Listen: Can the 'Iron Chef' of coffee embrace diversity?

2022-09-03 10:25:15 By : Ms. Sara Wu

If you love coffee and are a regular at cafés, you might see the same barista multiple times a week. They know your order, they know your name, they actually notice when you get a haircut. But being a barista goes beyond pulling espresso shots and foaming almond milk. This week Extra Spicy is exploring part of the barista lifestyle you may never see when you stop in for a flat white and a croissant: high-pressure, super-structured coffee competitions.

Like the "Iron Chef" of coffee, these barista contests feature expert competitors brewing perfect cups of coffee or creating original drinks while judges scrutinize everything from how many times a cup is tapped to the color of the competitor's pants. They also prompt the question: Who determines what is "professional" and who gets the opportunity to compete on the biggest stages?

The first time Veronica Grimm stepped up to a coffee competition, it did not go great. 

"In 15 minutes, I said blueberry 27 times," Grimm tells host and restaurant critic Soleil Ho on this episode of Extra Spicy, "which is a lot of times to say one word."  Today, Grimm is the founder of Glitter Cat Barista, a non-profit organization re-imagining the coffee industry by providing support, resources and mentorship for marginalized hospitality professionals to train and compete and advocating for change in how the contests are run and judged. 

And — optimism warning — it may actually be working.  Picture features Lem Butler (right), Cydni Patterson (middle), and Sam Spillman (left). Courtesy of Veronica Grimm / Glitter Cat.

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Hawkeye Johnson featuring Matt Foster (right), Matt Kumar (middle),  MiMo (left)

Courtesy of Glitter Cat Barista featuring Neichelle Guidry (left) and Alyssa Bell (right).

Veronica Grimm, the founder of non-profit organization Glitter Cat, discusses the barista competition industry with Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho on The Chronicle's Extra Spicy podcast. (Courtesy of Veronica Grimm)

Extra Spicy is: Hosted by Soleil Ho Produced by Téa Francesca Price and Caron Creighton Executive producer: Sarah Feldberg 

Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above, or wherever you get your podcasts. Scroll down to read the transcript of an excerpt of Soleil Ho's conversation with Veronica Grimm, edited and shortened for clarity:

SOLEIL: Veronica, I’m so glad to be speaking with you today, because I’ve been trying to picture what exactly a coffee competition is. I’m imagining something like "Iron Chef" — is that anything close to what goes down? Veronica: Honestly, you you hit the nail on the head really right there. There's a distinction to coffee competition by the Specialty Coffee Association, and every country has a national. Then if you win, you compete at the world level. And what I really fell in love with was the barista competition. It's a 15-minute presentation where you serve four sensory judges an espresso and milk beverage. It's like a cappuccino or something like that. And then a signature drink. So it's basically like a cocktail, but you're not allowed to use alcohol. You just use your espresso kind of as your base spirit and you build drinks all around espresso while you have two tech judges watching every single move you make. If tap your coffee tool three times for your first shot and only two times your next shot, you lose points. It's so intense.  SOLEIL: So, what do people get for for doing this? It sounds really nerve-wracking. Veronica: Yeah, it's really nerve-wracking. It's a lot of stress. And I would say the biggest thing that we get from it is is the people we meet along the way. And kind of those relationships that are built, like the winner of the United States Championships gets like $500. So now there's definitely no cash incentive, especially when registration is $500. But the reason I'm still in the coffee industry and in the coffee industry for 12 years now is in large part due to competition because of the people that I've met, the mentors I've had. And now, as I've kind of shifted into being a mentor and being a coach and like growing as a professional league, my entire career still circles around these coffee competitions and projects that are like drilling off of them. And I think that's really special for me.

Veronica Grimm, the founder of non-profit organization Glitter Cat, discusses the barista competition industry with Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho on The Chronicle's Extra Spicy podcast. (Courtesy of Veronica Grimm)

Hawkeye Johnson featuring Matt Foster (right), Matt Kumar (middle),  MiMo (left)

SOLEIL: I did want to ask about cafés actually, and one thing that I've noticed just as an observer and frequent tours of cafes, especially in the past few years, is that they seem to be the sort of front line for a lot of political stuff, not just essential worker rhetoric and you know, the complications thereof, but also, you have these stories about confrontations at coffee shops between baristas and anti-maskers and police and just disgruntled people in general. And I would love to hear just how a sort of progressive political mission, like how does that intersect with that? How does that fit into the kind of really confrontation heavy world of coffee shops? 

Veronica: That really is a fascinating situation ... coffee workers are like at the front lines of people's emotions and are so frequently taken advantage of and are finding those spaces to be and that are safe or where they feel like they belong and. What I would really like to see is more owners putting systems in place that defend their workers and really support the human, like the human portion of that job and some people are doing some organizations really are like they're honoring their time for like mental health or physical health. For the full episode, listen to the interview by clicking on the player above, or by subscribing to Extra Spicy wherever you get your podcasts.

Join host Soleil Ho as they attempt to decipher the bizarro happenings of the food world alongside a mix of fascinating folks. They dismantle diet culture and angry chefs, cover the restaurant apocalypse and pandemic pivots, and dish out advice you didn't know you needed. Extra Spicy will stimulate your mind and your appetite.