Field of barista dreams
For career baristas, coffee competitions are where dreams are made and hearts are broken. To the winners belong respect, accolades, and some really cool swag. To the losers, disappointment and the agonizing wait until next year. Amidst a highly competitive regional competition circuit, one home barista defied the odds and qualified for the US Brewers Cup Championship. It’s exceedingly rare for an independent home barista to compete. For someone with no professional experience to place in the top six is unheard of. But then again, Mikey Rinaldo is no ordinary person.
Introducing Mikey Rinaldo
The Louisville resident first moved to America to pursue an academic career, earning degrees from Reed College and the University of Michigan. After translating French and German legal documents into English, Mikey found his calling as a Bikram yoga instructor. He also happens to be a dedicated home barista who has a deep passion for specialty coffees from his native Indonesia. His penchant for experimenting with different brew methods and interest in the science of extraction led him to compose a Brewers Cup routine that was unorthodox to say the least. Rather than using a conventional coffee maker, Mikey used a tea strainer and cocktail shaker to take fifth place in the Southeast and earn a spot at the U.S. Coffee Championships in Long Beach, California. We asked Mikey a few questions about his technique and what we can expect from him at Nationals.
What inspired you to compete in brewers cup as a home barista?
I was seeking an outlet beyond my own kitchen to really geek out over coffee. I also wanted to confirm personally what James Tooill, who competed last year, said in an interview. The competition is indeed a great way to meet people, learn, and taste great coffee (much of it even more so than your own).
Do you think competing as a home barista gave you any distinct advantages? What about challenges?
To me, the biggest challenge is lack of ready access to professional grinders and SCAA-compliant filtered water, things shop baristas might take for granted.
As for advantages, I feel I may have more freedom to choose beans beyond what a given roastery/shop has on offer. Very few roasteries would be willing to sponsor a competitor with something like Ninety Plus geshas. Also, I feel more at liberty not to take brewing variables at face value. I understand the need to follow set parameters in a shop to ensure consistency. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if this setting may subconsciously reinforce certain variables as set in stone. By default, at home I feel freer to tinker with grind size, ratio, and water temp. I don’t know. I’ve never worked as a barista, so I can’t give a fully informed answer. I’d love to be proven wrong and spend time in a shop that does encourage experimentation.
Your unique brewing method surprised a lot of people. Can you explain it to us? How did you come up with it?
The method’s underlying principles are steeping that allows for fast separation of liquid and grounds with little agitation, along with a second filtration. The devices are a 3-inch teaball and a 16-oz cocktail shaker. The grounds go inside the ball and the ball sits inside the shaker. Then I pour water and let it steep before decanting it through a second filter. As for the initial idea, I was trying to come up with a steeping method close to cupping, but one that allows for quick decanting and little agitation. So I looked around my kitchen. I have a cocktail shaker, and my wife has a teaball—et voilà. Honestly, I was surprised that people find it somewhat novel. The brewing principles have been used with success by Brewers Cup competitors like Todd Carmichael. So I’ll be the first to say it’s not unique!
One of our favorite things about your routine is that you were a home barista that competed with a home roasted coffee. What was it like working with Chris Heiniger to develop the perfect roast profile?
To speak for myself, I felt it was a great match. Chris and I agree on many levels as to what we seek in a cup. More importantly, both of us could be open about what we don’t like in trying different roast profiles and brew recipes. This is just my impression, but the Brewers Cup outcome might be a boost for him as a homeroaster as it was for me as a homebrewer. He did a phenomenal 2-profile roast of my competition coffee—roasting all 2 kg of it in 150 g batches on his Hottop home roaster! How well the beans were received speaks much in favor of his written defense of home roasting against Nick Cho’s Serious Eats post.
What are your plans for the championship? Are you going to keep the same brew method?
At the moment, I’m deciding on a new competition coffee and, per usual, incessantly tweaking recipes. I’ll most likely stick to the teaball/shaker combo. But if I can apply the same brewing principles on a different device, I would consider it. (The Bonavita Dripper looks pretty tempting right now.) Really, a lot of the physical preparation is already there. What I need to focus on is more mental. I was a miserable little ball of stress at the Big Eastern. But once I did my routine, talked to the judges, met wonderful volunteers and fellow competitors, I felt dumb for not being more relaxed. It was so counterproductive. So I hope the nationals will be a different and even more fun experience.