US barista championship contender Gray Kauffman Q+A

Gray Kauffman head shot against a graphic with the SEAtoday logo and Q+A

Gray Kauffman will be competing against 21 other baristas in Boston. | Photo by Nathan Lowe

Table of Contents

Let’s get ready to espressooooo. The US Barista Championships are happening this weekend during the Specialty Coffee Expo on Fri., April 8-Sun., April 10. And even though the competish is all the way across the country in Boston, you just know Seattle is representin’.

Meet Gray Kauffman, a barista at Caffe Vita’s KEXP location and one of 22 competitors. Gray will be showing off their skills in front of four judges — preparing espressos, cappuccinos + a personally-designed beverage over the course of 15 minutes. Here’s what they had to say about the brews-ing contest.

What’s it like to prepare for the championship?

Training is making hundreds of drinks every day and doing those same motions. Every time I pull a shot of espresso and steam milk, I’m thinking about the skills that I’m using. [...] But there’s also mindset and meditation, working to stay calm for the excitement and pressure of it. You’re also giving a kind of TED talk about something that you love about coffee. So it’s a very intense thing to do all in one go.

How do you time it out?

The 15 minutes go by quicker than you think. You’re going along to a soundtrack that you create, so I chose three songs that I felt like really kind of captures the theme of my routine where I can hear the different music cues. I chose, “There’s a Small Hotel” by Dorothy Ashby, “Les Fleur” by Minnie Riperton, and “ash” by Gia Margaret. So it culminates in like jazz, Afro harping — just a beautiful ballad — and then kind of ends with this introspective, atmospheric song. Three beautiful women in music who inspire me every time I listen — it gives me a good energy to keep going through my script.

Every judge has to be served an espresso shot, so you’re trying to transform the espresso, but also have synergy. It’s not essentially coffee forward any more. We [Gray and trainer Sam Spillman, who won the 2019 US barista title and will be competing in this year’s Brewers Cup] got all the ingredients we could ever think of, trying them in combination, but it didn’t taste quite right. Finally, Sam’s husband took some rosewater and started throwing it in and we’re like, whoa. [...] We named it Cuatro Plantas because it’s just four ingredients — all derived from plants. [Gray opted to keep the rest of the recipe secret, for now.]

How are you feeling as the event approaches?

There’s that nervous energy — it’s a decade of experience that I finally get to show off. I’ve kind of been thinking about it as my “coffee cotillion” — an opportunity and a platform to share my great love of coffee among people who also have that excitement and knowledge.

What would your advice be for “home” baristas who want to up their game?

It really comes down to finding what you like. Some people really do want those kinds of fuller-bodied, more extracted coffees that come from French presses, and some people would much rather have something more delicate and tea-like. Go to your local coffee shop, try out some different drinks, and talk to the baristas. We’re a wealth of knowledge and we want to share it.

Pro tip: You will soon be able to buy the coffee Sam is using for the championship — Caffe Vita will be selling it in four-ounce portions after the competition. The beans are a Geisha variety from Colombia produced by La Palma and El Tucán, which is known for experimentation with new flavor profiles. It has notes of tropical fruits like pineapple + mango, with a silky body.

More from SEAtoday