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448. USBC preview: Anna Utevsky and intentionality

The U.S. Barista Championship gets underway tomorrow in Long Beach.  The live broadcast of the competition will reach viewers in a place not accustomed to watching barista events.

I’m not talking about Las Vegas, North Carolina.

Or Holland, Michigan.

Or even Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I am talking about Nariño, Colombia, where the farmers who grew Anna Utevsky’s competition coffee–Counter Culture’s La Florida–will gather to watch her routine.

Last year, Laila Ghambari of Cherry Street Coffee in Seattle took home the USBC crown with a coffee she custom built for competition with Phil Dillanos of (duh) Dillanos Coffee Roasters and Emilio López of Cuatro M in El Salvador.  We didn’t exactly duplicate that approach with Anna and our friends at Counter Culture, but the La Florida lot from our Borderlands project in Nariño tastes as if it were customized for competition.  More importantly for Anna, it embodies the principle of intentionality that is central to her engagement with coffee.


La Florida in production



Anna has been working in coffee for five years.  Before that she worked in food for more than twice as long, starting as a cook and later making the move from what she calls “back-of-house” to “front-of-house” when she transitioned from preparing food in the kitchen to serving it in the dining room.

She fell hard for coffee in large measure because she felt it was the perfect blend of those two spaces: the barista is the chef and waiter all at once.  As a barista, Anna is a waiter creating the customer experience and a chef who can get obsessive over one ingredient.

But Anna does see a paradox in coffee culture.

The coffee bar may be the perfect blend of back-of-house and front-of-house functions, but it is a high-volume model in which the opportunity to create a memorable customer experience is in tension with the commercial imperative of quick service.  She sees restaurants, where diners are less hurried and seeking a culinary experience, as an even better “canvas” for coffees.  (She worked on this larger canvas in a previous role as the coffee director at Joule, a Raleigh-based restaurant that has won the James Beard Award and takes its coffee seriously.)  But she believes that restaurants are systematically underused as platforms for creating memorable coffee experiences.



Anna says that the hardest decision around USBC was whether or not to compete.  By comparison, choosing an origin for her competition coffee was easy: “I knew I wanted a Colombian.”

She asked her friends at Counter Culture to help her identify a good option for this year’s competition, and QC Director and Coffee Buyer Tim Hill set up a cupping for her with all the coffees he purchased from our Borderlands project in Nariño.  He told her that all the coffees were good, a few were very special indeed, and one was a “perfect competition espresso.”

Anna found it right away: La Florida.



Anna sees other parallels that made the food-to-coffee transition a natural for her.  One is terroir–the sense of place you can taste in coffees that are sourced, roasted, prepared and presented thoughtfully.  Intentionally.

Anna made her first origin trip a few years ago with Counter Culture.  They traveled to Nicaragua and spent time with our friends at the 5 de junio cooperative, another quality-focused supplier for Counter Culture.

She sees in the intensive farming, careful milling and detailed selection processes at origin the same kind of intentionality she applies in the marketplace.  And she sees the La Florida lot as an embodiment of that spirit of intentionality.  Particularly the ideation and execution of the coffee as a single-variety Caturra lot in a context in which many growers are shifting to Castillo–a decision that was, if you will pardon the pun, decidedly counter-cultural.

A group of 33 intentional farmers from La Florida will be watching tomorrow as Anna completes the circuit of intentionality, from their farms to the judges’ table.

Good luck, Anna!


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