1616 National Avenue, Barrio Logan
The 2015 U.S. Coffee Championship wrapped up at Long Beach Arena on February 22nd. Awards were given for brewing, tasting, and latte art, as well as an overall barista champion. In the five overall categories, only one coffee professional from San Diego took part: Café Virtuoso roaster and co-founder Stephan Vonkolkow, who placed third in the Roasters Choice competition.
Fifteen roasters from around the country brought beans to this contest, which evaluates quality with added emphasis on roaster-controlled elements: acidity, body, and sweetness. For the first round, all competitors worked with the same batch of green beans from Peru. Six finalists moved on to the second round, where they submitted origins of their choosing for a blind tasting. Five certified judges rated the coffee, with a people’s choice component contributing 20 percent toward an aggregate score that determined the winners.
Vonkolkow says his preparation for the competition wasn’t altogether different from his daily approach to roasting at Virtuoso’s shop in Barrio Logan. “We have a number of really well-trained palates here on the staff,” he says, “I definitely utilize them.” Regarding the Peruvian coffee, “We decided it had some really nice sweetness in the lighter roast levels.” However, he wanted to avoid too light a roast, and not just because it would cost him points: “There’s a couple guys in town really pushing the border towards ultra light,” he says, “and you get some amazing characteristics...but also you’ll notice in the aftertaste there’s kind of this grassy, vegetal taste that lingers — that’s not necessarily pleasant all the time.”
Through several rounds of profiling, he experimented with time and temperature adjustments, even blending two different roast levels. Ultimately, he settled on a single roast the team felt offered the best expression of the bean. Not coincidentally, he says, “Three of the guys who moved on wound up with roast curves that were really similar to ours.”
For the finals round, Vonkolkow brought Virtuoso’s 94-point Shilicho Ethiopia, a washed bean from the Sidamo region that’s part of Royal Coffee Importers’ Red Cherry Initiative. According to Vonkolkow, this means during the harvesting process, farmers “only picked the perfectly ripe cherries,” resulting in “a much higher quality cup of coffee.” Like all of Café Virtuoso’s coffees, the Shilicho is certified organic.
Vonkolkow says he’s motivated to compete by the chance to talk shop with other roasters. “I always learn a whole volume of information every time I go through some sort of contest process,” he says. Though he holds a degree in electrical engineering and often approaches roasting with the mindset of a scientist, he says lately he’s been embracing the artistry of it.
“You have to be in touch with the coffee,” he says. “And I felt really uncomfortable about expressing this for a long time, but now I’m friends with a number of really excellent roasters from around the country, and I’ve heard them all describe it the same. It’s very meditative when you’re roasting…. It’s a zen-like thing.”