Interview: Barista Lita Lopez (Groundwork Coffee)

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Coffee Los Angeles

Photo courtesy of Lita Lopez

From January 23-25, top baristas from California and Hawaii will converge on Los Angeles to compete at the Western Regional Barista Competition. The winner scores a coveted slot in the Semi-Finals of the 2009 United States Barista Championship. Lita Lopez from Groundwork Coffee in Los Angeles is one barista you’ll find competing at Western Regional Barista Competition at downtown L.A.’s Spring Arts Tower.

Josh Lurie: Why did you decide to compete in the WRBC?

Lita Lopez: I love making great coffee and making someone’s day by giving them an excellent drink. I also have a highly competitive nature and always strive to do my best. I am an actor and performing has always come naturally to me, so, it was a big shock in my first latte art competition a few years ago when I was struck by terrible nervousness and stage fright. I competed last year and probably focused too much on “winning” which also contributed to the nerves and fear. This year, a victory for me doesn’t just mean a trophy. I will have my own victory if I can stay relaxed and focused, enjoy myself and simply make the best coffee I can make.

JL: How did you become interested in coffee?

LL: Being an actor, I of course, held my share of waitressing jobs and hated every one of them. I got my first barista job after vowing I would never wait tables again. I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. I sometimes have this perfectionist streak that barista-ing really feeds into – the quest for the perfect shot and the perfect cappuccino. In my second barista job, I really started to understand how good coffee can be with the proper care and preparation. It’s a passion virus that gets passed from one person to another.

JL: What’s your first coffee memory?

LL: My first memories of coffee are from childhood and early teens. I remember reading a book where the kids drank coffee made for them with mostly milk and loads of sugar. I tried it, but no matter what I added to it, I couldn’t make it taste good. As a teenager, I volunteered as an usher at the community theatre. We had to make coffee and serve sodas at intermission. During the second act of the play, we’d often screw around in the lobby, getting high on caffeine. I remember the first time I enjoyed coffee was after mixing it with a lot of non-dairy creamer and Coca-Cola. My palate has come a long way since then.

JL: Do you have an espresso mentor? If so, who are they and what did they teach you?

LL: I have learned so much from so many different sources, it’s impossible to just name one. I learned a great deal during my time at Metropolis Coffee in Chicago. Tony Dreyfuss, the son in the father/son ownership team, introduced me to latte art for the first time and the term “coffee geek”, because he’s a big one. He is also extremely dedicated to training baristas to serve the best possible product. Tony brought in Scott Rao, author of The Professional Barista’s Handbook, to consult and train us all. I already had the coffee bug, but Scott really infected me with his passion and enthusiasm for training and I became a trainer after that. I wouldn’t be doing any of this today if not for my time there.

I have been inspired by several of the baristas I have met in competitions, but to name just a few… Watching Jay Caragay captivate the crowd in the 2007 USBC was a truly pivotal moment for me, sparking my own imagination and drive to compete. Heather Perry is the absolute master and sets the standard which I strive to achieve. Phuong Tran embodies peace and tranquility and the joy the bean can provide.

JL: What did you do to prepare for the competition?

LL: I’ve been working really hard on my signature drink. I’ve had this idea for a cherry limeade for years now. I’ve been experimenting with ingredients, different forms and combinations of the ingredients and I think I’ve finally hit on the right recipe. Like many things in life, it’s not exactly what I had originally envisioned, but it will still be pretty darn good.

JL: Outside of your coffeehouse, what’s your favorite coffeehouse in the U.S., and what do you like about it?

LL: As mentioned above, I love Metropolis Coffee in Chicago. It used to be my coffeehouse, so I still have that bias, but either way it’s just a great place. In addition to the in-house roasting (Chris Schooley is a rock star!) and fantastic drinks, I always loved Jeff and Tony’s philosophy of the coffeehouse as a community meeting place. I lived in the neighborhood for several years before Metropolis moved in and was thrilled to witness how one establishment can bring people together from all backgrounds and age groups. It really is a home away from home for the whole community.

JL: Other than yourself, who do you think has a good shot at becoming WRBC champ?

LL: If Heather Perry competes, she’s definitely the favorite to win. Also, the Intelligentsia crew always has a strong showing.

JL: If you didn’t work in the coffee industry, what would you do for a living?

LL: I am an actor and writer and I’m working to establish my own production company. I’ve created www.TheCoffeeNetwork.TVwhich is dedicated to producing coffee related entertainment. Please check out my videos at www.TheCoffeeNetwork.TV or!!!


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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