With the Olympics fast approaching, it seemed appropriate to profile NYC’s very own celebrity titleholder of sorts: the 2013 World Brewers Cup Champion — as in brewed coffee — Erin McCarthy lives amongst us. McCarthy is on Counter Culture’s wholesale technical support staff. Our conversation began with a few questions about his experiences, preferences, and thoughts on coffee, and we ended up off topic, comparing wine and coffee — the industries, scoring systems, and several other parallels, details that only the most committed coffee fans would indulge. This is part one of our two-part interview, which focuses on his experiences and specialty coffee history.
How did you get your start in coffee and what made you want to pursue it as a career?
I grew up in Long Island, but my start in coffee was in Ithaca, New York. I needed a job. And it was a job for a roaster/retailer called Gimme! Coffee. I was really lucky to start my career with them, because they knew what was going on. They already had a pretty structured training program and they roasted coffee on their own, so six months in, I was apprentice roasting. Then I helped create a training department and I worked on that for a number of years. I kind of fell hard right away. I liked coffee. I liked all the rules. They were very espresso-focused. This was a time in specialty coffee when we were extremely espresso-focused. Espresso was kind of my first [passion] in terms of the science and the preparation and learning how to taste. After a few years, we started to realize that brewed coffee can be better as well; it doesn’t have to be the thing that’s not espresso.
And then you ended up going to Athens, Georgia?
The southern coffee culture, we would say — and I’m using the “we” because I lived there for a year — we were coming into our own. It was a slower transition to specialty coffee than the coasts. There was the struggle against the way people were taught to order and drink coffee by Starbucks, and trying to move away from the really big sizes. The kind of conversations that were happening earlier in Seattle and New York were happening there then. Athens had a coffee shop that was a Counter Culture account, and I would go there all the time. I mostly roasted. I came from six years of retail and training baristas and now I’m training customers (of Counter Culture).
How did you decide to compete in brewing competitions?
It took a couple of things. I went back to NYC and worked for Gimme again. The same position I had upstate was available in New York. I knew by that point I was going to do this as a career. There weren’t a ton of markers with specialty coffee in terms of maybe being a viable profession beyond working for a place for a certain amount of time. I wanted to prove it to myself that I could brew good coffee. At that point I was training all these NYC baristas and running classes every week. I was very insular within the Gimme community and wanted to see how I fared. I felt that as the regional trainer it was part of my job. I also wanted to show the new baristas I was training that it was fun. And it is a ton of fun. And very stressful.
I watched the video of your performance in Australia for the World Brewers Cup Finals, and there was a considerable amount of showmanship. It’s not just making coffee; it involves a kind of stagecraft.
There was a lot of practicing. My coach Katie Carguilo, who was the U.S. barista champ a couple years ago, and Sam Penix, my friend who owns Everyman Espresso, grilled me on my speech and made sure I was saying it every day. The way that the regionals have worked is that in the first round, everyone brewed the same coffee. And that’s the only component. You go from 30 to six people. Going into the U.S. nationals, you have that presentation component in the first round as well as the finals. I learned a lot from not preparing the first and second years. I knew what I wanted to say, I just didn’t know how I would do it while brewing three cups of coffee during the competition. I still have anxiety dreams about it.
The championship is only in its third year; there were 19 different countries represented. There’s only one representative from a coffee origin country and that was Brazil, but I really hope to work on getting that developed. There’s been a lot of work with the barista competition [espresso-based rather than brewing based] going on 13 years in building the structure for competitions. It would be great to have the same thing happen with the brewers cup.
Your role at Counter Culture is a technician. What are your responsibilities?
Counter Culture only does wholesale. We provide service and have these training centers to sustain that. My job as a tech is to make sure that all of our customers can make coffee. If anything breaks down I get a call or a text. We are available 24/7 — literally. There are two of us in New York. We will be in touch within a day. Some days there are grinders seizing and espresso machines not heating, or maybe something just isn’t plugged in. Our customers buy their own equipment, but we maintain them throughout the life of our relationship. A lot of what we do is preventative maintenance at the three-month, six-month, nine-month intervals, so we don’t have so many emergencies. My region stretches three hours upstate — such as Hudson Coffee Traders in Kingston, the Culinary Institute of America, and a few accounts in Connecticut — New Haven — and New Jersey, but mostly it’s New York.
What differentiates Counter Culture from other roasters?
