Collaboration in Competition: An Interview with U.S. Barista Champion Laila Ghambari and her Team

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The road coffee takes from seed to cup is most often conceptualized as a chain. The beans, or later their extracted essence, are handed off from farmer, to green buyer (and/or importer and exporter), to roaster, to retailer, to barista, to consumer. Each link typically only interacts directly with the ones before and after, and often even those can feel miles apart. So can the guilds representing those links. But when they work together, great things can be achieved for our industry.

This year’s U.S. Barista Champion, Laila Ghambari (Cherry Street Coffee House), took that chain and didn’t just close the loop—she wove it into her winning routine. Ghambari worked closely with the producer, Emilio Lopez Diaz (Cuatro M Cafes’ El Manzano Farm), and the roaster of her coffee, Phil Beattie (Dillanos Coffee Roasters), and her very concept reflected strength in unity: she combined the same varietal processed three different ways into her espresso and cappuccino service and signature beverage. No one was left unmoved by her stirring presentation of what can be achieved when we see each other not as links, but as partners.

We spoke to Laila, Phil and Emilio about their adventures on the road to Seattle, and what they learned through their collaboration.

Chronicle: When you began thinking about how you were going to approach this competition, did you know that this concept of “synergy” between the key players (producer, roaster, and barista) was going to be a central theme, or how did the idea develop?

Laila: I had the idea of collaborating from the beginning. I knew that would help build continuity throughout the performance, as well as give me an opportunity to talk about a lot of information. Even though this is a barista competition, I think we are all very aware of the fact that there is so much more involved in the process than just me. I wanted to showcase that as honestly as possible.

Phil: When Laila first approached me to see if I would be interested in joining in this adventure, I was immediately excited about the opportunity. I’ve always been a fan of the professionalism and skill Laila has demonstrated in past competitions, and wanted to foster the connection between the Barista Guild and the Roasters Guild. The first thing that came into my head was, “We’ve got to find a way to loop in Emilio,” because I knew his expertise would be valuable in the process.

Emilio: Phil called me and told me a little bit about his idea with Laila. I had met Laila a few times before and definitely recognized right away the potential in this challenge. A week later we were having a team call, setting up the plan for execution.

After the call, we all got started with our roles. Laila planning her routine, Phil scheduling a visit to the farm with Laila so that the coffees could be selected, roasted, and cupped at origin. And then I started to play around with different blocks of the farm, processing them all differently.

Chronicle: How did you determine what roast profile you would use?

Phil: The idea was to head down to Emilio’s farm at a point where coffee was coming off the patio, and was at a stage where we could cup it and figure out what we were working with.

Emilio: By the time they came to the farm, we had about ten different pre-selected options. Laila spent over a week cupping, roasting, and brewing espresso in our lab. Phil and I gave our feedback from a cupping standpoint, but right at that point we started to realize that evaluating a coffee for espresso wasn’t really only about the cupping evaluation: The crema, color, viscosity, how well it goes with milk. By bringing all those concepts—farming, processing, roasting, cupping and brewing—together, we set out to win the USBC.

Phil: The group and I started forming some ideas on how we could roast that coffee to accentuate certain characteristics, and Laila had her ideas on using all three of the different processes and mixing those up in different ways to use in the cappuccino service as well as the espresso round. Laila brought back 20 lbs of green coffee from each of the processes, the washed, the natural, and the pulped natural, and the idea was we could roast that coffee back in the States and practice with it, and also figure out how we would dial in the roast for each type when the bulk of the coffee arrived. We had six bags of coffee that Emilio was shipping airfreight from El Salvador to our roaster in Sumner, Washington.

We threw the 60 lbs of coffee that Laila brought back in the machine and did a roast based on a hypothesis. Obviously, I do a lot of cupping and a lot of roasting, so I had an idea what style of roast profile might work well with those coffees, but it’s always a trial-and-error process to see what comes out best.

