six competitions within the event, and those are two of them. So after that, I wanted to go as in depth as I could and learn as much as I could. So I went to the origin of the coffee: a farm called La Palma y El Tucan, up in the mountains in the Cundinamarca region of Colombia, which we talked about last time. I was seeing this for the first time, and they were telling me every tiny detail about the fermentation processes. It was overwhelming but fascinating!
So when I got back to Seattle, I immediately started prepping for the Barista competition. The next time, my goal was to make finals, which is the top five. And instead, I actually won the Barista competition! This was 2019. So in 2022, I competed in the Brewer’s Cup competition, which is a two-part competition, where you do an open service first. I had a memorized script and told the judges exactly what they’re going to taste in the coffee I serve, when the coffee is first hot, then warm, and then cold. I tell them the acidity they’re going to experience, the aftertaste, the aroma—I’m listing like 35 things.
The second part is a compulsory round, where everybody gets the same cup of coffee and you have to make it taste good. You have 30 minutes to develop a recipe and eight minutes to brew three cups for your judges. It used to be behind the curtain, but this year, people were watching me do this, which was kind of intimidating! But I like that aspect of the competition because it really tests what you know about brewing coffee. You can’t really prepare, other than practicing brewing itself.
So I took what I normally do as a ratio, 1 to 16, and I did a 1-to-12 ratio. Super tight. What this did was extract the acids and the sugars but left the bitters out. And then it’s super concentrated, because of that small ratio, so I added a bypass: just a little water to separate those flavors.
What kind of equipment do you use? You have to haul all those specialized devices all the way to Boston, right? And not break them?
SPILLMAN: Well, I used an Aeropress, which everybody has access to. It’s very portable and makes really great coffee—in the woods, on an airplane, wherever you are. And I did that because my brew time was under two minutes and so an Aeropress really gives me a lot of control.
When developing my recipe for this coffee, my goal was to highlight the Geisha coffee variety. So I used brewers that have really large gaps on the bottom, which allow me to grind the coffee finer, for more even extraction. You can’t really break them, so they’re great to travel with. I also used filters with slightly larger pores, which allows the water to move faster. Both of these methods combined will highlight the acidity, the sweetness, and the aroma of the coffee.
Talk a little more about Geisha coffee. What’s so special about it?
SPILLMAN: The Geisha variety is really delicate, floral, and tealike, but all of those subtle notes can get covered up sometimes. So, what La Palma did is they put the Geisha coffee cherries in some clay pots that were put into the ground, added some bacteria to them, and sealed the clay pots, creating an anaerobic fermentation process with no oxygen involved. The bacteria feeds on the carbohydrates naturally occurring in the cherries. They allow it to ferment for 120 hours, which is an insanely long time for coffee fermentation, and they get tons of clarity as a result. This way, they’re able to lock in those delicate Geisha qualities, which is then the roaster’s job and my job to showcase.
I’m also working with a guy named Horia from OREA in London, who designed these brewers I use, to hopefully design something for me to use in the competition next year. So he designed these aforementioned brewers that have larger gaps in the bottom, which help achieve a faster pull time. Plus I want to create a tool that can make a difference in how we drink coffee. I don’t quite know what that is yet. It requires some experimentation!
How about you, Gray? This was your first national competition, yeah?
GRAY KAUFFMAN: Yeah, and it was on the heels of the six-week, crazy intense trip to La Palma y El Tucan in Colombia, where I learned so much, since this is my first year competing. I didn’t know a lot going into this! We were on the plane ride home and I was scribbling down all these ideas, super inspired. Being at the Specialty Coffee Expo, too, where everyone’s sharing the newest coffee ideas and the latest technology, and just being around everyone that’s also into this stuff. Meeting all my coffee heroes. And I did all right! I ended up placing seventh—tying for sixth, technically.
Yeahhhhh, you’re in the game now.
KAUFFMAN: Yep! And I’ll compete again next year for sure. So the way it works is, you do the preliminary round, then the qualifying round, and then you get to go do what I did in the National Coffee Competition. So the preliminaries will probably start at the end of the summer or the beginning of fall, so we’re kinda gettin’ ready already.
But I also have this idea. My background is in food science, and originally in wine, so I’ve been reading a lot about gastrophysics, which is a science that borrows from psychology, from neuroscience, sensory science, food science, biochemistry, organic chemistry—it’s an all-encompassing science. And one of the big things that folks in this field are talking about right now is vessels, and how you experience coffee based on what vessel they’re served in. So the Sense Cup made by Orea, for example.
