By Dani Goot
While judging at the U.S. Coffee Champs Qualifying Event in Austin this year, I felt compelled to interview a few roaster competitors about their experiences. It was a very tight round with many excellent coffees. The judges (Joe Marrocco, Hannah Blackmore Ulbrich, Anthony Auger, Matthew Swenson, Mandy Spirito, head judge Jen Apodaca, and myself) had our work cut out for us the whole weekend. We judged three different roasts at a time, then immediately went out on the main floor to listen to the roasters present their knowledge of the coffee (Kenya Nyeri donated by Genuine Origin) they had roasted. Having the opportunity to taste so many roasts presented differently by so many fantastic roasters is always interesting and super exciting!
Here we have two roasters that competed in Austin and this is what they had to say about their experience!
Janine Cundy | Head Roaster, Joe Bean Coffee Roasters
Isael Guzman | Roaster, Klatch Coffee
How many years have you been roasting coffee?
Where did you first hear about the U.S. Roaster Competition and why did you enter?
JC: Last year, part of my team went out to compete in the Barista Qualifying Event in Kansas City. They came back with amazing stories, and one thing they mentioned was the lack of female roasters they saw. This was a shock to me, as here in Rochester, many of the roasters putting out great beans are women. I thought to myself that while I was really new to roasting, I’d give myself a year to dig in and really focus on the craft, and if I felt proud of my work the next year, I’d sign up. Sign-ups rolled around, and I was feeling really great about my job and what I get to do here, so I put my name in.
IG: Through a blast email from Daily Coffee News if I remember correctly. RG website? Mainly to build connections. Fostering relationships leads to conversation, which leads to happiness.
Did you find the competition challenging and relevant to your work as a roaster?
JC: Oh most definitely. It was a total mind-bender and absolutely changed the game for me as a roaster. I always feel like there’s room for improvement in everything I do, and even after running 20 different profiles of the competition beans I knew there was more I could be getting out of them had I the time. So, that was a huge challenge, settling down with a direction to explore in, even when I knew that these beans had other potential profiles that could have been better if I could only suss out all their possibilities. As a plus, though, I learned so much by focusing all of my energy on this one bean.
Two months before getting the beans, our roastery underwent a major overhaul. We upgraded from an Ambex with about a 6K capability to a Probatone 25K, and a tiny Probatino profiler on the side. Honing that Kenyan bean on these guys really taught me so much about my equipment and that knowledge is a huge benefit to me every time I roast.
IG: Hands-down relevant. Taking the time to not only create a profile that highlights the inherent characteristics within a bean, but also coming to an understanding of why that is will stretch the current perceptions you have as a roaster.
What did you get out of the competition?
JC: During the “serve the audience” portion of the event, I had a chance to taste other roaster’s versions of the coffee and talk to them about their process. I had my mind blown by how many different methods people used, and how many different ways in which this bean could be tasty. It opened up so many options for me as a roaster. It sorta feels like before, I was a kid with a 12-pack of Crayola crayons to work with and now that I’m back, I’ve got the 64 pack with the built in sharpener. There’s just more variables I can work with.
IG: That no matter how much time you spend doing something, it can always be better. "Learn, adjust, improve."
What would you have done differently after reflecting your experience?
JC: The coffee that we worked with was pretty old and you could very obviously taste the age on it. I chose not to mention this papery, cardboard note because I wanted to keep the judges attention on the positive characteristics of my roast. In retrospect, they were obviously going to taste this and I should have used this time to talk about how we as roasters deal this kind of thing, and try to roast something delicious even with unchangeable defects.
IG: Given myself more time to think about the presentation, with a focus on being more thorough.
What advice would you give to those that have not competed in this competition yet?
JC: I’d say that the best thing you can do for yourself now is to keep meticulous notes during your profiling process with the beans you encounter between now and then. Practice makes better, for sure.
IG: Jump to the occasion! The competition will propel both your roasting knowledge and public speaking skills to new heights. Honestly, what is there to lose?
What was your overall experience with this competition?
JC: Overall, this competition brought me closer to my craft and those who share it. It was so encouraging to meet others who think about these things all the time like I do, and to swap ideas and techniques. When I came back home, I had this amazing renewed sense of purpose, and I think these sorts of events are a great way to keep learning and growing in your field.
The process also brought me a lot closer to my team. Everyone at Joe Bean gave a little extra in one way or another to help me get ready. It was super touching to experience, and I can’t wait to do this again!
IG: Positive. Having the judges give feedback was much appreciated. Looking forward to next year!