Intelligentsia Wins National Title, then Throws it Back

It's official: Intelligentsia coffee still employs the best barista in the United States.
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It's official: Intelligentsia coffee still employs the best barista in the United States.

The US Barista Championships (USBC) ended today, and with three of the six finalists hailing from Intelligentsia, the Chicago-based roaster's odds of winning were always decent. At the end of the day it was defending champ Mike Phillips on top once again, successfully defending his title from last year.

Actually, Intelligentsia has dominated the competitive barista scene in America, to the point that a now-annual cry of 'fix' seems to rise from the peanut gallery every time its baristas succeed.

To the disgruntled: I assure you, Doug Zell does not pay the USBC judges. He prefers to go straight to the source, and pay the most coffee-obsessed baristas he can find. Go ahead and call Intelligentsia the 'Yankees of the coffee world' if you'd like, but don't question the talents of their players.

The key difference for me was the Intelligentsians' desire to educate, rather than simply serve.

Phillips won the competition with an absurdly informative display, serving coffees from a Costa Rican co-op he was lucky enough to visit recently. His routine centered on the processing techniques that take place at co-ops or farms; techniques that the general public knows little about (and maybe doesn't care to learn about). The judges and I, all veterans of the industry, were understandably impressed by how much information he presented, but more interesting to me was the routine of Charles Babinski (also of Intelligentsia).

Babinski's table layout acted as a mockup of a coffee farm, illustrating which flavor notes were presented by different harvest altitudes. The display was informative, but more impressively, accessible. He could present the same thing to any café patron off the streets of Chicago, and leave them more interested in coffee every time. It's a rare ability that Babinski possesses in spades, and I'm constantly striving for.

It should be said that this is the most competitive field of competitive baristas I've ever seen--even more so than last year's World Barista Championships. Chris Baca of Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz is a reliable crowd-favorite and deservedly took 2nd place. Devin Pedde from Intelligentsia LA took 3rd place in the competition, and 1st in the concurrent barista beauty pageant (Not really, but he would have, if it existed. On that issue, the peanut gallery was unanimous). Tyler Wells, who runs the coffee program at Frank, a gourmet Hot Dog joint in Austin, Texas, put together a great routine in the semis and was picked by some as a dark horse candidate for the finals. Danielle Glasky represented Stumptown Coffee's new NYC outpost, and the fact a barista of her caliber didn't make finals says it all. There are simply too many worthy competitors to list here, so I won't even try. I'd just like to say, congratulations to all of them. Their work is advancing our industry at an incredible rate.

And with that in mind, let's move to perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend.

I mentioned the 'disgruntled' earlier; those who would love to see Intelligentsia's barista team toppled. Well, I'm about to put a smile on their collective moaning faces. Are you ready for it?

Intelligentsia Coffee won't be defending its title next year.

That's right, an internal decision has been made, and the Chicago and LA Powerhouse will not be fielding a single competitor for the 2011 USBC season. What this means for the competition remains to be seen. It will certainly be fine without Intelligentsia, and vice versa, but how will their rival competitors feel, knowing that a horde of talent is being caged while they compete? Can Baca, who has been closely edged out by Intelligentsia multiple times now, possibly be satisfied with an Intelli-free win next year? What will Mike Phillips, an obsessive practitioner, do with all his free time? What will the Red Eye cover for its predictable annual coffee feature?

Stay tuned, and we'll find out together.

We've unearthed a training video that explains the secret of Intelligentsia's success. (via
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