The first batches ended up tasting pretty good; Laila was really awesome at giving feedback on how they tasted. That was one of the best things throughout the entire process that facilitated success: Laila’s ability to give really well-articulated feedback on what flavors she was getting out of it. One of the big challenges when dialing in a roast is linking the flavor-attribute feedback from the barista and from the tasting experts and brewing experts back to the roaster in a way that it can actually facilitate a better coffee. One of our best assets as a team was our ability to communicate, and to link flavor profiles with the finished product and what we wanted to have in it.

But then we ran into some logistical issues getting the coffee to our roaster in Sumner, Washington, mostly due to a large storm on the East Coast. The coffee didn’t end up making it out to our roaster until the day before the Regional. So we had that coffee in hand, but we weren’t going to have time for it to offgas. I even had the crazy idea to roast it and put it in some kind of vibrating machine to force it to offgas faster. In the end, we stuck with the original roast of the coffee that Laila brought back from Emilio’s farm. Luckily, we had plenty of coffee to really dial in the roast for the USBC round.

Chronicle: Can you talk about the varieties and processing methods that were used for these coffees?

Emilio: Coffees from Finca El Manzano were processed from 1,300 meters, 1,400 meters, and 1,500 meters, all through three different processes: fully washed, pulp natural, and natural. Based on the idea to have a single estate coffee blend that would have a complex structure. The lower elevation would bring out the body and chocolate notes, the mid elevation a little bit on the caramel tones, and the higher elevation the floral and citric end. In terms of the processing, the fully washed would bring out the brightness and the juicy taste, the pulp natural, the panela and syrup, and the natural would offer high fruit notes and crema for the espresso.

Chronicle: Once you had the roasted coffee to experiment with, did this change the way you went about presenting the coffee and developing your signature beverage? Knowing that the coffee was fresh, how did this impact your approach?

Laila: First, I tasted each component separately. Dialed it in, discovered its strengths and weaknesses, then built an espresso blend around that. The washed was balanced, the pulp natural had great body, and the natural popped! Blending them allowed me to tailor the espresso and the espresso for the cappuccinos to what I knew would score well. For the signature drink, I knew I wanted all three coffees present in the drink so, had I not decided on a blend for the espresso that had all three coffees, I would have created a third blend for the signature drink. Thankfully I didn’t have to do that. I left the fresh coffee situation up to Phil. I knew as a roaster he would know what to do with it.

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We ended up changing the blend in every competition. Freshness was a factor in that the coffee at the Regional was incredibly fresh, because I had carried it home in my backpack, and it aged every round. So the taste changed. And so the blend and the roast profile we used every round was different. From Regional to National to World, it was a different combination of percentages of processes and a different roast profile. And that came from a combination of both Phil wanting to play around with the roast and make it better every single time, and as the coffee changed, some things tasted better than others or we realized we wanted something different.

Phil: Another thing to point out with the blending is that we literally saved the blending process for the day of the competition. We’d have an idea of exactly what we wanted to do, but then the morning of the competition, specifically at the USBC and the WBC, Emilio and Laila and I would all be at the espresso machine during the practice time putting the finishing touches on that blend, and working together to come up with the best flavor descriptors.

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Chronicle: In her routine, Laila talks about how Emilio has been able to succeed, even when faced with many challenges that all producers are up against today. What makes Emilio special as a producer?

Phil: Emilio is super proactive with all of his coffee processing, he manages his farms and mills consistently two-to-three years ahead of where most production is today. He’s already three years down the road with his concepts of how he wants to adjust the varieties, or the inputs, or the pruning, or the way he processes the coffee. It’s pretty incredible when you go down and talk to him. I know as a green coffee buyer, when I bring up things I’ve seen other farms doing, or ideas of how to do something unique with the coffee, he’ll go, “Oh yeah, that’s right here, we’ve already got that going.” He’s just so far ahead of the curve in the innovation he has on his farm.

Chronicle: How has your work with your respective guilds helped you achieve this goal?

