Mineral mastery brings barista bronze

Mr. Coffee doesn’t know anything about tofu coagulants

Jacob White competes in the national Brewers Cup competition.
  • Jacob White competes in the national Brewers Cup competition.

A local barista was named one of the nation’s best in April. Competing at the U.S. Coffee Championships in Seattle, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters quality control manager Jacob White placed third in the Specialty Coffee Association’s annual Brewers Cup competition.

The contest grades baristas on their manual coffee-brewing skills, evaluating their coffees for flavor quality and consistency. In an initial, compulsory round, each barista receives 12 ounces of identical beans and is given 45 minutes to figure out the best way to prepare it using the same water and coffee grinder. This way, as White points out, “It’s not like anybody can show up with a bag of tricks.”

Tricks were reserved for the subsequent open-service round, wherein contestants could brew a coffee of their own choosing. White brought one of Bird Rock’s recent gesha coffees from Panama’s Hacienda La Esmeralda farm, which he presented to the judges as having cherry, strawberry, and honey flavors, with notes of white flowers and tropical fruit. This was crucial, as the judging panel assessed not only the quality and consistency among three individual cups he brewed, but how the finished coffee compared to his description.

White used a Kalita Wave pour-over method in both rounds, he says, to reduce any variables. “It’s what we use in our cafés, and a lot of other coffee professionals are very familiar with it.” Likely more important to his success was the extra lengths he went to to develop a water profile specifically to suit this coffee.

“A big part of my presentation was based on the effect water has on coffee brewing,” White says, explaining that the salt and mineral content of water accentuates different flavors or aromas — some for the worse and some for the better. So, beginning with water stripped of all the minerals normally found in drinking water, he built his desired water profile by adding food-grade magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, and potassium bicarbonate.

“The coffee we were using was really fruity and juicy,” says White, “Geshas don’t normally have a lot of body, and I found [that] combination of minerals helped add some body that wasn’t there…made it seem a little juicier.”

For the past six months, White has been experimenting with adding compounds to distilled water, measuring small quantities of baking sodas, epsom salts, and tofu coagulants on a jeweler’s scale to determine which ratios brought out desirable flavors and textures. “Compared to other industries like beer,” he points out, “we don’t have as much information about how minerals affect your cup. So I was trying to isolate each mineral…I’m not done, either.”

White competed last year, and while he placed third at the regional level, he failed to make the final rounds at the national level. He’s excited about how much he learned going further in the process and enthusiastic to compete again next year. “Historically, San Diego hasn’t had much representation in these competitions,” he says, “so it’s been cool to represent our coffee community.”

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