coffee.: A Barista Spills Her Heart and Wins Ours, United States Barista Champion

she’s a champ now

The best way to sum up the six finalists in this years’ United States Barista Competition is to share their commonalities. Four contestants competed with a Gesha coffee from La Palma y El Tucan. Three addressed low C-Market prices. Three finalists this year were also finalists last year. Two competitors created a fog during their signature beverage. Three competitors called notes of malt chocolate in their milk course beverages. Two baristas used kefir in their ingredients. Two finalists are from the same coffee company, a first. And, two baristas are from the same state. With all the doubling and tripling of themes, our CHAMP this year, hailing from Seattle, Washington won with a routine whose message underscored the value of experience, experiencing a coffee farm in person, being enamored with the beauty of coffee for coffee’s sake and gaining deep respect for the intentionality and preparation necessary to make coffee, a gift to the world from the motherland to every café at which a consumer encounters it.

Here’s a cultural listing of each competitor, a defining quote, their coffee the music and  annotated notes that accompanied their routine as heard during the live tweet-by-play.


Samantha Spillman
Dillanos, Seattle, Washington

coffee: La Palma y El Tucan, Colombia

“Taste the coffee as the coffee.”

1. ‘No Diggity,’ Chet Faker
2. ‘So Good,’ Nao and A.K. Paul
3. ‘Home,’ Mario
4. ‘’When, The Time Comes,’ Shake It Off
Andrea Allen**

Onyx Coffee Lab, Springdale, Arkansas

“Raising the ceiling, raises the floor.”

Coffee: Café Grana La Esperanza, Cerro Azul via Rigoberto Herrera

1. D’Angelo
2. ‘Stone Walls,’ Three Tall Pines
3. ‘Down The Line,’ José González

T. Ben Fischer***

Elixr Coffee

“Who will produce coffee when [we’re] not around?”

Coffee: Gesha/Castillo, La Palma y El Tucan, Colombia

1.‘Hakuna Matata,’ The Lion King
2. ‘Miss You Much,’ Janet Jackson
3. ‘Be Our Guest,’ Angela Lansbury + Jerry Orbach
4. ‘Juice,’ Lizzo  5.‘Bloom,’ Troye Sivan

Dylan Siemens¹
Onyx Coffee Lab

Springdale, Arkansas

“We are the creators of the ideas that we want to see.”

Coffee: La Palma y El Tucan, Colombia

1.‘Tomppabeats,’ Monday Loop
2.‘The Inside,’ 14kt Feat Tiffany Paige
3. ‘Stirring,’ Flying Lotus

Sam Neely²
Switchback Coffee Roasters

Colorado Springs, Colorado

“The beauty in coffee lies not in facts, but connections.”

coffee: La Palma y El Tucan, Colombia

1.‘Just Can’t Get Enough,’ Depeche Mode
2.‘Tuttifrutti,’ Phoenix
3.‘Goodbye Soleil,’ Phoenix.  4. ‘Doin’ It Right,’ Daft Punk

Emily Orendorff³
Boxcar Coffee Roasters, Boulder, Colorado

“What about coffee motivates you?”

coffee: Java, Finca Limoncillo, Matagalpa, Nicaragua

1.‘Swim Good,’ Frank Ocean
2. ‘Pynk,’ Janelle Monae
3. ‘Ribs,’ Lorde
4. ‘’Weekend,’ SZA


Sam shared her life defining visit to coffee farm, La Palma y El Tucan whose intense and thorough preparation methods, necessary for specialty coffee. created the washed lactic process Gesha she competed with. A highlight was the orchid aromatic mist she created to mimic the fog that appears on the coffee farm. Using a freeze distilled milk, she created a dried strawberry, vanilla and malt chocolate milk drink followed by a science driven signature beverage which included lychee infused soda water with the aim for consumers to experience coffee as one can at origin: peach, vanilla and malt chocolate in her freeze distilled milk drinks. For her, the future of coffee is tied up in its past, in cafes around the world buoyed by a humble seed.


She used two coffees from the farm of her choice and its neighboring partners program.  Proposes that for coffee to have a future, farmers at origin need to sell more than prized Gisha coffee and instead, all that a farm can grow and yield. C-Market prices are affecting how coffee shops are pricing coffee, therefore she lobbied for truth in pricing with customers while companies profit off coffee to support their families.  Additionally, she demonstrated trust in producer Rigoberto to know his coffee by allowing him to roast a profile, although darker than she preferred, only to discover beauty in the process – rocky road, almond milk and chocolate malt in her milk drinks. Then the use of multiple fruits in her signature beverage symbolizing use of all resources grown on the farms’ land.

T. Ben***

Ben wants to rethink the business model of how Colombians and other coffee producers produce coffee as well as addressing low C-Market prices. He advocates for community investment and the sharing of research among coffee professionals while employing varying percentages of his two varieties across his espresso, cooled on frozen coasters and fractionally distilled milk courses. He created a whey from with a paper filtered kefir and a jasmine flower vaper trapped under a wine glass for an arresting visual while sharing coffee from La Palma y El Tucan’s Coffee and Neighbors Program. The latter allowing coffee farmers to make eighty percent more than if sold elsewhere, thus demonstrating the solution he proposes – achieving greatness through partnership and sharing of skills.


Due to the high level non-automated skill needed to create coffee, Dylan proposes that a barista isn’t called such anymore and proposes a new idea, a new term – a coffee professional. His routine shows how coffee needs new titles and updated positions to accommodate the growth of skill and craft of a person working in and with coffee.  His milk drink was a cashew flavored chocolate ice cream, a signature beverage representing the farms microclimate with infused nitrogen and raspberry clarified milk. He paired these beverages with training the investment key needed to create change, which also created the new term, barista professional, in him.

Sam Neely²

Sam builds coffee like he wants to build experiences, around flavor. While doing so, Sam says customers can appreciate coffee through the context of its origin which is where the story is and what makes it special. For Sam, the farm, its characteristics and the coffee’s processing make it such. Sam uses storytelling to bring the judges and audience by extension into the coffee, using the preparation time as a gateway to connecting barista and customer.  Using a washed Gesha and a natural Sam plays on differing flavor profiles and the recreation of visual fog inspired by the farm to elucidate ideas. A lemon grass simple syrup, a balsamic like vinegar glaze, separated milk – for malt chocolate milk drinks – dry ice floral fog and champagne flutes are high notes of Sam’s routine.


Emily’s presentation revolves around ones motivation for working in the coffee industry – an industry plagued by C-Market prices dropping and the need for more transparence around issues of wages, mental health and burnout. Dark chocolate is a tasting note in her espresso, milk dreams which taste like it and butterscotch. Playing up her use of a cold process, anaerobic natural, Java varietal -the only one in the competition– she uses an ice bath to chill her drinks and sealing their delivery via a vacuum blender.  She lobbies for working the industry and treating it as a marathon and not a sprint.