Food and Dining
7:00 am
Wed April 23, 2014

Louisville Coffee Scene Is Serious About Barista Competitions

Steve Rhinhart and Ryan Felbinger judge the latte art competition.
Credit Gabe Bullard/WFPL News

The night before the Louisville Cardinals and Kentucky Wildcats played each other in the men's basketball NCAA Tournament, a group of twentysomethings from across the area gathered at the Cardinal Towne Quill's to fill out a bracket. Ben E. and TJ had a faceoff in the first round. Nate S. won in an early matchup and was prepping to take on Matt S.

These aren't teams. They're baristas.

This was a latte art competition. A contest to see who could make the best design of milk and coffee in a mug. And though the concept seems like so much fluff (or foam), what's happening in Quill's after closing hours can potentially change two men's lives, and will definitely influence how most of Louisville caffeinates.

At Quill's in New Albany, baristas prepare to sample new coffee roasts.
Credit Gabe Bullard/WFPL News

This Is Serious

The competition was held to support one of the participants, Michael Butterworth, who is headed to a much larger competition. After years serving coffee at Quill's, Butterworth is going to nationals. He's the first Louisvillian to go to the National Barista Competition, which will be held in Seattle this weekend. And while Butterworth is the first, he's not the only. Argo Sons roaster James Tooill will be competing at the Brewers Cup, which is held at the same event.

The National Barista Competition and the Brewers Cup are part of the Specialty Coffee Association of America's National Coffee Competition. Other events include a latte art contest and a tasting competition. This year, it'll be in Seattle. To get in, both Butterworth and Tooill had to place in the upper ranks at regional competitions.

Tooill describes the Brewers Cup as the "best cup of coffee competition."

"The barista competition focuses on espresso and competition. The competition I'm in focuses on black coffee, what's possible with the best-tasting cup of regular coffee," he says. "[The judges] look at what distinct flavors they're getting and how easy they are to describe, how pleasant they are.

"They also look at sweetness overall…they look at aftertaste…and how the coffee feels."

In the barista competition, where Butterworth will be competing, participants must make a 15-minute presentation. In this presentation, they discuss the coffee they're brewing (participants bring their own coffee roasts) and make an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature drink for the four panel judges, while also being watched by two technical judges who look for flaws in the technique or use of equipment. (There's more. The official rules for the competition are 24 pages long, including two paragraphs on the consistency and persistence cappuccino foam consistency.)

On that rainy Thursday before the basketball game, after the latte art competition at Quill's, the shop cleared out. Only Butterworth and five others—Tooill among them—remained. The five picked up clipboards. Four sat at the counter and one stood behind it, next to Butterworth, who cleaned the espresso machine and set a kitchen timer to 15 minutes. He was about to practice his routine.

Michael Butterworth samples the coffee he'll take to the competition.
Credit Gabe Bullard/WFPL News

The Origin Story

To qualify for the national competition, Tooill and Butterworth had to place in the southeast regionals. For his presentation then, Butterworth's signature drink was a take on Turkish coffee, a recipe he knows well, having spent time in Turkey teaching English.

Butterworth liked coffee while he was teaching, but it was during this time that he began taking weekend trips to European cafes and developed a competition-level interest in it.

Butterworth grew up in a small town near Arizona's Mogollon Rim (where the western writer Zane Grey built a hunting cabin). The town, Overgaard, didn't even have fast food when Butterworth was there. He got the job at Quill's within a day of returning to America in 2012, and Louisville's food scene fueled his dedication to his craft.

This scene also helped fuel Tooill. He fell in love with coffee while hanging out at Highland Coffee and Heine Brothers.

When asked why Louisville has produced competition-level coffee, roasters and baristas, no one has a distinct answer. Some cite the strong restaurant scene, others say the presence of bourbon shows a regional dedication to craft beverage. Butterworth pays homage to the city in his signature drink for nationals, which is a tart, nonalcoholic (all competition drinks must be nonalcoholic) take on the Oaks Lilly.

But no matter how Louisville's coffee culture got this way, it's probably going to stay like this for a long time. Quill's and Sunergos have been on a path of expansion for the last few years, and Heine Brothers remains ever-present.

Filling in as a judge, Tooill critiques Butterworth's coffee.
Credit Gabe Bullard/WFPL News

Training for Success

For his practice routine at Quill's, Butterworth chose Tooill to be one of the mock judges. I sat next to him, hoping to glean something from his judging sheet, but the charts for flavor were indecipherable. Anyone critical of high level (commonly called Third Wave) coffee culture, would find plenty of fodder in Butterworth's display.

