One of the most rewarding aspects of competing in barista competitions is not the moment in the limelight or even the free swag, it’s the friendships one makes with other committed coffee professionals. We were excited to learn one of our barista comp friends just took an exciting new position with Brooklyn’s Variety Coffee Roasters. We caught up with Erika Vonie to chat about working with a new roaster, competing in barista competitions, and the best place to drink coffee in NYC. All photos by Ashley Revell.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started in the coffee industry?
My involvement in specialty coffee began when I moved to Philadelphia in 2009 and started working for a Counter Culture Coffee account called Lovers and Madmen (which is, sadly, no longer there). Once I was introduced to the Counter Intelligence classes provided by Counter Culture, I was hooked. Fascinated by the sheer amount of information there is relating to coffee, I was determined to learn it all. I was fortunate enough to be taught by some amazing coffee role models along the way as well. I took History and Origins of Coffee from Peter Giuliano when he was still at CCC, Nick Cho taught me how to cup at CoffeeFest 2010, and Katie Carguilo and Meister taught me all the fundamentals about brewing and tasting coffee. I couldn’t have had better coffee professionals introduce me to this exciting and passionate industry.
You recently took a position at Variety Coffee Roasters doing quality control and barista training. What’s that been like? What are the biggest challenges?
I am so happy in my new role as Director of Education at Variety Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn! I joined the team at a perfect time. Variety brought me on to manage quality control and barista training to help seamlessly expand our wholesale operation. I get to work directly with our magnificent roaster Daniel Sparks to figure out the best profiles for our whole menu. We built our first espresso blend together last week and I’m chomping at the bit for feedback from the community! I’m developing a public cupping program to debut in a few weeks, so I can hear directly from our customers and use that feedback to keep tuning and perfecting our coffees in line with their seasonality.
I’ve never worked directly alongside a roaster before, so learning how to speak each other’s language is challenging in an exciting and educational way. We work very well together and I’m proud of the results of the hard work we’ve put in thus far. I also get to create our entire training and education guide which is daunting, but knowing that I get to be to new baristas what Katie and Meister were to me, is fuel enough for the dream.
Previously you worked at Ultimo and Everyman Espresso- two highly regarded companies serving Counter Culture Coffee. What’s it like to switch from one of the largest roasters in the game to an up-and-coming microroaster?
I loved my time at both Ultimo and Everyman Espresso. My former coworkers and bosses at both shops are some of the most talented and dedicated coffee professionals in the game, and it’s no small wonder why they’ve both won The Daily Meal’s Best Coffee Shop USA (Ultimo 2013, Everyman 2014). I wouldn’t be a competitor without Aaron Ultimo’s encouragement and guidance, and I wouldn’t have matured and enhanced my routines if it weren’t for everyone on Team Everyman.
Being in the Counter Culture family afforded me access to some of the newest, top-of-the-line equipment, resources, education and top quality coffee. During my coffee career, I had only worked at Counter Culture accounts and was able to see how they exploded in growth and quality over the last six years.
Variety is poised and ready for their next steps in expansion as a company. Variety isn’t new, it’s been around since 2008, but we’ve only been roasting for about one year. Despite being a new roaster, we have access to amazing coffees through Red Fox Coffee Merchants and I consistently leave the cupping table deliciously content. We don’t have the resources of Counter Culture, but we have an amazing amount of combined knowledge and years in the business, and are hungry to toss our hat into the ring alongside all the other roasters.
Over the last couple of years we’ve seen you put together some very impressive barista competition routines. What has competing meant for you? Do you think we’ll see you compete again this year?
Thanks for the kind words. Competition was the experience that solidified my future in the coffee industry. It’s the gateway to so many different facets of coffee outside just being a barista. Obviously it makes you hone your palate and technical skills, but in researching why my coffee tasted the way it did, I leaned more about transparency, process, variety, climate change, molecular components and botany than I ever have working behind the bar. I don’t use competition to just showcase a great tasting coffee, I use it to voice my opinions and research on a specific topic and goal. I do want to take a year off and judge this year, but with the ever-changing news relating to regionals and rule changes, I probably won’t make up my mind for another few months. It’ll be great to break in the new Variety Training Lab we’re building beneath the roaster though!!
Where’s your favorite place to drink coffee on your day off?
My favorite place to drink coffee on my day off is on my roof, with my boyfriend John and our dog Poe. During the week he’s the morning coffee maker (he uses the Impress Coffee Brewer I’ve won through competition), so it’s nice to break out my Chemex or Beehouse and whip up something smooth and sweet and take the day in. There are way too many shops in New York to give shoutouts to, but I consistently have great coffee and experiences at Hi-Collar in the East Village. It’s a great Japanese style lunch counter with a full siphon bar- and the siphons are delicious!
Do you have any dreams, coffee-related or otherwise?
I’m a bit of a dreamer, so it’s difficult to not get too excited by this question. My degree is in Film and Photography and I would really like to make an investigative documentary following the journey of one specific lot of coffee. I’m very interested in all of the hands invested in every step of production- from harvesting all the way to the consumer, and I would be really excited documenting the journey coffee takes from origin to our favorite cafes. I think this is a fairly attainable dream, the hardest part is leaving a cafe long enough to get production rolling.