Seeing as I’m a fairly new addition to PT’s and the coffee world at large, I suppose I ought to introduce myself; My name is Kasey Klimes and I make coffee. It’s what I love. While living in St. Louis I worked the bar for Kaldi’s Coffee for two years before moving to Kansas to attend KU. I began working for PT’s about two months ago and at the same time began training for the Midwest Regional Barista Competition. We were cutting it close – competition was only six weeks away – but PT’s trainer Holly Bastin graciously invested the extra work in me to make it happen.
As I write this now, I am sitting in the Seattle airport waiting on a flight back to Kansas. The past ten days have been a caffeinated whirlwind, beginning the night before MWRBC.
At about 7:30pm team PT’s rolled into St. Louis just in time for the MWRBC kick off party at Velocity Café, a relatively new shop that has ingeniously tapped into the intrinsic overlap between coffee people and bike people. The atmosphere was jovial and friendly. It made me even more excited to be making coffee in the Midwest, amongst these amazing people.
Having been initially trained by Mike Marquard during my time at Kaldi’s, we were granted a light-hearted moment of Obi-Wan/Darth Vader melodrama before catching up with each other. It was good seeing the Kaldi’s guys again.
Naturally, a latte art throwdown had to commence, in which several others and myself embarrassed ourselves while Pete “The Pete” Licata took all our money in the night’s jackpot.
The gathering stood as proof to anyone who might suspect otherwise that any rivalries in the Midwest coffee community exist purely within the realm of competition. If anything, we all wish we could get together outside competition more often.
The first two days of MWRBC comprise round one, in which all competitors are given 15 minutes to serve four judges each a single espresso, a traditional cappuccino, and their own signature espresso beverage. Lucky me, I’m the first of our team to bat.
It took about a dozen scrolls through my checklist to convince myself I had everything I needed before rolling out my cart for prep time – allowing Holly to wish me luck and go babysit other nervous baristas. I remembered tasting my espresso earlier in the morning and found confidence in the fact that, whether or not I was among the best baristas here, I did have some of the best coffee – and a barista can only be as good as his or her coffee.
Despite the adrenaline vibrating through my hands while pouring my cappuccinos, my performance overall went fairly smoothly. It wasn’t the best I’d ever done but it certainly wasn’t my worst. I had a spill or two, served a slightly hot set of cappuccinos, and cross-contaminated one of my rags, but I served good coffee and I knew it. I left the stage proud (and to be honest, a little relieved that it was over). My espresso gave me consistent results as well, something I couldn’t have promised beforehand. A good amount of my blend was a natural processed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, which blessed the espresso with a wonderful juicy sweetness but also cursed it with an unpredictable behavior. I’d been wrestling with it for weeks. In fact, the blend was finalized only three days before competition – how’s that for cutting it close?
Team PT’s had the pleasure of joining forces with Jon Freihofer and Tom Billionis of The Coffee Ethic in Springfield, Missouri, during the weeks of training prior. Jon and Tom both used PT’s La Bella Vita espresso blend to impressive results. Jon gave the judges an admirable performance later on in the day, serving his own brand of charm alongside his delicious pumpkin and white chocolate signature drink.
The next day of round one lined up Tom, Robin, and Morgan, all of whom put on incredible performances. I’d seen Tom become a little flustered when problems arose in practice run-throughs. Under the real pressure though, he presented the judges with a smooth, polished professional. As with all performances, small things didn’t go as perfectly as planned, but Tom disregarded them with the grace of an athlete and kept his eyes on the ball. The Mad Greek didn’t even break a sweat, certainly more than the rest of us could say.
Robin “Big Daddy” Seitz met and exceeded the expectations that awaited a returning regional champion. He displayed his passion and knowledge while keeping his performance light hearted and entertaining. Having sat on the judges table for many of his practice run-throughs, I can assure the judges enjoyed a sweet espresso with notes of cane sugar, stone fruit, and cocoa. His “espresso soda” is a light and crisp beverage with an amazing citrus nose that strengthened the body of his espresso, El Pepinal 1 from Las Mercedes, produced by Lucia Ortiz in El Salvador.
In fact, the PT’s team was infinitely fortunate to have Lucia with us for the weekend to cheer us on – and to give Robin a little extra pressure! It was an honor to meet and talk with the producer of such a beautiful coffee – an opportunity very few baristas ever get.
Morgan Smith finished the day for PT’s with a solid performance. Nonetheless, I was in the back biting my nails. We both later agreed that it is far more nerve wracking to sit on a teammate’s sideline than to perform yourself. No need, however, as Morgan made it look like she’d been doing this for years (Morgan, like myself, was a first-time competitor).
So, who would rank amongst the midwest’s top six baristas? The end of the day brought our results; Robin Seitz (PT’s), Mike Marquard (Kaldi’s), Joe Marrocco (Kaldi’s), Micah Svejda (Kaldi’s), and, to our earnest surprise, Morgan Smith and myself.
What Robin had previously dubbed the “Midwest Side Story” was now playing out – Sharks vs. Jets, PT’s vs. Kaldi’s. The top three Kaldi’s baristas against the top three (aka the entire) PT’s team.
I can’t give details, but there was indeed a triumphant air amongst the PT’s crew as we left the building. Whatever happened, finals were destined to be epic.
Finals brought us six solid performances, all of which proceeded with minimal hiccups (Robin was even able to prove he can pull amazing shots in the dark!). Team Kaldi’s once again brought out their impressive Costa Rican single origin espressos and notably coffee-centric signature drinks. Team PT’s represented our own outstanding coffees well. Of the two main contenders for the 1st place prize, there was certainly no clear winner until it was announced. Ultimately, Mike Marquard took home the hard earned title of regional champion. Big Daddy took runner-up. Both of these baristas have taught me a massive amount about coffee, and I am incredibly happy for them both. They’re veterans with years of experience and knowledge under their belts. They’ve worked hard to achieve what they’ve done and I’ve long looked up to them both.
That said, to me, 3rd place is the truly amazing story of MWRBC. Underdog and first time competitor Morgan Smith took the competition by surprise. I’ve had the honor to work and train beside Morgan for the six weeks prior to competition. She is a humble and hard working barista that I can promise will represent our community well in Anaheim.
And so it was, we packed up and hit the road. Pete Licata graciously tolerated Morgan and I’s pestering coffee questions for at least four hours (we gave him a ride to Kansas City), and excitedly discussed ideas for USBC – at which all MWRBC finalists have agreed to compete. Plans to keep each other sharp and on our toes are being discussed – the Midwest will undoubtedly prove a united force at nationals.
Days 5, 6, 7:
Pretend to be a collegiate scholar, work a couple bar shifts back in Topeka, and attempt to keep my life outside of coffee looking reasonably well-maintained.