May The Best Barista Win

Apr 23, 2014

Baristas from around the country will compete in the U.S. Coffee Championships in Seattle this week to see who rises to cream of the crop. Contests include best brewer’s cup and latte art.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Gabe Bullard of WFPL reports that Kentucky — which is better known for its bourbon than for coffee — is sending two baristas who are going for the gold.


  • Gabe Bullard, director of news and editorial strategy for WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. He tweets @gbullard.
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Well, this week, dozens of coffee shop employees will step out from behind the counter to stand in front of judges. They're heading to Seattle to compete in coffee competitions - from brewing to roasting, to putting intricate designs in the milk on top of a latte. It's the coffee Olympics. Gabe Bullard reports from HERE AND NOW Contributing Station WFPL. Two Kentuckians are hoping to bring top honors back to a state known more for bourbon than baristas.

GABE BULLARD, BYLINE: It's a rainy Thursday at the University of Louisville. And though the campus coffee shop is closed, Michael Butterworth is still working. He's a barista at Quill's Coffee, and he's assembled four of his peers at the shop counter. Another stands behind him. They're all holding clipboards and meticulously taking notes as he moves from the grinder to the espresso machine and back, presenting them with drinks for review.

MICHAEL BUTTERWORTH: Also, you've seen a homemade rhubarb syrup to accentuate those rhubarb (unintelligible).

BULLARD: Butterworth is practicing the routine he'll do at the National Barista Competition. It's a 15-minute presentation that includes a conversation about the coffee he's serving and the brewing of an espresso, a cappuccino, and a signature drink for each judge, played here by his friends and colleagues. Afterward, the judges compare notes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I definitely picked up the tangerine, the tangerine bitterness; the plum as well, and maybe it's - I just don't really have good handle on what rhubarb tastes like.

BULLARD: Butterworth will be up against 35 of the best baristas in the country in the national competition, each with their own 15-minute routines. But the barista competition is just one event in Seattle, and Butterworth won't be the only Louisvillian going for gold. James Tooill, a roaster with Louisville-based Argo Sons Coffee, will be competing too.

JAMES TOOILL: I'm going to the National Brewers Cup, which is sort of like a best cup of coffee competition.

BULLARD: The judges compare more than just taste and appearance. They get into what can best be described as the entire sensory experience of drinking coffee. So the competitors have been trained, making cup after cup of coffee and comparing notes with colleagues.

To raise money for the pounds of coffee he goes through in training and the other expenses of the competition, Quill's organized a latte art contest before Butterworth's practice run.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, guys. Mark the clipboards. We're done.


BULLARD: Baristas from across the region paid a few dollars to compete with two area aficionados judging patterns the baristas drew on the drinks with milk and coffee.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This one is well-centered. The outer leaves have a good wrap-around.

BULLARD: About 20 people compare notes and generally nerd out over cups of coffee and milk. It's not a scene you expect to see in Kentucky. But everyone says Louisville's food culture and devotion to craft beverages, like bourbon, make this the perfect breeding ground for coffee obsessives. And a victory from a local barista will legitimize the scene. A good showing for Tooill or Butterworth is a good showing for Louisville. And Quill's manager, Matthew Stevenson, says it will help the shop too.

MATTHEW STEVENSON: Putting a barista on the national stage is going to be huge for us both as like a wholesale coffee company and just as a brand.

BULLARD: The individual winner of the national barista competition gets entry into the international competition and a gold espresso tamper. They also get a shot at making their hobby their career.

Butterworth studied English, and he got started in coffee while teaching in Turkey. He used to take weekend trips to cafes across Europe. But without a win, it'll be hard to stay in this new field.

BUTTERWORTH: Somebody asked my wife what I did for a living. And then when she said a barista, he said, what is he, a student? You know, there's just kind of - there's a general cultural ethos that being barista isn't a real job.

BULLARD: But not everyone shares Butterworth's enthusiasm. A few feet away, Isha Lockhart(ph) is hanging out.

ISHA LOCKHART: I don't know. I think it's weird. It's just coffee.

BULLARD: Tooill's used to criticism like that, but he says these contests matter even if you're not drinking championship-level coffee.

TOOILL: I personally feel the same way about, like, fashion shows, right? It's like, everybody's making a big deal about a slightly different cut, like, those fashion shows, like, really affect everything that ends up at every store. That's the professional world of fashion.

BULLARD: So whatever Tooill and Butterworth brew up at the competition, it's likely to trickle down or drip to your morning cups sometime soon. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Gabe Bullard in Louisville, Kentucky.


YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW.

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