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Three locals elevate coffee to an art form at US Coffee Championships

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Gray Kauffman pouring drinks as judges look on — Photo courtesy of Kate Van Petten
Gray Kauffman pouring drinks as judges look on — Photo courtesy of Kate Van Petten

During this year's United States Coffee Championship (USCC) nationals, three Seattleites combined three of the city's pillars of identity: coffee, queerness, and music. Baristas Natasha Solowoniuk and Gray Kauffman honed their coffee expertise and their own creative visions, while singer, poet, and songwriter Kate Van Petten wrote custom music to go with the performances.

Photo courtesy of Kate Van Petten  

Readers might naturally wonder what a performance has to do with coffee. Well, in the same way a café sets itself apart from others by way of its location, seating, and decor (and other components that make up the prevailing quality known as "the vibe"), many categories of the USCC ask for prowess in technique and presentation as much as taste.

In other words, this is no Iron Chef; it demands much more of participants than a tasty and visually appealing finished product. Things as minor as spilling coffee grounds on the counter or wearing an apron with lint on it can have the judges docking points.

"The visual presentation that you're being judged on is actually the hardest points that you can get," Solowoniuk said. "And that's the area where I was most successful. The rest was kinda lower, but that's why I had so much fun with the competition, because it's all about 'how creative can you get?' And being really vulnerable and showing 'this is my wild idea — do you get it or not?'"

Solowoniuk won fifth place in the booziest category, "Coffee in Good Spirits," which involves creating four designer drinks using both coffee and liquor (two hot and two cold) over ten minutes, while giving what she compared to a "TED talk."

"Besides basing it on synesthesia, I was basically telling a love story within the drinks I was creating," she said of her presentation.

Wake up and smell the grunge music
Solowoniuk's initial plan featured "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Joy Division, and the Raveonettes' cover of "I Wanna Be Adored" — a mix of indie rock and post-punk that rests comfortably in Seattle's storied and ongoing history of grunge music.

"Especially the last one that I presented, that I named 'the Encore,' was quite romantic," Solowoniuk said. "You had to reach into a frame to actually grab the drink, and then it had rose petals. So it was quite an intimate sensory experience."

She also approached the competition from the perspective of a manager of the KEXP building's Caffe Vita. She had been mulling over the question of how music can affect taste, and for more thoughts on the matter, she called Van Petten, who only had to hear the pitch before offering to write a track for the barista's routine.

Van Petten based the track on a few other songs Solowoniuk sent them, by Dexter and the Moon Rocks and Rainbow Kitten Surprise.

"In music we call them reference tracks," Van Petten said. "So it's like what you would use to set the tone or the vibe, or what the guitar tone is gonna sound like, or what kind of instrumentation there's gonna be."

"[Solowoniuk] opens her routine by saying, 'I'm a barista at a radio station,'" Van Petten said. "So I [was] constantly thinking about the sensory experience of listening to music while drinking coffee, and how that can completely change how something tastes."

The process of creating Kauffman's track had a similar starting point, but with a theme of "stop and smell the terroir," one grounded (puns intended) in both time and place. They tested their coffee mettle in the popular Barista Competition.

"Kate and I had talked last year about what it would be like to add almost like a soundscape, or how you could create a really focused moment in time and bring more sensory elements into the presentation," Kauffman said.

Grunge entered Kauffman's presentation in a more literal and earthy sense, when they used earthenware bowls of fresh soil as decoration for their performance.

Their reference tracks were mostly ambient music and sounds of the countryside, meant to "transport" an audience to the Colombian farm where certain coffee beans were grown.

Van Petten took this idea, too, and ran with it. They could have simply done some research and sampled something convincing enough. But they were already friends with the Colombian coffee producer, so with some correspondence, Van Petten was able to use sounds and voice memos sampled directly from the farm itself.

"It was an honor for me, a local musician... in this niche scene," Van Petten said. "To tie music and coffee together — two of Seattle's iconic institutions — was so fun."

Breaking ground in Queer coffee
Coffee and queerness may both run deep in the Pacific Northwest, but the USCC and the international World Coffee Championships (WCC) both have a lot of room to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"There's a lot of inequity in these competitions," Kauffman said. "It takes a lot of resources — being time, money, access to equipment, the right coffee — to be able to just get your foot in the door."

Solowoniuk said she wouldn't have been able to afford going to the competition without the sponsorship of Caffe Vita, and at the event itself, the demographics of the contestants were starkly lopsided.

"Out of the top finalists there were 34 of us, and only five or six were women," Solowoniuk said.

On top of that, since its founding in 2000, the WCC has held championship events in several countries where to this day LGBTQ people face legal challenges just for being Queer.

Many more progressive countries, like Australia and the Netherlands, have been WCC hosts more recently. Greece and Taiwan are scheduled to host this year.

But that fact doesn't undo the effects of decades of the competition being male-dominated. For some perspective, Agnieszka Rojewska of Poland became the first woman to win the World Barista Championships in 2018.

Hometown mentor
Having read all that, it may be reassuring for Queer coffee lovers to learn that there are people actively organizing change in the industry, and there are already signs of a growing Queer presence. The nonprofit Glitter Cat Barista is dedicated to making that happen.

Thanks in part to the efforts of Glitter Cat, all four of the judges for a particular USCC panel this year were Queer, and three of them were Trans. "Half of the room was crying," Kauffman said, as one of their friends, an Atlanta-based, Nonbinary barista, spoke to the judges of living in the South:

"'I mentioned that by sharing a drink with you, I'm sharing a part of my home,'" Kauffman read, quoting their friend. "'I want to further extend our thread of connection to something a little more vulnerable in these final moments together to acknowledge the weight and the complexity of this.'

'"I'm a Queer, Trans person, and the South is my home. I lived in Florida for the most of my life, and Georgia for the past three years.

"'My identity continues to be challenged in ways that give me hope, and hope is how we move forward. So we have to work to pretend so we can all move forward together, because there's no good point in moving forward alone.'"

Change is happening at our doorstep, too. Both Kauffman and Solowoniuk have a mentor in Samantha Spillman, the United States Barista Champion of 2019.

Van Petten described Spillman as "an incredibly kind, wonderful human" and likened her to a "backstage coffee mom."

"That legacy of passing down the torch is so critical, or else, you know, we'll never see more diversity," Van Petten said.

You can keep up with K. Van Petten's work on Bandcamp at https://kvanpetten.bandcamp.com or on their Instagram @kvanpetten. Show your support for local Queer baristas by following them on Instagram: Natasha Solowoniuk @drinkslinginnatti and Gray Kauffman @jgraykauffman.