Moments before the winner of the Southeast Regional Brewers Cup is announced, Jonathan Bonchak of Counter Culture Coffee and his colleague, Colin Whitcomb of Madcap Coffee in Washington, D.C., look as nervous as beauty pageant contestants. Rattled by the tension, Bonchak instinctively bear-hugs his colleague in a moment of coffee camaraderie.
Bonchak has spent months perfecting his pour-over coffee at Counter Culture, where he is a regional sales manager. After days of intense competition at the Big Eastern Regional Coffee Competition in Durham, which crowns brewing and barista champions, the field of six finalists is quickly reduced to two. And then one. The home crowd is shouting Bonchak's name, and he blinks in stunned recognition that he has won the Brewers Cup for the second consecutive year. His wife, Jenny Bonchak of Raleigh's cold-brewed Slingshot Coffee, slips through the throng and throws her arms around him.
"What did I tell you? Coffee Culture!" exclaims Gianni Cassatini of Nuova Simonelli, which provides the gleaming chrome espresso machines used by barista competitors. "It all comes down to the bean," adds Cassatini, who attends almost all official competitions and knows everyone worth knowing in the international coffee circuit. "People think we have the best espresso in Italy, but we don't. We have the best culture, but in America, Counter Culture has the best coffee. On this scale, there's just no one better."
Bonchak's victory is more evidence of the importance of Durham's Counter Culture to America's rapidly growing high-end coffee industry. The Northeast barista champion, J. Park Brannen, who eked out a win with a 0.5-point margin, works for the brand's New York office. Tim Jones of Jubala Coffee in North Raleigh used Counter Culture beans to earn his fourth-place spot in the Southeastern barista finals.
The three-day Big Eastern event, which combined formerly separate Southeastern and Northeastern competitions, was free and open to coffee aficionados. Attendees who packed the fashionably restored textile mill ranged from world-class competitors and savvy coffee consumers—including Joe Kwon of The Avett Brothers—to Folgers drinkers who wouldn't know a cappuccino from a macchiato. They found common ground in the line to the Barista Guild of America coffee bar, however, where award-winning experts poured a stream of free caffeinated beverages.
While most of the young, hipster attendees were part of the industry—between events, the Cotton Room looked like a holding pen for would-be extras waiting to audition for Portlandia—plenty of regular folks were there to pick up tips on how to improve their morning cup.
"It's a very community-oriented event," says Scott Conary of Carrboro Coffee, who served as a head judge in the barista events. "It's a shame that it's called a competition. That's what happens out here, but behind the scenes there's a lot of give and take. We're all getting better and making better coffee, which is a great thing for the consumer."
Panels of judges record their perceptions on complex scoring forms, which are provided to all participants after the winners are announced. In the barista events, for example, points are lost for such infractions as exceeding the time limit, for poorly describing the flavor of a beverage or for allowing foamy milk to dribble over the brim of a cup. Additionally, the workspace must be immaculate. Leaving a crumb of coffee or smudged fingerprint on the chrome espresso machine can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Bonchak sailed through the first round of the brewers event, which tests a competitor's ability to draw maximum flavor from a selected bean. He accurately guessed that the "blind" coffee assigned in the compulsory round was from Guatemala. In fact, Cassatini confirmed that it was the same bean used in the Big Central regional contest, but "with a different roast profile."
"It was nutty and juicy," Bonchak says, offering sips to colleagues from remains kept at the end of his round. "It was good but very different from what I've been practicing with."
Brewer presentations are conducted with less fanfare than the barista competition and offer more up-close opportunities for viewers. It was possible, for example, to stand just feet away from reigning world champion brewer Erin McCarthy—not surprisingly, also of Counter Culture—as he quietly delivered a skillful demonstration for judges.
While competitors executed their tasks in near silence, judges noisily slurped entries from spoons. Their individual methods, which included practically dipping their noses into the hot brews, made them chirp and squeak like exotic birds before pausing to vigorously swish and discreetly spit.
By contrast, the barista judges were quiet, and competitors wore microphones and chose theme music to accompany their performance. Also, unique tablescapes were created to convey the barista's personality or point of view. Most settings were modern and spare, though one was color-coordinated with fussy, Martha Stewartish flair to match the barista's artfully knotted mint green scarf.
Jubala's Tim Jones set an elegant table and engaged judges with a message that cleverly compared trying different coffees to experiencing different stages of a romantic relationship. He used a slim box containing a cut pomegranate and bitter lemon, tamarind pods, lemongrass and raspberries to remind them of the flavors he described. He maintained eye contact with the panel until he called "time," then smiled as the crowd cheered his completing the show with a five-second margin.
Later, after learning he placed fourth, Jones was so flummoxed he could hardly speak. When Counter Culture's Nathan Brown told him he received texted congratulations to relay from Tim Hill, Jones was overwhelmed. "He's the man who went to Ethiopia to get the coffee I used," he says, looking into his girlfriend's shining eyes as if hunting for words. "I'm just speechless."
Counter Culture's Lem Butler, a four-time barista champion who retired after last year's win in Atlanta, also was impressed by Jones. While a few baristas were disqualified for excessive time or other technical violations, Butler says the professionalism of competitors has increased exponentially in recent years.
"Nothing about this is easy," says Butler, who co-emcee'd this year's event while exuding a hip, Zen-like calm. "But I've got to say, it's also hard to just stand here and watch. If this comes back to Durham," the new father adds with a glint in his eye, "I might do it again."
The intoxicating pull of the Big Eastern competition drew a handful of entrants who figured they had little chance of winning but gave it their best shot for the chance to rub elbows with more experienced cohorts. Dylan McFatrich of Raleigh's Morning Times remained good humored after being disqualified following his 17 minute-plus presentation, which included juicing North Carolina sweet potatoes to blend into his signature beverage.
"Hey, it's good to be alive," he says with an affable shrug. "I'm not a big competitor, really, so it's mostly been a learning experience for me. I'll be back, but right now I'm more interested in meeting people in my field. And there's no better place to do that than right here."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rise and grind."