This weekend's coffee competition lifts Triangle's specialty java businesses

aweigl@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2014 

  • Want to go?

    The Big Eastern regional barista and brewers cup competition continues from 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Golden Belt development in Durham.

    It is free and open to the public. Sponsors will be serving free coffee throughout the event.

    Golden Belt is at 807 E. Main St. (The competition is being held in the Cotton Room on the third floor.)


— The clock ticked down Friday as barista Andrew Cash had 15 minutes to prepare an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature coffee drink for each of four judges.

Cash, owner of Jubala Coffee in North Raleigh, was competing in The Big Eastern, a coffee competition for baristas from up and down the East Coast being held in Durham this weekend.

With rock music blaring, Cash was pulling shots of espresso in front of a live audience and a panel of judges, all the while throwing out descriptions like “taste of plum and sweet molasses,” “citrus aromas” and “the body is going to be slick and juicy.” His signature drink involved an espresso with creme anglaise, green and vanilla rooibos teas, dried blueberries and orange zest.

Cash was among hundreds of specialty coffee professionals who took over a renovated textile mill in downtown Durham for the competition organized by the Barista Guild of America and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. It continues through Sunday afternoon. The winners will move on to a national contest in Seattle in April and potentially from there, compete at an international contest in Italy in July.

The contest returns to its Triangle roots this year. In 2004, the association’s first U.S. regional competition was held in Chapel Hill. Back then, about two dozen baristas squared off at A Southern Season’s cooking school. This weekend, there are almost four times as many competitors, hundreds of people watching and cheering from the audience and thousands more watching online.

“On opening day, we’ve had as many people as used to show up for the entire weekend of events (in 2004),” said Brett Smith, president and co-founder of Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee. “It’s just exciting.”

Specialty coffee represents a teeny sliver of the coffee market but a growing one. The majority of people buy their coffee at the grocery store with brand names such as Folgers, Eight O’Clock or Dunkin’ Donuts. Even so, most consumers are well-versed in the tall, grande and venti of the Starbucks’ menu and may know that they prefer coffee from a specific country or region of the world.

Coffee connoisseurs

The growing thirst for specialty coffee means things have changed. Longtime Triangle coffee roasters like Carrboro Coffee and Counter Culture are being joined by newbies, such as Muddy Dog Roasting Company in Morrisville and Oak City Coffee Roasters in Raleigh. Specialty coffee shops are springing up everywhere, such as Jubala Coffee and Joule, both in Raleigh.

Larry’s Beans founder Larry Larson, who began roasting coffee in the Raleigh area almost 20 years ago, said, “I think it speaks to the evolution of our society. The consumer is a lot more aware of what they are consuming.”

As is the case with craft beer and local food, consumers want to know more about their coffee: who is growing it, how it is grown and processed, and how best to brew it.

“Triangle consumers are starting to rise above the markings on the bag,” said Jim Pellegrini with Muddy Dog Roasting, referring to the organic and fair trade labels.

Instead, Pellegrini said, consumers are asking questions and along the way becoming adventurous coffee drinkers. Pellegrini makes a cask-aged coffee by aging green coffee beans for nine months in used wooden barrels from the Tabasco company. That niche coffee, which is surprisingly mellow instead of spicy, has been a strong seller for Pellegrini, who started Muddy Dog in 2006.

“Six years ago, it would have been hard for me to sell that coffee,” Pellegrini said.

Today’s coffee connoisseurs are having their cups brewed one at a time with “pour-over” methods. They are buying coffee not just by the country of origin but by the farm or “micro-lot,” a small piece of acreage on a particular farm. (When Larson of Larry’s Beans started in the coffee business in the mid-1990s, he said he tried to sell micro-lots of coffee and failed.)

‘Hard at first’

That’s been good for Cash, owner of Jubala Coffee, which opened in North Raleigh’s Lafayette Village three years ago.

“It was hard at first,” Cash said. “We were the new guy in town. We were doing something different. People just wanted what they always got, what they were comfortable with.”

Slowly but surely, Cash has brought customers around to the shop’s way of brewing and serving coffee. His business has grown every month. His next mission: to convert coffee drinkers to espresso drinkers with Free Espresso Fridays. “We do it really for one reason: People think, ‘I’m probably not going to like it.’ They’re not going to like it because they have had bad espresso.”

When the price is free, Cash reasons, his customers have nothing to lose.

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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