twitchy‘s second pre-WBC interview falls in the lap of Michael Phillips, most recently sighted wandering around in a state of catatonic shock after winning the United States Barista Championship in Portland earlier this month. I asked Mike a few questions to help the public, you know…get inside his head.

Hi Mike.. um… here is an interview for you! You can pretend I’m Oprah if that will make you feel more relaxed while you are answering the questions.
Thanks Oprah, I love your magazine by the way. My mom and our Tea Buyer Doug Palas both say hi. (big fans)

What’s coffee culture like in Chicago? Do you work anywhere anybody has ever heard of?
I feel like this might be a baited question but I’ll take it… Chicago has an amazingly well-developed foodie/wine/spirits culture. Our coffee culture is good and getting better, but I’d really like to see it play ball on the higher end our culinary brethren occupy. I work for a mom n pop joint up in the Lakeview area of Chicago. We have done okay for ourselves and now have 3 shops in Chicago and soon to be 2 in LA, each city has a roasting works as well. We roast for wholesale clients as well as our own shops and go under the hame “Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea”. The owner should be in Atlanta if any of you want to chat him up.  

The cafe you call home, the original Intelligentsia shop on Broadway, revamped its coffee program this year dramatically, including disappearing any method of making coffee that isn’t brew-to-order. How did this go over with your clientele, and do you feel you’ve been more successful at delivering the messages within your coffees because of this change?
The positive effects of this change for our shop, my co-workers and our clientele in the long run will be nothing short of mindblowing. Being tied so closely to a roaster, bean sales are a huge part of our business and we consistently have an inventory of many excellent single origin coffees. When we brewed coffee on an urn for the overwhelming majority of the shops’ black coffee sales, no one on staff really drank the coffee off of it other than to check for quality. It was not bad, we had tight controls on holding time (under 25 minutes) and a very well-developed system for getting the most out of the machine… It just wasn’t as good as we knew the coffee could be. Staff were describing it to customers mainly from what they tasted when they brewed it at home. In the shop our baristas would usually opt for an espresso drink to ease their coffee needs. After switching to brew-to-order, there was a change; people throughout the staff really started getting a better grip on the beans and the differences between them became more stark. We adjust our parameters for the coffees every morning, this keeps us not only brewing the coffee as best it can be that day, but also lets us be able to stay up with how a coffee will change through out the time you offer it. On the customer side it had a rough patch or two but we stuck to our message that the reasons for the change were not to get more money but instead to honestly brew better coffee and then actually came through on that promise. They stuck with us and are happier for it.

The Bolivian Anjilanaka you used for competition this year was considered by some — maybe even yourself — to be an outside choice. What did you like about it?
The Bolivia in most people’s opinion was certainly a goofy option. The coffee was in no way friendly to the roasters, of the three varietals involved one wants to carbonize too quickly while one of the others takes its time to develop… very tiny window…  It is not remarkably fresh crop even with me starting to use it the week it arrived (landlocked South American countries with political turmoil are not conducive to speedy transit…). While being a single origin, it is not really a romantic one, I have no Nelson Melo standing behind it, no well-known estate or exotic varietal tied to it… I had not even really thought of it at all until a month before the Great Lakes competition. When it came time to really get serious and settle I tasted it against some really high caliber beans that worked as espresso and it simply beat them in character. I really enjoy a snappy acidity and clean juicy body in a shot, despite its pedigree (or lack thereof) the Bolivia delivered that better than any of the others. 

Your competition routines, they are not simple ones. How do you walk the line between being technically artful and not getting yourself into trouble up there?
I swear I never intend to make things complicated. This year especially, after seeing all the LA guys last year come in at 13:30, I was all about keeping it simple and focused. My problem is that I just cant walk away from what I think are good ideas and things keep getting tacked on. Then I have to just find a way to make it all slide together, and honestly that’s really fun for me. This year especially I was not in it with the sole focus of winning it. After doing this whole thing twice already I really just wanted to not do to much worse than last year in a field of competitors that is decidedly strong. I felt like this was a good chance to do something interesting  A few of my more wacky ideas that I tried in the beginning simply didnt work and got axed. This one however while being a bit tricky is totally feasible, I just dont have much wiggle room.  I think in some ways having a technique-heavy routine with a little bit of dice rolling makes it easier for you to not be nervous, because you simply dont have the time to be.

How do you fit competition practice into your busy blogging schedule?
Good question. I really try to keep the number of blog posts under a specific limit (12 a week or so) just to make sure things dont get out of hand. It is difficult however when you have to not just maintain your own blog and social network profile, but also watch a variety of other blogs and maintain a regular posting routine on 3 or 4 different forums (we even have an internal one just for Intelly). I usually make sure to squeeze in a run-through or two between my end of day coffeed scan and late evening BX profile update but sometimes there just are not enough hours in the day…  yes… that was dry sarcasm for the most part.

You’re one of the lucky competitors that doesn’t need a visa to travel to the WBC this year. Have you been to Atlanta before?
No, I have not been to Atlanta yet.  I am fairly excited about it…  Any area that willingly refers to itself as “the Dirty South” and knows how to rock a dance party is in a good position in my mind.  Having seen a number of hip hop videos by prominent Southern rappers, I really feel like I have a good idea what to expect and am looking forward to it immensely.

What are you looking forward to doing in Atlanta besides winning the World Barista Championship? The nearby World of Coke museum has a pretty bizarre selection of international pops you can try out.
The Coke Museum has been suggested to me already but chances are I might find something else should I make it out of the convention hall.  I hear the botanical garden is off n’ poppin’ (I am very much into plants) and the area certainly has some deep historical locations that pretty much most folks in the nation should pay tribute to at least once in their life. These coffee events however are usually really intense and fast paced for me.  I am usually pretty happy if I can find a nice place to order a good whiskey and sit down for an hour or two talking coffee with the people I only see at these sorts of things.

