Milwaukee, Wisconsin, jewel of the Midwest and one of the greatest cities in North America, has a lot to offer, even if binge drinking and dairy products aren’t really your “thing”. This weekend it also offers the Great Lakes Regional Barista Competiton (GLRBC) — hosted by orangey local market dominators Alterra Coffee Roasters. I’d book a trip to Milwaukee at the mention of even just a mediocre flavor at Kopp’s Frozen Custard — so this boondoggle required no arm-twisting.

Though I trained into town a day early — stops at the Transfer pizzeria, Paper Boat craft store, and the place my friend Rob calls “gay guy antiques” were required — I spent nearly all of today in the company of the best the Midwest coffee scene could conjure: the first day of a 31-barista competition in the handsome P.H. Dye building in the city’s historic (read: pretty, authentic, what all those trendy cities eat their hearts out for) third ward. I didn’t see everyone compete, but I did see some new and old friends, and some interesting interpretations of coffee. Like, you know. Coffee with raisins. And other juxtapositions I didn’t expect.


I hit the P.H. Dye Building around noon; a crowd was gathered for hometowner and Alterran Alex Schwalbach (whose brother competed earlier that morning) — but his posse was representing nowhere near as extremely as those backing Intelligentsia’s Andy Carey. The Intelli crew rolled deep — and they rolled in matching blue track jackets with skulls, sat in the front row for every member of their tribe, and cheered loud. They may seem guarded at first approach, but those Chicago coffee and tea people are clearly a deranged, intense, explosive force of nature.


Speaking of explosions: these Alterra kids can produce. The Flickr set teased a bit, but no one was ready for the bronze-forged GLRBC trophies unveiled this morning, certainly not me — I think I actually got kind of choked up. (It’s only been four months I’ve lived out of the GLR in my entire life, okay?)

Check this shit out. Trophies: Tiesl. Tamper cozies: Jenny G.


So the first competitor I sat down to watch was Christopher DeMarse of Alliance World Coffee in Gas City, IN. Now when they where naming Gas City, do you think anyone stood up and said — “Hey! Maybe we should change the name of this town!” ? Because if they didn’t, that’s pretty strange. And yet you have to kind of assume they didn’t, because otherwise wouldn’t the rest of the town have said, “Hey, chum, you’re quite the forward thinker. Let’s rename it Prairie Haven after all!” or Hillside. Or Nice Non-Gassy Valley. Really, people.

Chris more or less freaked me out right away with an extremely deep introduction to his presentation that talked extensively about coffee’s connection to passion, and more importantly, truth. I’m as earnest as the next guy (really, ask around) but espresso prepared to express “coffee with the elements of truth” set to trip-hop music was really more than I was ready to wrap my head around before I’d had a coffee off the guest machine. Chris’ signature drink, named something truthy I failed to legibly transcribe, involved a brutally honest mixture of powdered sugar, heavy cream, blackberries and dark cocoa powder.

In any case I was pretty distracted by the competitor setting up at the next station — most of us had noticed Michael Shipley of Conscious Cup Coffee in Crystal Lake, IL, setting his competition table up…with a centerpiece of an 18″ ceramic rooster. (You can insert your own 421067800 cock jokes here, because I’ve already made them today.) Shipley prepared various drinks to go alongside his huge cock, including his signature beverage of tea steeped in a French press, out of pure love for the French press. Unfortunately his love of the French press assisted in him going over time.


And though I was surprised and impressed that a good coffee bar has infiltrated Crystal Lake (I’d heard of them, but haven’t been), in the post-competition interview, Shipley noted that although their store has a drive-thru, he insists his staff pour their drinks at the drive-thru window. Which is kind of totally rad. And weird! And great. (Also, later behind the curtain with Jenny, I would hear him say to someone, “…actually, it’s a rooster.” Amen, brother.)

Competitor number 9 of the day was Andrea Otte, better known as Otter, from Ypsitucky Michigan’s soon-to-be-renamed Ugly Mug. Otter was poised and human both, opening strong with the intro interview:

Emcee:: “So what’s Ypsilanti known for?”
Otter: (long pause) “Well uh it has a very large water tower.”

Otter’s signature drink was a sparkling pomegranate, lemongrass and blue agave-infused drink with espresso she roasted herself back in Michigan (a combination of Yirgacheffe, Sumatran and a Colombian if I got that right.) Sadly this would not be the first application of a seltzer charger that seemed to cost a competitor extra time today.