Emilio: All three of us, professionals in our field, really brought out the best in each other and put on a routine that was legit, very well-planned, and that expressed the value of our coffee community. We really were being ambassadors of the RG, BGA and SCAA. Associations that we have devoted our time and energy to for over a decade, and in return we have acquired knowledge, community belonging, networking, and most importantly, they have taught us to work as a team to re-think our industry and be at the forefront of it.

Laila: The Barista Guild is a tool: a social tool, an educational tool. It’s really whatever you want to make of it. I’ve had the chance of meeting producers and roasters at Barista Camp, classes at Expo, Symposium, etc. The Barista Guild is not just for baristas. I think roasters and producers want to and should be a part of it. We’re all on the same team. I got the chance to serve coffee at the Roasters Guild retreat two years ago, and I’ve been dying to get certified ever since, even though I have no desire to roast professionally. There are more factors than just extraction percentages. By working more closely with the producer and the roaster, I think I get better at being a barista.

Phil: Emilio and I met at the RG retreat in 2002, and we immediately recognized each other’s passion for coffee and dedication to the craft of coffee. At the time, Emilio and I were basically kids with not much experience, and we grew up together in the industry. We were seeing each other every year at Retreat, seeing each other at other industry events, and staying in contact. Then we served together on the Executive Council of the Roasters Guild. A ton of the knowledge and connections that were crucial in having a successful run at the USBC were really based on interactions that had started happening years before at the various guild events.

My connection with Laila can be traced back to when she came to RG Retreat as the barista, even though I’d known her before and had interactions with her before that. The Retreat is a really unique setting where you can have time for relaxed interactions—at other industry events and at trade shows, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle and people have tight schedules. When I saw her at Retreat preparing coffee at the espresso machine for people, we were able to have a lot of really rich interactions surrounding how coffee was prepared and her approach to the different fundamentals of espresso extraction. I remember learning a lot from her at Retreat about how to prepare coffee, and what a really top-notch, skilled barista is paying attention to when crafting a beverage.

I think what the guilds facilitate is an opportunity to meet and interact with people who are of a similar mindset when it comes to coffee. I talked about Emilio’s proactiveness. I think Laila and I possess that same type of approach in our roles in the industry. Laila’s very proactive with how she’s looking at how Cherry Street trains, and how they prepare coffee and select coffees.

When I was on the Executive Council I made it a point to get to Barista Camp to see how they were interacting. There were a lot of things that weren’t surprising: it wasn’t surprising to see the enthusiasm and the vibrancy that was demonstrated there. The only surprising thing is that, you had a lower average age than at RG, but there was so much maturity. When something is called “camp,” you anticipate a camp-like setting. The location was camp-like, but the seriousness of the baristas when they were approaching coffee and the classes was very advanced, with a very high level of professionalism.

Laila: For me, I kind of worked backwards; I did competition for a while and then I got really involved with the BGA. I’ve always noticed that teaching helps the teacher learn more, and being a competitor and working with the Barista Guild, I’ve done a lot of classes about competition, teaching people to compete, and so on. I think that pool of knowledgeable people, and people who are eager to learn, has really, really helped me do better as a competitor.

Chronicle: Laila, you’ve also been involved in creating a Barista Guild in Iran. Can you tell us a bit more about this and what you’re hoping to achieve in that region?

Laila: There are many cafes in Iran, but nothing that allowed for the baristas to create community. I met a few people that wanted to start a guild. They were so eager to learn. I mean they didn’t even know that the word “barista” existed until two years ago. Now that a guild has been created, the task as hand is growing the community, getting people involved.

Mohammed, the guy who started the Barista Guild in Iran, was at the WBC. There was an Italian coffee company that hosted a contest in Iran where the prize was a trip to Italy, just in time for him to make it. He was alongside us the whole time, he helped us dial in, he documented it to take back and show the Iranian baristas. Phil and Emilio are kind of like celebrities over there now. Their dream is for Iran to be represented at the WBC. We’re working very hard to make that happen in 2015.

Watch Laila’s championship performance here:  http://bit.ly/Ghambari_USBC