TACOMA, Wash.—In the weeks leading up to the 2011 Northwest Regional Barista Competition, Sam Purvis and Devin Chapman of Portland, Ore.’s Coava Coffee Roasters formed a training partnership, working late into the night to polish their competition routines. It paid off, as the pair took home the big prizes: Purvis won the Northwest Regional Barista Competition, while Chapman took home first place in the first-ever Northwest Regional Brewers Cup. (Chapman also performed on the barista-competition side.) “We both really pushed each other,” says Purvis. “It’s the first year I’ve competed where I had someone to train with who was competing as well. It was really nice to construct a routine and have feedback.”
It was Purvis’ third time competing, and he rose to the top with a presentation centered around quality. He began his routine by posing a question to the judges—“What is quality?”—and then attempted to demonstrate the concept through his drinks. “It’s a massive question,” he says, “and I hear it in the café every day. I think the best way to talk to customers about quality is describing a coffee that really is quality and has all of those things present that make up quality: body, sweetness, structure, intensity and clarity.”
The coffee that Purvis chose to exemplify those notions was a pulp natural from the growing community of Xeucalvitz, located in Guatemala’s El Quiché department, on the cusp of the renowned Huehuetenango region. Purvis says he fell in love with the coffee when Coava was serving it at its café last summer, and the company saved about 25 pounds for him—enough to use for competition, but not for the many hours leading up to it. “I only practiced with this coffee once,” he says. “It was kind of nerve-wracking not really working with the coffee for a couple of months prior to the competition.”
Though Purvis mastered the coffee enough to get the win, it wasn’t by much. Purvis scored 688.5 points, while second-place finisher Ryan Willbur of Stumptown Coffee netted 688—the closest-ever margin between first and second places in a United States Barista Championship-certified competition. USBC head judge Rich Avella of Peet’s Coffee says that Purvis and Willbur clearly stood above the competition. “It was a very strong field across the board, but those two really brought it,” says Avella. “They were so close. They both had really great-tasting drinks. They had their own individual style and presentation.”
The Northwest regional has the reputation of being one of the toughest barista contests to win, and it lived up to that hype with a field of experienced competitors. Willbur declared in his post-routine, on-stage interview that it was his 19th competition, while third-place finisher Laila Ghambari of Stumptown Coffee also has a strong competitive background, placing third in the previous NWRBC. Rounding out the finalists were Robbie Britt and Sarah Dooley of Olympia, Wash.’s Espresso Parts, and Tyler Stevens of Barista in Portland.
A NEW EVENT
Experience was not the operative word on the Brewers Cup side—because the single-cup event had never been held before anywhere, the six finalists took slightly different approaches to how they interacted with the audience and the judges. Chapman’s decision to address the judges directly, as if they were café customers, grabbed those tasters’ attention. “The presentations given more to the audience as a whole made feel a bit disconnected—it’s harder for me to engage with it when they’re not actually addressing me,” says Poul Mark, owner of Edmonton, Alberta-based Transcend Coffee and one of the three Brewers Cup judges. “Maybe we need to make that more clear in the rules, or maybe not—maybe that’s a choice of the competitor.”
That still-figuring-it-out attitude was prevalent in the Brewers Cup competition as a whole. Mark, in fact, says he wasn’t contacted about judging until a week or so before the event took place. Though Chapman, who beat out 16 other competitors to win, spent time training for the espresso competition with Purvis, he says he didn’t officially enter the Brewers Cup side until the day before it was set to begin. “I didn’t prepare for it at all, which I think may have been the norm,” he says.
But the fact that most of the competitors were flying by the seat of their pants added a degree of spontaneity to the event, which contrasted nicely with the judge-every-movement intensity of the barista competition. The finals of both events unfolded simultaneously: A barista competition entrant would give his or her presentation, and while the judges went off stage to confer, the audience could turn and watch a Brewers Cup participant. “There’s always that dead space in the barista competition where you’re waiting for the judges to do their magic,” says Mark. “This is a great sort of thing to say, ‘Okay, now we’ll focus on something else.’”
In the first round of the brewer event, all the competitors used the same coffee (which happened to be a roast from—you guessed it—Coava) and had seven minutes to prepare three hand-crafted drinks using a brew technique of their choosing. In Sunday’s final round, the competitors also got to select the coffee, and they had 10 minutes to build three identical brews for the judges and explain the technique, parameters and taste characteristics of the drinks.
Chapman used a Coava-roasted Honduran variety and brewed it using a Chemex device outfitted with the Kone, a product Coava developed last year. The metal apparatus is an alternative to disposable paper filters, and has grabbed the attention of the coffee-geek side of the industry since it became available to retailers and home enthusiasts last fall. “I couldn’t help but feel like I had an advantage [using the Kone],” Chapman says. “Not because I’m some genius, just because it’s easy to use. It was designed well.”
It should be noted that a year ago, Chapman wasn’t even working in the coffee industry—he was managing volunteers at a nonprofit group. It makes sense then that he’s the first winner of a competition that has just as much relevance to amateur enthusiasts as it does to professional baristas. “[The Brewers Cup] is a wonderful inclusion into this world,” he says. “It would be interesting to see the day when the competition draws people who only make coffee at home and who want to showcase their skills.”
Chapman and Purvis will now move on to April’s USBC in Houston, where they will receive automatic semifinal berths in their respective competitions. Until then, they’ll likely keep up the practice regiment that has gotten them this far. Keith Gehrke, co-owner of Coava with Matt Higgins, sums it up: “Devin and Sam, they complement each other so well.”