Goodrich Gevaart served me a drink at Intelligentsia on Randolph Street a day or two ago, but boy did I not realize how hilarious (or stylish!) he was: dude introduces his signature drink as being based on horchata, the milky rice beverage swirling for eternity in taquerias. His drink, served over ice, was perfect for summer, he said.

“There’s not a lot of dairy to keep you down, all logy while you’re playing frisbee or out on your yacht or whatever.”

The gaggle of Intelligentsia people cheered extra loud and hard for Goodrich — and did the best they could without past GLRBC champ Matt Riddle being able to attend. At least, without him being able to attend in person.


I take a break to get a drink from the infamous “fourth machine” — another GB5 set up near the doorway, with competitors and visiting baristas alike taking shifts to pour radical drinks and educate the general public (this weekend is free to anyone who should accidentally or on purpose stumble into the fourth floor of the P.H. Dye building). Unfortunately with my macchiato I was offered “just a little bit of caramel?” — but hey, this is still leagues better than what I’m used to getting to drink at Canadian competitions (bus tray leftovers, food service coffee, low-quality beer.)

Colin Whitcomb from Alterra chased up Goodrich’s routine with a bizarrely intriguing signature concoction called a “cinnamon raisin macchiato”. Really this doesn’t sound like something I want to drink, but I am irresistably drawn to it out of curiosity. Raisin simple syrup and a wee bit of shaved cinnamon — okay. But he insists the judges drink the whole thing top to bottom, so there’s no stealing from behind the scenes for me. A fine moment occurs when Colin asks the A/V guy to crank up the De La Soul song he’s selected for his close — and I see at least two judges bobbing their heads (while still trying to look pokerfaced.) Radical.

Back on the other side of the room I’m talking to a girl for a second when she totally busts me: “Hey. I’ve met you before — didn’t I pull you shots of Epic espresso in St. Paul last summer? You were on tour with a band?” That sounds like me! Patti is in town from Kopplin’s Coffee (along with Andrew Milstead, who is competing out of region on Saturday). I am psyched for more western-midwesterners to chat with (but why isn’t hardly anybody here from my fetish-favorite state of Ohio?)

And not to be outdone by the guy with the huge ceramic cock is Jonathan Arrow of Brothers K Coffeehouse in Evanston, IL. Jonathan pours Metropolis Redline espresso in handsome tin cups, his signature a mix of blueberry and cocoa (which he melts down with a high-powered lamp!) and refers repeatedly to the Japanese term “bankai”, explaining that a sword is the extension of your soul.

“Your sword is all that you have to offer, it is your talent.”


He later expressed disappointment in the GB5’s steam sword.

I’m burning out at this point, and the MSP kids are on bar over at the fourth machine so I go hang out a bit. Andrew pulls me a sweet-ass shot of Paradise Havana Blend while I listen to some dude order a “soy latte with a rosetta” from Patti, and then tries to impress his companion by explaining that at his shop, the machines automatically measure the espresso and shot time for you. He later calls Patti a guy and she doesn’t throw his drink at him (rosetta and all) because she’s nice like that.


Deanna Myers of Intelligentsia (rosewater-infused whipped cream, candied violet petals, shaved chocolate) and David Devyak of Conscious Cup finish up the day, both confident and, I believe, both a little over time. Post-competition festivities tonight are brief but sweetly midwestern: the bar across the street served a basket of fries with four (four!) containers of ranch dressing (!!!!).


Not to be outdone, the Italian restaurant we went to later served their house wine in…chilled Heineken bottles. Is anyone ready for this city?

7 Responses to “I’ll Take Milwaukee: GLRBC Day One”

  1. scottlucey

    Well said L… more custard to come.

  2. Gabriel

    god damn what an amazing update! thank you!

  3. blood0range

    Yes, great stuff. Thanks! Go Killas!

  4. bz

    thanks for the fix.

  5. Mike

    That’s quite a large and, uh … water tower.

  6. Chemically Imbalanced (espresso-jogged screeds) » exhaustion stalling

    […] told you those trophies would be jaw-droppers. […]

  7. Jonathan Jarrow

    Yo!! Is this Liz?? I looked for you on Sunday, to give you a ride. Didn’t see you before I took off. Sorry. I should’ve gotten your number the night before.
    By the way, thanks for the great pics and fun writing. The competition was well covered.

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