Why do you compete?
Mainly the ladies… wait, no!  I mean to showcase the coffee!  shoot….  I always mess that one up. Can I start over? Competitions are strange and my reasons to be involved have changed over the years. The first year it was to learn more and meet people who cared about the same stuff I do. Last year it was to push myself as hard as I could and really see how well I could do. This year, it started with the desire to have fun and do something different, changed midway into a quest for some form of minor redemption and now is in the mode of trying to figure out how I am supposed to represent an entire country of insanely skilled coffee professionals. This last reason is a bit stressful but I am definitely grateful for the opportunity. Overall I also see competitions in a new light. In the beginning a major focus was how well I could do.  Now I am in a different position with Intelligentsia and am more so looking for ideas to take back to my shop to make it a better place.

What would you change about barista competitions if you could?
The changes I want to see are in the industry, not the competitions. The comps are just a messenger to show the industry what the next steps are that it should take. I mean, I’d love to see competitors have a more approachable and realistic opportunity to taste and select from a variety of different coffees to use for their espresso. I feel that picking a coffee and getting to know is the most important part of doing well in these events and is also where a barista will learn the most that they can take away with them as professionals. This is easily the biggest advantage any barista competing for a roaster has. The problem here is we need more roasters stepping up to this role, putting as much focus on developing their espresso programs as they do on sourcing green coffee for drip. I think the next big thing you’re going to see in the comps will be when roasters start catching onto this and reach out to really good baristas outside of their shops to showcase their coffee in the comps. I want to see all of these amazing single origin espressos and blends cropping up in grinders next to what shops are serving as standard house espresso.

What would you like to see change in coffee culture in the larger picture? Either locally or globally.
It’s hard to answer this, as aside from following blogs I really dont have a solid grasp on coffee culture outside of Chicago and in some ways LA. I have visited a number of shops in Seattle and Portland but I would be hardly as well versed as someone like say Liz Clayton. I certainly have no experience at origin to start basing suggestions off of either. With that said, I do know that I would love to see Great Lakes coffee explode and start making some moves to establish a culture on the level you can find in other parts of the country. I think we are close but it will take effort from several people to really build the base. On a larger scale, I would like to see being a barista as a more sustainable career. Things like better wages, healthcare, really solid investments in training. The issue with this is that it takes the right shop. Shops that are not pushing the envelope to really make stellar drinks are not going to be able to charge enough and develop the reputation and clientele to support this sort of thing.  It takes business savvy, a ridiculous amount of effort and a big leap of faith, but shops that land on the other side will find they have created a niche that no one else is even close to filling and will have staff that sticks around.

Why doesn’t the US have the Coffee in Good Spirits competition? I really want to see you go head to head with Michael Elvin.
Good lord… that man terrifies me.  In a bar tending setting I would be much better suited to polishing Michael’s glassware than challenging him on stage. I actually was really into this a year or so ago and got all worked up trying to master the perfect Irish coffee… then I found out the US is not even represented! LAME! Given our legitimate claims to being heavily favored as the birth place of the art of spirit mixology, we should certainly man up and throw our hat in the ring…. I gotta start working on this, anyone else out there interested?

Does your family understand coffee and your role in it?
I think they do now. It took a little while but it’s all starting to make sense. It helps that the company I work for makes it easy to show this to them as a real profession that I can invest in and receive very visible dividends back from. My mom and dad are also very into the interweb coffee scene. My mother actually watched regionals that I was not even involved in this year and got in on the chat rooms… crazy. Now I just need to get them to stop emailing my boss with new ideas for the company….

You get to work in the morning…or perhaps the afternoon. What drink do you make for yourself?
As far as the shop goes I tend to have my drinks picked for me. I do quality control for our shop (actually everyone on staff does it, but I am the one responsible for it) and thusly taste several espressos and milk drinks, various specs for different brewed coffee and occasionally check up on the teas as well. Lately I have been playing with a siphon pot if i have free time but usually I just drink whatever we are kicking out.

You get home at night…or perhaps the afternoon. What drink do you make for yourself?
Afternoons tend to be juleps now that it is spring and I have my mint plant putting out the goods.  The evenings lean more towards Manhattans or just a nice straight whiskey.

For my pre-WBC interviews this year, I’m going to have a rolling question at the end where I ask one competitor to ask a question to another, on any topic you like. You have received a question from Yara Thais Castanho, the current Brazilian Barista Champion. She asks:

“Why is competition important for the baristas?”

It is bar none the best chance for a barista to gain exposure to many different coffees, roasters and talented peers. If you are looking really grow your skill set, get involved to challenge yourself and when the time comes be humble enough to ask questions and make friends. The opportunity is amazing.

Thank you Mike. See you in the Dirty South.

2 Responses to “twitchy interview no. 7: mike phillips”

  1. twitchy » Blog Archive » wbc 2009 competitor list!

    […] Hoon (Republic of Korea) 42. Beronja Branislav (Republic of Serbia) 43. Erez Ashkenazi (Israel) 44. Michael Phillips (United States of America) 45. Jorge Agustin Quiroga (Argentina) 46. Urmet Laht (Estonia) 47. Raul […]

  2. Forward and back « Coffee is Food

    […] will be held in conjunction with the world’s top 50 baristas competing. Best of luck to Michael Philips representing the US. I will be watching the competition this weekend. Looks to be another good […]

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