Interview: Barista Ryan Willbur (Intelligentsia Coffee)

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Barista Los Angeles

Photo courtesy of Ryan Willbur

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. Ryan Willbur of Intelligentsia 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?

Ryan Willbur: This year I’ve chosen to compete in the WRBC because of how competition makes me reevaluate my barista skills and take a closer look at my technique. Competition teaches you about reducing waste, being more efficient in your motion, and how to better communicate what you are all about as a barista. For me, each event is another opportunity to become a better barista. This competition is no different.

JL: How did you become interested in coffee?

RW: My initial interest in coffee came from my friends giving me bad coffee. We’d head to one of those conglomerate coffee chains and they’d dare me to drink the gnarly espresso being pulled on their super-automatic machines. Finally, a good friend of mine pointed me in the direction of a top quality local coffee spot. He mentioned his cousin was the 4th best barista in the country, and I got curious.

JL: What’s your first coffee memory?

RW: My first coffee memories happened every Saturday morning, going out to breakfast with my family. I was probably 7 at the time, and my brother was about 4. I distinctly remember my father always drinking regular and my mom always drinking decaf. She used cream… about one and a half packets, and my dad’s was black. I never understood it. My fascination went as far as enjoying the mixing of the coffee with the milk (I was intrigued by the color infusion), but my brother was sneaking drinks any time my parents weren’t looking. Coffee is now my life and my brother hates the stuff.

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

RW: I have a few people I call mentors. The biggest being Phoung Tran, 2005 United States Barista Champion. She trained me for my first competition and gave me my first shot at being a barista. Phoung laid an incredible foundation for my coffee skills and knowledge. Another person I give credit to is Billy Wilson, the 2006 and 2007 Northwest Regional Barista Champion. It was meeting Billy and seeing how passionate he was about coffee that drew me in and had me curious. Finally, Joe Raines is a killer barista, and the man who taught me what it is to be a stellar daily working barista. You can bring it in the competition, but if you can’t hack it on bar, then you’re just a fake.

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

RW: Preparing for this competition is the same as it always is for me. The time I’m not working our coffee bar, I am in our lab. I break down what I will do in my routine and try to map it out. Then I get intense feedback from other baristas I work with. Generally, we tear each other down pretty hard. Leaving no detail untouched. It’s a rough process, but in the end, we all are better for it.

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

RW: Easy. Coffeehouse NW. Portland, OR. These guys are complete coffee geeks. Their standards are high, and they want nothing but to serve the best. The difference between them and other quality coffee bars is their total lack of pretension. All are welcome and simply accepted as people. No attitude.

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

RW: It’s easy for me to say that I can see either of my two teammates winning. Both Nick Griffith and Devin Pedde are strong competitors with experience. Jared Truby and Matt Williams from Verve Coffee in Santa Cruz are both rad baristas who bring passion and skill. I’d be stoked if one of them were crowned espresso king!

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

RW: I’d like to think that I’d be somewhere making music. I’d probably finish school and spend my days locked in a dark recording studio. Really, who wants that?


Joshua Lurie

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

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