The 2013 World Brewers Cup (of Coffee) Champion Lives in NYC
With the Olympics fast approaching, it seemed appropriate to profile NYC's very own celebrity titleholder of sorts: the 2013 World Brewers Cup Champion -- as in brewed coffee -- Erin McCarthy lives amongst us. McCarthy is on Counter Culture's wholesale technical support staff. Our conversation began with a few questions about his experiences, preferences, and thoughts on coffee, and we ended up off topic, comparing wine and coffee -- the industries, scoring systems, and several other parallels, details that only the most committed coffee fans would indulge. This is part one of our two-part interview, which focuses on his experiences and specialty coffee history.
How did you get your start in coffee and what made you want to pursue it as a career?
I grew up in Long Island, but my start in coffee was in Ithaca, New York. I needed a job. And it was a job for a roaster/retailer called Gimme! Coffee. I was really lucky to start my career with them, because they knew what was going on. They already had a pretty structured training program and they roasted coffee on their own, so six months in, I was apprentice roasting. Then I helped create a training department and I worked on that for a number of years. I kind of fell hard right away. I liked coffee. I liked all the rules. They were very espresso-focused. This was a time in specialty coffee when we were extremely espresso-focused. Espresso was kind of my first [passion] in terms of the science and the preparation and learning how to taste. After a few years, we started to realize that brewed coffee can be better as well; it doesn't have to be the thing that's not espresso.
And then you ended up going to Athens, Georgia?
The southern coffee culture, we would say -- and I'm using the "we" because I lived there for a year -- we were coming into our own. It was a slower transition to specialty coffee than the coasts. There was the struggle against the way people were taught to order and drink coffee by Starbucks, and trying to move away from the really big sizes. The kind of conversations that were happening earlier in Seattle and New York were happening there then. Athens had a coffee shop that was a Counter Culture account, and I would go there all the time. I mostly roasted. I came from six years of retail and training baristas and now I'm training customers (of Counter Culture).
How did you decide to compete in brewing competitions?
It took a couple of things. I went back to NYC and worked for Gimme again. The same position I had upstate was available in New York. I knew by that point I was going to do this as a career. There weren't a ton of markers with specialty coffee in terms of maybe being a viable profession beyond working for a place for a certain amount of time. I wanted to prove it to myself that I could brew good coffee. At that point I was training all these NYC baristas and running classes every week. I was very insular within the Gimme community and wanted to see how I fared. I felt that as the regional trainer it was part of my job. I also wanted to show the new baristas I was training that it was fun. And it is a ton of fun. And very stressful.