In the cluttered workroom of Back Alley Coffee Roasters in Wake Forest, a champion is being made.
At a small bench flanked by an industrial-size coffee roaster and five-gallon plastic buckets filled with coffee beans, Kyle Ramage, the 2017 U.S. Barista Champion, is meticulously pulling espresso shots. He's practicing under the watchful eye of Lemuel Butler, the 2016 U.S. Barista Champion. Together they take deliberate sips of each shot, commenting on flavor notes, balance, and acidity. To a layman, their descriptions of hints of lemon, lush red fruits, and either an astringent or mellow finish seem apropos of fine wine. But for them it is the vital language of competition and quality.
Butler offers advice and Ramage adjusts his grinder, pulls two more shots, presses the grounds into the portafilter with multiple tools, and produces a coffee slightly more acidic than the first. It is a subtle but notable difference that, over time, will guide him toward producing one of the best cups of coffee in the world.
The pair will repeat this process for hours and hours over the next several months, tasting hundreds of espresso shots as Ramage trains for the 2017 World Barista Championship in Seoul, South Korea, in November.
For the second consecutive year, a Triangle barista will represent the U.S. at the international competition, going shot for shot against the best baristas in the world.
"It's amazing that two winners in a row have come from the same place," says Cindy Ludviksen, managing director of the Dublin-based World Coffee Events organization which hosts the U.S. Barista Championships. "When you think of places super notable for coffee, you never think of Durham or Raleigh."
She raises an interesting question: how could two Raleigh neighbors and veterans of Durham's coffee scene (Butler worked at Counter Culture for eleven years and Ramage at coffee grinder manufacturer Mahlkonig USA for four) beat dozens of well-known expert baristas from coffee meccas like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—two years running?
"Being a competitor from the Southeast who's made it to finals so many times is huge because the rest of the country looked at the Southeast like there's not a lot of great coffee here," says Butler. "Winning these championships put the Southeast on the coffee map."
Their success results from the maturation of the Triangle's coffee culture.
"They are products of their environment," says Ludviksen. "The coffee scene, which grew out of the food scene, has now evolved with a focus on better quality, better sourcing, and more attention to craftsmanship. Taking pride in what you are doing is part of the landscape. It's an important part of the culture."
The scene's success is partly the result of decades-long, direct relationships between coffee growers and Triangle coffee roasters, like Carrboro Coffee, providing access to higher-quality competition coffee. In turn, these roasters, especially Durham's Counter Culture Coffee, have helped produce more knowledgeable, sophisticated baristas. Cafe owners support regular barista competitions, or throwdowns, creating vibrant rivalries that elevate the Triangle's talent pool. And a local ethos of collaboration and camaraderie among baristas has empowered competitors to hold their own on the world stage.
"Competition is always a team effort," says Ramage. "People who do well don't do it on their own."
But how can making coffee be a competitive sport? The short answer is control. A barista is responsible for numerous factors—temperature, grind, roast, timing—that determine coffee's quality. Second, a barista is charged with guiding the consumer through the sensual experience of that coffee. At competitions, baristas are judged on their ability to precisely control how they make the coffee, but also how they accentuate or modify the coffee's natural attributes. Then they must present it to the judges, almost like a performance.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Back Alley Coffee Roasters
"Brewing the best coffee on the planet is ideal, and you describing that well is also the ideal," says Ramage.
At the competition, Butler and Ramage had some help from Counter Culture. They both used the roaster's Finca Nuguo, a rare coffee only produced on a five-hectare plot in Panama that costs $100 per pound. It took Counter Culture years to develop a strong enough relationship with the growers to access the coffee.
Despite his aversion to boasting, Butler leads the competitive pack in the Triangle. He's the most decorated barista in competition history, winning five regional championships and the 2016 national championship. He finished fourth at last year's World Barista Championship in Dublin.
Until just a few weeks ago, he worked at Counter Culture Coffee in wholesale customer support and public outreach. That's where he met Ramage, who was a student in one of his training classes. Ramage worked at Jubala Coffee in Raleigh. Over the course of several years, the pair bonded after frequent encounters at competitions.
But it wasn't until Butler began training for last year's championship that their partnership formalized; Ramage became his coach.
"I needed someone to taste my coffee because sometimes, when you are stressed, your taste buds give out," says Butler. "And when you are competing you need someone to tell you what you need to hear, instead of what you want to hear. Kyle was that person."
As coach, Ramage traveled with Butler to Dublin's world competition, so it was natural for Butler to return the favor when Ramage began training this year.
"Lem is a great, hardworking barista who puts in lots of training hours. He's helped me to keep pushing to be better," says Ramage.
And he has certainly improved. He performed dismally in last year's competition; although he's not sure why, judges described his coffee as bitter and he was knocked out in the preliminary round. But he came roaring back this year as the first non-cafe or coffee-roaster employee ever to win the national championship.
The pair is now gearing up for Ramage's appearance on the world stage—and for a new partnership. They bought Back Alley Coffee Roasters in Wake Forest last month. The stress of a new business has made practicing much more demanding, but it's a challenge they welcome.
"We'd been talking about a business partnership for years, but the right opportunity never came up until Back Alley came up for sale," says Ramage.
They're keeping the Back Alley name for a little while, with plans to rebrand as Black and White Coffee Roasters. A launch of the new brand is slated for early October. They hope to double or even triple the shop's current roast coffee sales, increase online sales and plans are in the works to expand the small cafe to offer food and more coffee options. They hope their competitive practice translates into better experiences for customers and inspires employees to elevate their craft.
"What we're instilling in our baristas on the floor is a very competition-minded way of making coffee," says Ramage. "They're making very competition-like beverages out there."
That inspiration extends beyond the shop. Butler and Ramage are role models for the next generation of Triangle baristas. Shane Hess works at Jubala Coffee and finished twelfth at this year's U.S. Barista Championships. He looks to Butler and Ramage with pride.
"The fact that two barista champions have come from the Triangle means so much to me. It encourages me that I could one year win it, too," says Hess. "It also inspires the baristas in the Triangle that what we serve is world-class. It is easy to follow shops on the West Coast and think that they are doing something incredible and different, but the truth is we are producing the same quality coffee they are. Lem and Kyle prove that!"