Akaash Saini brews coffee at Morsel in the U-District and works as community manager for espresso supply company Visions. He won the Northwest Regional Brewers Cup last week and is gearing up to compete in the 2015 US Brewers Cup Championship in Long Beach, CA, this February. Saini talks with Eater about common coffee mistakes and shares where he drinks the stuff in the Northwest and what he'd change about local coffee culture.
What makes for a great cup of coffee?
Understanding all of the variables. With brewing coffee, I have to focus on the water temperature, the brewing time, the ratio between coffee and water, and the particle size of the ground coffee.
How did you first get interested in coffee?
I started a video blog called The Weekly Brew, where I would report positive stories in and around Seattle. At the end of each video, I would highlight a local coffee shop. At the time, I knew nothing. With this blog, I met Michael "Panda" Fernandez, the community manager for espressoparts.com. With that, everything changed. We became friends due to our mutual love of hip hop music and alternative pop culture. At times, he would be at home brewing coffee, or at work brewing coffee. After a few times of watching him do it, I began to ask questions. I then began to brew coffee at home. I then began to compete in competitions.
If you could make one cup of any caffeinated drink for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?
As a child, I used to wake up early on the weekends and make Indian chai for my parents. I would then bring it to them in bed with tea cookies and sweets. To this day, I still make chai for them whenever I am home. (Unless of course, it's a weekday. My father gets up way too early for me.)
Where do you go for great coffee in Seattle and Portland?
Oh man, this is a tough one. Both Seattle and Portland (and everything in between) have a plethora of specialty coffee shops that are to die for. I'm going to focus on spots that blow my mind when it comes to manual brewed coffee.
- Neptune Coffee: This spot is clean, sophisticated, and consistent. They have a revolving menu of coffees from Kuma Coffee and Velton's Coffee in Seattle, and other assortments from around the country.
- Slate Coffee: Imagine a wine bar. The server greets you with water and a menu. Each item is carefully prepared. Samples are always given. Knowledge on coffee is always given. Don't come here if you're in a hurry, though.
- Street Bean: If you're downtown, this is the spot to grab a coffee. Also, this non-profit hires baristas that are at-risk youth who learn job skills.
- Bar Francis: This part-garage, part-art museum, part-concert space is a coffee shop during the day. Get some of the best from the owner Michael Elvin, one of the sweetest and most professional people I know.
- Method Coffee Bar: This is a great concept. Three coffees, any method you want. Want to try the same coffee as an espresso, latte, and brewed coffee? Go to Method. They also serve Olympia Coffee Roasting Company, which is one of my favorite coffee roasters.
- Heart Coffee Roasters: What a great looking shop. What great tasting coffee. Also a favorite coffee roaster! If you're into dark roasted coffees, I need you to go here. Every coffee will taste like candied fruit!
(When I go to Portland, I usually get espresso, not brewed coffee. I recommend Either / Or, Barista, Ristretto Roasters, and Portland Roasting for espresso.)
Can you give me a little background on the NW Regional Brewers Cup? What was the competition like in which you won first place?
The NW Regional Brewers Cup is pretty simple. The top three of each region go on to the National Competition. There are six regions in the U.S. From there, they crown a National Champion and he/she is the U.S. representative for the World Competition. So far, there has only been one World Champion from the U.S. (Erin McCarthy of Counter Culture Coffee in NYC in 2013.)
There are two rounds. Round one is the compulsory round, in which each competitor is given 12 oz of a mystery coffee. We each have a few hours to dial this coffee in. Once the competition time comes up, the competitor must brew three cups of coffee in seven minutes. The coffee is then given to the judges, who are in a separate room. They will evaluate the aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, and the overall impression of the cup. They will taste the coffee hot, warm, and cold before making final judgments.
The top six of this round move on to the final. The six finalists will give an oral presentation with a coffee of their choosing to three judges. They must brew three cups of coffee while explaining the tasting notes of their coffee, the brew method, and anything else they feel relevant. The judges will score these presentations on how accurate the taste descriptions were, the customer service, and the overall impression, along with scoring the coffee with the same evaluations as above.
This happens in the regional, national, and world competitions. The judges are Q Graders. The highest honor to give a coffee taster. Imagine a wine sommelier but for coffee.
The competition has been going on for four years now. This is my third year competing. The first year I competed as someone who did not work at a shop, just someone who loved to brew coffee. I did fairly well but did not place in the finals. Last year, I placed fourth in the regionals. This year, I am the champ, and will be going on to the national competition!
If novices were to compete in the competition what do you think the first few simple mistakes would be?
The first simple mistake: Honestly, just second guessing yourself. If you know what you brewed up was delicious, don't try to change it last minute. Brew your coffee as if it were for you. Whether you're serving judges or customers, you should be able to communicate with them why you felt this brew was extracted this way, and why it will taste delicious. (Of course, if the judge or customer disagrees, that's fine as well. Taste is subjective.)
What bugs you about the coffee scene that you wish would change?
What bugs me about the coffee scene? We spend a lot of time focusing on every nuance to ensure that the cup of coffee will be the best. And yes, this is very important. However, at times, I feel like we've forgotten the customer service aspect of our job. It's something I truly push when training baristas. There is a way to focus on details, provide education, and still make the customer feel like they're the most important person in the room. We just have to be as genuine as possible.