CHICAGO—Any time a barista steps into the spotlight, it’s natural to get some degree of nerves—think shaky milk-pouring hands or rushed words during the presentation. But such nervousness was not the case for Ryan Knapp of Grand Rapids, Mich.’s MadCap Coffee on Sunday: The bearded, newsboy cap-wearing barista was all smiles and quiet confidence, and he rode that calm demeanor to a win at the North Central Regional Barista Competition.
Knapp, in his fourth year competing and seventh overall contest, credits experience for allowing him to remain tranquil. “What I’ve learned more than anything over the years of doing competition is that when you get out there, you just have to do what you do every day,” Knapp says. “I’ve gone from being a nervous wreck to just relaxing, having fun and remembering that this is something that I do on a pretty regular basis.”
It wasn’t just his approach that netted him the win; there was also his coffee. Knapp used two coffees for his routine: one for espresso, one for cappuccino, and a combination of the two for his signature beverage. For his espresso, he turned to a Kenyan Peaberry coffee from the Guama mill, a co-op in Kenya. “It was just really, really juicy—lots of blackberries, grapefruit, but then also clean with an excellent body,” Knapp says. “Often Kenyans get a lot of that brightness and crazy acidity, but they don’t come with the really big depth and the nice body that this had.” For his cappuccinos, Knapp used MadCap’s house espresso blend, Third Coast, which is currently a blend of Los Lobos from Costa Rica and Finca Vista Hermosa from Guatemala. “I used that in the cappuccinos because the whole point of the espresso is not only to be good on its own but also to taste really, really good in milk-based drinks,” Knapp says. For his signature drink, he paired the Kenyan coffee with a fruit juice and the Third Coast with a chocolate ganache sauce, then had the judges sip them side by side. “I wanted them to experience the two extremes that we can have in coffee,” he says. “And together they create a nice harmony and a good balance.”
Rounding out the competition’s top three were second-place finisher Scott Lucey of Milwaukee’s Alterra Coffee and Trevor Corlett, who co-founded MadCap with Knapp. Knapp says the pair’s friendly competitiveness has allowed them both to elevate their barista games. “That relationship keeps pushing us and making us better,” Knapp says. “When we’re practicing, we’re brutally honest with each other. We try to push each other and tweak each other’s espressos and signature drinks to make them as good as they can be.”
Also notable about this year’s North Central competition was the absence of Intelligentsia Coffee, which has won the regional many times and is home to the current World Barista Champion, Mike Phillips. Intelligentsia decided not to compete in 2011, providing a different makeup for the regional competition. “There were familiar faces that I think were definitely missed,” Knapp says. “But the level of competition I think was still as high as ever. I feel like all four of my years that I’ve been involved with the competition it just keeps getting tougher and tougher.”
Knapp will now move on to April’s United States Barista Championship in Houston, where he’ll earn an automatic berth in the semifinals. But he won’t be performing the same routine that got him there. “The Kenya I was using won’t be in stock at that point, so I think coffee searching will be one of the fun things I’ll have to do over the next couple of months.”
Kenya was also the origin of choice for the North Central region’s Brewers Cup event. Taking the title was Jonathan Jarrow, a roaster at Chicago-based Coffee Ambassadors who will be relocating to Fort Collins, Colo., this summer to open a mobile cart called Harbinger, The Coffee Spot.
Jarrow is a former barista competitor who stopped competing after pondering his future on the way to the 2008 SCAA Conference in Minneapolis. “On the way up I kind of had an epiphany that I really didn’t know anything about the basics of what exactly I was doing,” Jarrow says. “I wanted to find some theory behind it.” He spent the next three years studying and performing brewing experiments with tools like VST Labs’ Coffee Refractometer, and in the process he gained a strong interest in the particulars of brewing. “I just really enjoy brewing coffee and trying to figure out how to get it right,” he says.
During his routine, the self-described “coffee obsessive” rattled off detailed information about the complex topic of soluble material extraction. He used a coffee from Nyeri, Kenya’s Ichamara mill that he described to the judges as “ripe cherry tomatoes with a handful of cranberries and a wedge of lime, all tossed together in cane sugar.” His brewing method of choice was a Hario V60 ceramic drip cone, which he selected for its simplicity and outstanding results. “It provides a lot of flavor clarity in the cup without sacrificing too much body,” Jarrow says. “So I got a little bit of the best of both worlds.”
Like Knapp, Jarrow will now move on to April’s USBC to compete for the U.S. Brewers Cup title.