I had the honor of judging Sacramento Coffee Week’s second annual Battle of the Brews Coffee Cocktail competition. Hosted at Bottle & Barlow on recently revitalized R street in Sacramento and sponsored by Cutwater Spirits and Temple Coffee, the event speaks to the potential of burgeoning specialty coffee markets and the continued inspiration we can draw from innovative, competitive baristas.

The rules were simple: use at least 1 oz of coffee and 1 oz of spirit in a coffee cocktail. Out of a total of 45 points, competitors were judged on:

  • Expression of coffee (5pts)
  • Expression of spirit (5pts)
  • Barmanship/skill set (5pts)
  • Appearance (5pts)
  • Aroma (5pts)
  • Taste (10pts)
  • Creativity (10pts)

Unlike most coffee competitions, this was not a solo act. Instead, baristas were paired with veteran bartenders, working together with coffee pros to create the cocktails. Teams were asked to prepare three drinks (one for each judge) within 5 minutes. Since Bottle & Barlow doesn’t have a kitchen they had to prepare all ingredients beforehand and bring them to the event.

Competitor teams were asked to describe their drink, the ingredients used, their intention, flavor notes, and the name of their cocktail. The level of dedication and attention to detail that the baristas and bartenders put into their coffee cocktails was simply inspiring.

We coffee professionals like to box ourselves into the “right” or “best” way to roast and extract coffee; taking a step back to look at coffee as just one ingredient in a multifaceted and delicious drink was refreshing. Thinking of coffee as one flavor component among many allows for a world of creativity, a world in which we can use our expertise as coffee professionals to bring new sensory experiences to life. Second place winner Alec Watson of Four Score Coffee in Roseville noted “The challenge is less the mixing of ingredients and more knowing the ingredients you’re using.”

I imagine it was incredibly helpful to have a bartender on the team; as coffee connoisseurs, we know a lot about our product. Bartenders have to know a lot about a whole host of ingredients and how they play off each other. Having an experienced bartender’s perspective seems invaluable in a competition like this.

The winners of this year’s Battle of the Brews fully embraced this holistic view of their cocktails, serving a drink called ‘El Corojo’. Maksym Khaliziev of Pachamama Coffee Cooperative worked together with Fernando Oliva of Bottle & Barlow to create what they called a ‘long digestif’ using Barrel Aged Gin, Licor 43, Old Fashioned Bitters, and a V60 of Pachamama Farmers Extra Dark Coffee. Maksym was one of the only competitors that brewed his coffee on site – most baristas used Temple Coffee’s cold brew, or else brewed and chilled their coffee in advance. To him, it was essential to use the cleanest possible brew, so using a fresh pour over on a V60 was the obvious choice.

It’s common knowledge that the specialty coffee movement frowns on dark roasted coffee. As an industry that prides itself on promoting the many different varieties, origins, processes that give carefully sourced coffees their own unique flavor, it can seem almost tragic to take a coffee so far as to blacken it with roast. Despite this, Maksym chose to use an Italian style roast, meaning that the coffee was certainly roasted to second crack and likely quite a bit further. It’s important to note again that Maksym and Fernando took home first place this year – they must be onto something!

Here’s why this coffee worked in ‘El Corojo’: modeled after an old fashioned (Maksym’s favorite drink) and a digestif, it utilized smokey barrel-aged gin, bitters, star anise and cinnamon. The Licor 43 brought plenty of acidity to the drink and Maksym rubbed the rim of the glass with lemon oil to accentuate this. This drink didn’t need a fruity, floral or sweet coffee to bring it together. What it needed was something heavy and dark to complement the spicy, smoky flavors already present.

Maksym and Fernando weren’t making a specialty coffee drink – that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to create a delicious cocktail that had both coffee and alcohol as prominent ingredients. El Corojo was a delicious cocktail, and I could have kept sipping it all night. Rather than relying on safe coffee pairing options, like cream, chocolate, caramel, nutmeg, and sweet cinnamon, they embraced the opposite end of the flavor spectrum. A daring move perhaps, but in this case it paid off.

There was a time when the coffee industry was very insular; when third wave cafes only served coffee, no pastries or teas, and when coffee menu were simple and austere. It was a necessary phase during which Specialty Coffee, a relatively new concept, needed to be showcased on its own, allowing both us as coffee professionals as well as our customer base to learn what craft coffee really looked like.

As we’ve grown in confidence and knowledge of our craft, it’s been fun to see coffee pros exploring the peripheries of their expertise with creative specialty drinks and innovative brew techniques. Events like Battle of the Brews allow Specialty Coffee to grow as an industry by forcing us to push the boundaries of how coffee can be served using techniques from other craft industries’ tool boxes. Communication and collaboration with professionals in other industries who are just as passionate and dedicated to quality as we are allows for a brighter, more innovative future for the craft industry as a whole.