Once again, Seattle craft coffee powerhouse Caffe Vita is sending not one but two baristas to compete in the U.S. Coffee Championships (USCC), an event that’s part of this weekend’s Specialty Coffee Expo at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.
The USCC comprises six different competitions, although everyone’s eyes are usually on the Barista Championship, considered the main prize. The winner of this championship goes on to represent the nation at the World Barista Championship, which will be in Athens, Greece, this year. Portland barista Morgan Eckroth took home the (coffee) cake in 2022 (and was the runner-up at the world championship), so one can imagine the regional rivalry will be thick for Seattle’s competing baristas this time around.
Caffe Vita is sending returning contender Gray Kauffman, who tied for sixth in the U.S. Barista Championship competition at USCC 2022 in Boston, to perform in the same competition this year, while newcomer Natasha Solowoniuk will be performing in the Coffee in Good Spirits (a.k.a. coffee cocktails) competition.
The Barista Championship requires competitors to make espressos, cappuccinos, and a signature beverage for four “sensory judges” while two “technical judges” assess their behind-the-bar skills. The Coffee in Good Spirits competition is a little looser, in every sense of the word: Baristas are asked to mix and serve coffee-based cocktails for the judges while being assessed on their technical abilities as well as the taste and appearance of the drink. For all competitions, baristas get to choose their own background music to express their personal vibe.
A lot of thought goes into the drinks the baristas prepare. Solowoniuk explains that in the Coffee in Good Spirits competition, everyone who makes the finals has to then prepare an Irish coffee for the judges, using no additives in their sugar and nothing unnatural in their coffee or whiskey. “Don’t know if I’ll make it that far,” Solowoniuk says, “but my goal with the Irish coffee is to make kind of like a caramel apple, with molasses and coffee flavors added. I chose triple-distilled Green Spot whiskey to get those apple notes, and a Japanese brown sugar from Hatoma Island in Okinawa Prefecture for its high mineral content — salt, potassium, calcium, and iron. Because the sugar cane grows so close to the water, all those nutrients just go right into the plant.”
Kauffman, meanwhile, is looking backward for their performance, the theme of which is “capturing time.” This means that all of their beverage components — their milks, coffee beans, and any other flavoring agents — date from a certain vintage and were then frozen, in an effort to preserve a perfect point in history. One of their signature beverages will be a nitro-charged coffee with honey syrup, and the other remains a mystery at press time. (This is high-stakes stuff.)
A third-generation Seattleite, Solowoniuk manages the Caffe Vita shop at Seattle Center, which adjoins indie radio station KEXP’s broadcasting studio. She’s been working in coffee for ten years and designing drinks for five, and she creates a lot of the components for her cocktails from scratch. Both of her signature drinks for USCC 2023 are based on tequila —one stars a homemade chicha morada concentrate made from Peruvian kʼculli (purple corn), while the other features a homemade buttered popcorn–infused simple syrup.
Sam Spillman, the 2019 U.S. Barista Champion who took fifth in the Brewers Cup competition at USCC last year, is on the Caffe Vita team as a coach this year. Of Solowoniuk, she says, “Honestly, I’ve worked with Natti for a few years now, and the way she’s able to build flavors and pair flavors together is just out of this world. She told me about her buttered popcorn syrup, and I was totally amazed. I don’t understand how she does it!”
“I just love playing with flavors and just trying things out,” Solowoniuk adds, “and then seeing people’s faces when they love what I’ve come up with. It’s so fun. It just makes my heart warm.”