Coming from Gimme, which was very sustainability-focused and relationship-focused, Counter Culture was the only company in New York I wanted to work for. They are extremely motivated to keep their relationships healthy whether that means the people they buy coffee from or their employees. They hire smart people who are constantly trying to be better. I couldn’t have gotten to where I did with the world brewers cup without the support of these really smart, critical people, and Counter Culture wants to hire those kinds of people — people who are always pushing specialty coffee thinking.
They really focus on environmental sustainability, and here are two examples: We are almost buying 100 percent certified organic coffee. Not just working with farms who claim to be organic but actually have the certification. We are working with farms to either afford that or find the path. An example of that is our holiday blend in which a dollar for each bag is going to help a mill in Rwanda to become organically certified, and there isn’t any other, as far as we have seen, organically certified mill in Burundi [directly south of Rwanda], so we’re pretty excited about that.
We do worm composting in almost all of our training centers. We’re not going to generate enough compost to do much with it; it’s more of an educational tool for people coming into the training center.
How many cups of coffee do you drink daily?
It depends. I probably would drink an average of 3-4. I do a lot of just sipping and spitting out, but if it tastes really good, it’s hard to spit it out.
What’s your morning coffee ritual?
I just get out the door. I am a fan of sleep. But, on the weekends, I make myself a cup of coffee at home, and I have everything that I would have here. I have a good grinder. I was lucky, winning this competition; grinders are a pretty good prize. And I have a water filter. I’ll usually brew on a Kalita or a Chemex.
I noticed you used a Kalita Wave in the competition, whereas other competitors used other brewing systems. Do you think this gave you an advantage?
The thing about flat bottom brewing, is that to me, it brews a more consistent cup, though you need to be familiar with whatever device you’re brewing. The Kalita has three holes instead of one or two or instead of Chemex, which narrows down to a point, so it has a lot less flow restriction. I’ll wash the fines — the smallest, powdery, grinds that even good burr grinders yield — down after the bloom so I have a little more flow restriction.
Right now, what’s your favorite coffee to drink?
The East African coffees. I usually answer this with whatever’s in season, which is kind of a jerk move, but it gets the conversation going. I’m a sucker for sweetness and clarity and really nice acidity. For instance, with wine, I like Gruner Veltliner with its tropical fruit and minerality. I love Eastern African coffees a lot and I love washed Central and South American coffees as well. Right now, we’re able to get a kind of newly emerging coffee buying region — the Democratic Republic of Congo. We got some killer coffee from there that I have am really loving.
Who do you admire in the coffee industry?
Can I say my coworkers? Tim Hill, our coffee buyer and quality manager, and Kim Elena, the sustainability manager and green buyer, are two. My whole team in New York are differently skilled and really brilliant, strong coffee people. Erin Meister, who runs Counter Intelligence, is one of the smartest, and most eloquent teachers that I’ve ever met, and I learned a lot about teaching labs from her. Katie Carguilo, Counter Culture customer support, is a critical, smart person in general, and Tommy Gallagher, Counter Culture’s other New York tech, has an engineer’s mind and is always thinking of new ways to set things up and brew coffee.
For the people who don’t work at Counter Culture: Trish Rothgeb — she owns Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco with her partner Nick Cho. They both have been in the scene for a long time. These people all build community, or are constantly challenging the status quo. Trish has been in the industry for years and year. She’s someone people go to with questions about the industry and what she thinks about the future.
Why did brewed coffee take a back seat to espresso in this country for such a long time? How did this movement to higher quality brewed coffee develop?
That’s a hard one. Trish Rothgeb has been credited with coining the phrase “Third Wave”. We’ve all spent a lot of time defining it. First Wave in America was coffee in diners. Pretty weak stuff. Second Wave was when Starbucks taught people about espresso, cappuccino, and espresso-based drinks. That kind of set the culture for the third wave, which was still focused on espresso, but more concerned with how good it tasted and its sourcing. The Third Wave became about direct trade and knowing the farm name and the farmers. I think it came out of the Starbucks culture. There were all these espresso machines being sold when they switched to super automatics. All these espresso machines flooded the market and small cafés picked them up. There was an internet community in the late ’90s and early 2000s that was pushing each other and really exploring espresso. Espresso is complicated and really hard to produce consistently.
I know that Nick Cho had lot to do with it. He started the brewers cup to highlight hand-brewed coffee. From my personal experience, people just started talking about it. I’m pretty sure it started over discussion on the internet. Why aren’t we paying attention to how our industrial brewers serve coffee? Why are we taking our old coffee at the end of the night and making iced coffee? Why don’t we care about how that tastes? Gimme was one of the first on the east coast to be involved in that, trying to push coffee further. It was kind of time; it had been five or six years since we had just been exploring espresso.