As proud sponsors of CoffeeChamps, we’ll be in Knoxville, Tenn., this weekend, sharing coffee and cheering on friends and customers — including Jon Lewis, director of retail at Deeper Roots Coffee in Cincinnati, Ohio. We spoke with Jon recently about why he competes and his decision to enter the 2017 U.S. Barista Championship with our AA Kiriani from Kenya.
Genuine Origin: Have you competed before?
Jon Lewis: I became a barista in 2002. I was living in Vancouver, BC, and working for JJ Bean Coffee Roasters. Barista competitions were still pretty young and fresh, and we got involved. The USBC in 2003 was my first competition, and from there I just was hooked. Competitions became a big part of how I participated in coffee. You participate in a café, and you get involved with coffee that way. But the kind of broader community that develops around competitions was something that I really valued.
From there, I competed several times in regional competitions in the U.S. and BC, until about 2008, when I took a job with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, which put me more on the producing end of things. In the last couple years, though, I moved back to my hometown of Cincinnati, joined Deeper Roots Coffee, and now I’m back in the mindset of seeing competition as a unique opportunity to express something about my love for coffee and what we are involved in as a company.
My primary role with the company is as director of retail. We opened our first café a year and a half ago, and that’s where my heart is. I feel alive when I’m behind the bar and the café is full of people. And I love working with baristas.
So, in a very localized way, these ideas are kinda flowing every day. And then competition comes around and it gives you a chance to materialize some of those ideas and to really put it out there in front of people and to connect with people outside of your own small bubble, your local bubble.
GO: How did your time at the Alliance impact your approach to competition?
JL: It’s interesting to me that the Cup of Excellence program and the barista competitions kind of began and evolved over the same timeframe. They’ve had parallel tracks. Being involved in organizing Cup of Excellence programs and competitions really furthered my deep appreciation for what coffee producers do — what they do to produce something that is excellent.
It’s very humbling. I like approaching coffee as something that’s a gift. It’s not so much like I know a lot about coffee or I was smart enough or I have great taste so I chose the coffee that I did. It’s more that there are so many great coffees, and which one kind of speaks to me or makes sense in the context. Choosing a coffee is kind of personal, but it’s also about what’s happening from producers around the world.
GO: What made you choose AA Kiriani for this competition?
JL: At Deeper Roots, we had three coffees from Kenya side by side in glass jars, in a nicely packaged gift box for the holidays. Tasting those coffees, Kiriani was a highlight for me. You can taste a lot of different coffees, but the more you taste a particular coffee, it opens itself up. Or, you get to know it better, and you get to love it more.
This qualifying event is different than years past because we have 10 minutes to serve two drinks. Typically, the barista competition involves three drinks: a straight espresso, a milk beverage and a signature beverage. The milk beverage has been removed, so we’re limited to 10 minutes. We have to serve four tasting judges a straight espresso and a signature drink. And a lot of it involves how you prepare and explain the drinks to the tasting judges, and whether the coffee lives up to what you said about it.
So, for the Kiriani, we find a lot of really exciting tropical fruit notes, a beautiful honey sweetness, and an interesting kind of vanilla oak, like you would find in a bourbon in the finish. So those are some flavors to highlight when I’m serving espresso and those are some of the ingredients that are going to play into the signature beverage.
GO: What’s your big goal for the competition?
JL: I think there’s a bit of tension between how to score points and how to let it flow. How do you fit your entire experience, and what you feel, and what you want to say about coffee, and your love for coffee, into 10 minutes — and in a kinda nerve-racking environment. So, my goal is to say something personal and meaningful and to not just rip off technical information, although that’s important in the competition.
I always err on the side of letting it flow. I want the judges to have a great time, I want the coffee to taste great, and I want to have fun with it. I want to connect with fellow baristas who share this interest, and I want to connect with people. Whenever I go to events or competitions, there’s a common thread: We speak the same language and share a lot of things. And to me, that invigorates what happens on a daily basis in a café and my interactions with my fellow workers and our guests.
So, my main goal is to have an experience like that. Some of it you can manufacture, or really put effort toward, but some of it just happens. There are always pleasant surprises and things you didn’t expect to happen. I hope that I’m open enough to experience those surprises. •