Champion Barista Sam Neely Talks Competitive Coffee

Switchback Coffee Roasters’ director offers insights on his deep run at the national championships and the local and global coffee markets.

As the youngest ever competitor at the U.S. Barista Championship, Sam Neely, then 18, placed sixth among 36 finalists this year. We chatted with the director of coffee for Switchback Coffee Roasters about the experience and the coffee scene here and abroad.

Springs: How did you get involved in coffee competitions?
Sam Neely: Ever since I first got into coffee, I would watch barista competitions online as a way to learn more about coffee and simply get inspired. The moment I turned 18, the minimum age to compete, I signed up.

What does barista competition preparation look like?
Competition, especially at higher levels, can get pretty intense. Every detail, big and small, must be prepared with meticulous intention. From finding and sourcing the best coffee possible, to crafting a creative, synergistic signature drink, to coming up with and presenting an idea that you’re passionate about, there is a lot to think about. I begin preparing for competition about three months before the event. The month before, I will spend upward of 40 hours a week on competition preparation, alongside my normal 40 hours at Switchback.

What was your signature drink at the championships?
It was four shots of espresso, a pineapple reduction, green tea and coffee-blossom-honey simple syrup, charged with CO2 in a whipped cream canister, and sprayed with rose water.

Are you passing along skills to other baristas in your cafe?
One major thing that competition really teaches is to be intentional in everything you do. When coming back into the cafe, this idea of intentionality begins to insert itself into every aspect of coffee service. When our team rallies around competition, this idea of intentionality really begins to implant itself in our day-to-day life, ultimately making us all better baristas, and hopefully being able to serve our guests better.

How does competing impact the industry?
Coffee competitions give platforms to new ideas and innovations in our industry, as well as push the level of coffee quality and service. They also serve to shine a light on issues in our industry, such as inequality, the exploitation of members of the coffee supply chain and issues with the cost of producing coffee.

Some people balk at the price of specialty coffee. What do you say to them?
Specialty coffee isn’t expensive enough! This year the commodity price of coffee dropped under $1 per pound for the first time in 12 years. For most coffee farmers, their cost of producing coffee is significantly more than this. Many people have been losing money simply doing their job. Unless we become willing to pay more for our coffee, it’s likely that we simply won’t have any coffee to drink in the future. But consumers today can make a small change by buying their coffee from roasters they can trust, and knowing that money is actually flowing back into the hands of those who produced it.

Tell us about the coffee organization you’ve started here in town.
Recently, some awesome members of the Colorado Springs coffee community came together to start the Colorado Springs Coffee Organization (CSCO). It’s a membership-based organization for both coffee professionals and hobbyists. We wanted a place that people could come together to learn from each other and work together to keep pushing ourselves and our community to be the best we can be. We host events, from fun latte art throw-downs to educational lectures and training. Through the CSCO, we hope that we can continue to create an inclusive and thriving coffee community, and hopefully spread these ideas farther afield.

Instagram: @cscoffeeorg

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