Oh, I read about this. The one that’s shaped like a stemless wine glass, but it’s ceramic? And it has an edge with a steep angle, like the top of a vase.
KAUFFMAN: Exactly. Like, we don’t really think about the different vessels that we use to drink coffee from and how they might affect the taste. That’s something Sam taught me, too, when I was working with Sarah Kaye in Georgetown to create these tactile ceramic cups for my espresso—whether I want to use either a thick lip or a thin lip, because it can actually influence the way you perceive the coffee that you’re tasting, and also the temperature of the container. So I’m working on a solo project along those lines.
It’s good that you pointed this out, because you take such care in organizing the coffee as a beautiful presentation, but a normal, uneducated person’s eyes might go straight to the coffee inside of the cup, and the design of the cup itself might not have registered otherwise. Of course, if you had some other kind of cup and also Sarah’s cups, maybe someone could perceive the difference. It’s something to chew on.
KAUFFMAN: There’s actually someone I read about who’s making to-go lids, who’s working to increase the user’s sensory experience when they use them. Like, it’s not just taste that makes the whole experience.
Super smart. Really important work that I didn’t know a single thing about until today. Like, obviously, Seattle takes all this pride in being a coffee mecca, and like everyone else in town, I drink my little shade-grown latte every day at my fancy artisanal coffee shop, thinking I’m high-level. But then there’s this whole hyper-scientific, semi-invisible world that lurks behind my daily espresso. I had no idea. It’s wild.
KAUFFMAN: It’s very wild. I didn’t know about any of this either until I was at the Specialty Coffee Expo in 2017, here in Seattle! Here’s another example of coffee science stuff: At that expo, I was working with a company called the ColdWave in Braintree, Massachusetts, that makes flash-chilled coffee—
Hang on, what’s flash-chilled coffee?
KAUFFMAN: It’s like a pour-over, but then it’s cooled instantly, so it doesn’t get chalky like regular iced coffee sometimes does. So these folks at the ColdWave were working with George Howell as well, who does Snapchilled™ coffee by using a thermodynamic machine to cool it, instead of ice. He took apart his air conditioner to make this device that cools coffee to fridge temp—immediately. But now he’s also developing new methods of freezing coffee, and he’s arguing that freezing actually improves coffee, even without vacuum-sealing it. He says you should freeze it as soon as you open it.
So at this expo, George Howell came over, and he was sharing this great coffee with us… from way back in 2013! As far as I knew, coffee could only be kept for two or three weeks until you had to dump it, not four years. So I’ve been experimenting with freezing coffee as well. I actually had a shipment of coffee that I was supposed to use this year but it didn’t arrive in time to compete, so when it did arrive, I froze it, and I still have it! Now I’m talking to chemists and scientists from around the world to help with this project. My goal is to bring frozen vintages of coffee to the competition for the first time ever next year.
So, that’s a bold move in the National Coffee Competition, right? Competitors have always used fresh coffee?
KAUFFMAN: Yes! No one’s ever done anything like that before at Nationals. This research has also shown me how coffee has this potential to follow wine. In the coffee world, we try to think of ourselves as a different world from wine, but we really are kind of one and the same. A lot of the terminology you use in coffee, a lot of the ways you make it, they’re similar to wine. And we both use a plant to make a fermented beverage.
So I think coffee will follow wine eventually, in general. We’re a little behind, not much. Back when I was studying food science in college, I thought I’d go into the wine industry for a while, or I thought I’d go into beer. But I really found a home in coffee, where I can still use a lot of the things I learned about wine and beer. I can’t stop seeing the similarities.
So what do you predict coffee will be like in the future? Frozen?
KAUFFMAN: Yeah, I predict there will be vintages of coffee, especially with climate change, that could go extinct, and cryoextraction is already being used in the wine world to freeze and later revive varieties of grapes being affected by climate change now. And so I’m working with all these folks to try to do the same thing with coffee.
Now that I’m a giant coffee wonk, I’m hella excited to root for Team Seattle in the nationals next year and will definitely be keeping an eyeball on the Specialty Coffee Expo in April too, which will be held in Portland. I’m seriously all souped up about the Super Bowl of Coffee now, you guys, and ideally you are, too. You know Spillman and Kauffman are gonna tell them all where to put their dirty spoons next spring.