He discusses his origins, the origins of his coffee and what flavors the judges will be tasting. It's easy to imagine the power of suggestion at work. But there's also proof in the cup. Maybe it's the fact that I was told an espresso would taste like rhubarb, or maybe the roasting and brewing actually made this coffee taste like rhubarb, but when Tooill slipped me some of his drink after giving it a score, I tasted rhubarb. Something worked.

To train for this, Butterworth worked with a coach in Houston and with Jesse Myers, a roaster for Quill's. Butterworth says Myers' sourcing and roasting of coffee contributes a great deal to his performance. I asked Myers if he felt slighted by Butterworth getting this attention, but he said no. He went to the regional Brewers Cup, but didn't earn a spot at nationals. He's happy to help Butterworth, and he and Tooill are friendly. At the latte art competition, they shared jokes and made friendly jabs at each others' skill level.

In fact, the whole atmosphere around the competition was the opposite of the stereotypical pretentious coffee scene. Baristas from Bowling Green and Bloomington were there. Everyone cheered for every competitor, and they crowded around to get pictures of the lattes. The losers smiled.

Throughout the evening, when he wasn't competing in the latte contest, Tooill was brewing coffee. Sure, it's part of his training (he's ordered a proprietary blend of minerals that he carefully adds to reverse osmosis water to replicate what he'll be brewing with in Seattle, but he was using something more standard this night), but it's also what he's interested in.

In the corner of Quill's, he set up a variety of manual coffee brewers (manual brewers are required for the competition), from an Aeropress to a French press (though French presses are rare in the Brewers Cup, and Tooill and Myers joked about how audacious it would be to use one). When I told him about my preference for using an Aeropress at home, he quizzed me on my technique, then he asked me to make a cup, using his competition coffee. When I finished, he critiqued it and offered some tips, never passing judgment, only hoping to teach me to better understand a part of my morning routine.

The friendliness among competitors makes sense, because they're all winners, but it's not in an "everyone-gets-a-trophy" way. Tooill and Butterworth are the tide lifting all the boats (boats no doubt full of finely-sourced South American coffees). A win for a Louisville barista is a win for Louisville's coffee culture. Even having two locals in the competition is a victory.

"Putting a barista on the national stage is going to be huge for us for wholesale coffee and as a brand on the national stage," says Quill's manager Matthew Stevenson.

Quill's has been growing as a wholesaler, branching into a few stores in the South and Midwest. And the shops have been written up in major magazines. This helps that image. And it helps Butterworth and Tooill as individuals. Butterworth is 26. Tooill is 27. They're both married, and they work in coffee shops.

“It is hard to make a career in the service industry in America," says Butterworth. "One time somebody asked my wife what I do for a living, and she said I was a barista and he said, 'Is he a student?'

"There's a cultural ethos that being a barista isn't a real job.”

Winners of national coffee championships get sponsorships. They get job offers. They get a level of fame and reward commiserate with being among the best in the world at their jobs. Butterworth and Tooill have dedicated their professional lives to coffee, and victory lets them more easily dedicate more of their lives to the field.

Steve Rhinhart and Ryan Felbinger judge the latte art competition.
Credit Gabe Bullard/WFPL News

'It's Just Coffee'

A few feet away, in the Quill's lobby, a small crowd of students and nearby residents didn't seem too interested in the competition. When I told one of them what was going on, she replied, "It's weird. It's just coffee."

I told Tooill about that. His response was similar to a speech in The Devil Wears Prada, but a lot nicer.

“I personally feel the same way about fashion shows. It's like, everybody's making a big deal about a slightly different cut. Those fashion shows really effect everything that ends up at every store. That's the professional world of fashion. I feel the same way about coffee. Most people who drink coffee are just drinking coffee, and that's the way it should be."

But think about how easy it now is to find pour-over coffee rather than the old drip. Notice how your cappuccino has become smaller, more balanced. Did you ever see latte art before seven or eight years ago? How about those Starbucks light roast ads on Hulu? All of these are outgrowths of a dedicated coffee scene existing somewhere. The artisan becomes the populist.

When I first met Butterworth, he was testing out different roasts for his competition coffee. It was a long process of sipping and spitting. But the time wasn't a problem. He told me about a trait of really good coffee. It tastes good hot and fresh from whatever it's brewed in. But after a while, it doesn't get bitter when it gets cold. It still tastes good, and most people who drink it never know why, they just like it.