Two weekends ago we had the opportunity to travel to Chicago to attend Coffee Fest and participate in the America’s Best Espresso competition. It was a whirlwind of a weekend, with plenty of coffee, networking, and good times throughout. Coffee Fest is equal parts trade show, educational event, and competition, and we took full advantage of each!
We arrived in Chicago on Friday morning, and once we were checked in to our Airbnb we immediately headed to Navy Pier to start dialing in our espresso. Leading up to the competition, we spent several weeks tasting, fine-tuning, and experimenting with espresso blends. After several rounds of deliberation, we all agreed that the best espresso for this particular competition was our stock Uel Zing blend. Not only does the Uel Zing blend produce a delicious, syrupy sweet espresso with raspberry and cherry notes, but it also perfectly matched the judging criteria for the competition. For this event, each espresso would be judged on three major standards:
• Flavor complexity/balance
• Mouthfeel & appeal/body
As we dialed in the Uel Zing blend, we knew the complexity and balance would be fantastic; the Nicaraguan base and naturally processed Ethiopian components of the blend come together perfectly and consistently as an espresso. The mouthfeel would be syrupy, with a body that produced brightness up front and a lingering red fruit sweetness. We were especially happy with the aftertaste and “sessionability” of the coffee in our tests. For our purposes, we defined “sessionabilty” as a person’s desire to drink another espresso immediately after finishing their first shot. Uel Zing nailed that standard.
Arriving at Navy Pier we made our way to the competition floor, where were able to spend some time dialing in shots on an brand spankin’ new Victoria Arduino Black Eagle espresso machine. Just look at this thing.
One of the coolest features of this particular espresso machine is the gravimetric weighing system. This built-in scale measures the weight of an espresso shot in real time and stops the flow of water when your desired shot weight is achieved. For the competition, I was using the following recipe for Uel Zing:
20g in // 40g out // 33s
(this means I used 20g of coffee per shot, my completed espresso shot weighed 40g, and the shot took 33 seconds to complete)
I decided to use one of the provided Mahlkonig K30 grinders in the competition, and after about 30 minutes of practice I had my espresso right where I wanted it.
That evening a big group of coffee folks descended on Metric Coffee for a taster’s cup competition sponsored by La Bodega, Cafe Imports, Fresh Cup Magazine, and La Marzocco. Metric’s roasting space is amazing, and the competition was a blast. Lindsey Reason (formerly a barista at Open Society Public House, now working at Werewolf in Chicago) was crowned tasting champion at the end of the night, with an amazingly fast tasting decision in the last round.
The following morning we headed back to Navy Pier for a few educational seminars before our espresso competition round at 1:30pm. The first lecture was given by the lead trainer from Dillano’s Coffee, and focused primarily on the impact of continuous training for barista staff. The second lecture was a panel discussion with the founders of Ipsento, Dark Matter, and Asado, three excellent Chicago roaster/cafes. The discussion was really interesting, as each owner brought an entirely different perspective to the seminar and highlighted the fact that there’s no one specific way to be successful in coffee… you just need to understand who you are and what you want to be and allow that to dictate the most important decisions you make as a business owner.
At long last, 1:30pm arrived and we were on stage to compete in the first round of the espresso competition. We were confident about our coffee, but faced a difficult task as we were facing off against Metric Coffee in the first round. Things started off smoothly and the espresso was dialed in after three test shots. Each round lasted only 10 minutes, so once the coffees were tasting perfect we pulled one last test shot and then began our official presentation to the judges.
Once the judges finished their tasting, scoring, and evaluation, it was time for them to make an official decision. The first judge described our coffee as winey and syrupy, with bright pomegranate notes up front and a sweet finish. Exactly what we were shooting for! The second judge was equally as complimentary, with more syrupy sweet red fruit notes. Both the first and second judge picked us as their winner, so with two out of three votes we were moving on to round two!
With the first round in the books, we moved on the second round on Sunday morning. Our competitor in round two was Ipsento, another formidable opponent! Once again our shots were pulling great in the first few rounds of dialing, so by the fourth shot we were ready to start serving our coffee to the judges. Everything was looking great and our shots were right on time at 33 seconds. As the judges started to offer their opinions, we were thrilled to hear more of the same delicious tasting notes we heard in the first round: “syrupy,” “winey,” and “bright and sweet.” Once again two out of the three judges preferred our espresso, so we were on to the Elite 8 later that afternoon!
The Elite 8 round saw us up against Pilcrow Coffee of Milwaukee. From watching their previous competition rounds we knew they were using a Colombian Geisha as their espresso, so the challenge ahead of us was going to be a big one. We got to know the Pilcrow crew a bit over the weekend, and they’re doing some awesome things in Wisconsin and beyond. Definitely worth a stop if you’re up that way.
As the third round began and we started to dial in the coffees, we found ourselves with slightly less consistent shots than we had in previous rounds. It took us a few more shots to get dialed in, but once everything came together the shots were pulling great. Every shot served to the judges in the third round was right on profile: 20g in/40g out/33s. When the time came for the judges to make a decision, however, we knew we were in trouble. The first judge loved our coffee and picked us as the winner, but the second judge started off by saying that the Pilcrow espresso tasted like tropical fruit candy. The third judge liked our coffee, but loved the “mai tai” notes in the Pilcrow espresso so much that he chose them as the winner. We were finally knocked out of the competition, but still came away extremely happy with our results.
It was especially gratifying for us to do so well in this competition with a coffee that isaccessible to a wide variety of people and customers. Not only is the Uel Zing blend perfect for cold brew, but it also produces a delicious and forgiving espresso that’s easy to dial in at home. With another competition in the books, we’re looking forward to our next opportunity!
Super special thank you to Jes Nijjer for all the competition photos! Follow her on Instagram: @jeskeepswimming