Ever since witnessing Chris Baca’s performance at the 2010 Western Regional Barista Competition, where he pulled audience members into his performance, it was clear he doesn’t approach coffee like most people. The Modesto native started working with coffee in his hometown, at Old Plantation, before he moved to San Francisco. He signed on with the then-brand-new Ritual Coffee Roasters and later ventured south to Santa Cruz. He currently works in that bohemian beach town as the head trainer for Verve Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee company that Colby Barr and Ryan O’Donnovan founded in 2007. On February 25, I met Baca at the original Verve coffeehouse in eastern Santa Cruz, and he shared several caffeinated insights.
Do you have a first coffee memory, good or bad?
I used to bring coffee to high school in this big jug, it was like a carafe I got from my mom that had flowers all over it. My mom always drank coffee at home, and it was really crappy, but I started drinking coffee when I was really young. My favorite old school coffee memory was drinking from this super dumb looking jug with flowers on it in high school. I’d keep it in my locker, it’d stay hot all day, and I’d drink coffee between classes.
Do you still have it?
No, it broke. The inside totally shattered. I tried to put something cold in it right after I heated it up.
Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?
It was a total accident. I was a history major, going to school to be a teacher, which I could probably never do. Other than that, I worked at the skate shop and I’d skateboard all day. That was all I really wanted to do until I started going to school. Then I happened into coffee. I hurt my back when I was 21 and had back surgery, couldn’t do anything for a year and then I needed a really mellow job when I started getting back to work, and got a hook-up at a coffee shop right down the street from my house.
Where was it that you grew up?
Modesto. Central Valley. Cows and horses and track homes and stuff.
What was the shop you started at?
It’s called Old Plantation Coffee, and it was owned by a family that owned a local roastery. They had done espresso as early as the late ’80s. They were the only specialty coffee shop in that whole area. They came in pre-Starbucks and were the first people in the area, like, “We’ve got lattes and cappuccinos!” I used to go there because it was three blocks from my house. My mom used to go and get coffee. I’d hang out with her.
At what point did you decide coffee could be the way to go?
I don’t know. I was making it and thought it could be cool and then one of my friends got me really stoked. This guy Tony [Serrano] – he owns a shop in Modesto now too – but he was living in the Bay Area and came from Flagstaff, Arizona. I didn’t know him, but he came into the coffee shop I was working at. Pretty much, he came in and started asking all these crazy questions, and I had no idea what he was talking about. He was asking about espresso extraction and latte art, basically shit I didn’t know existed. He’s like, “What’s up with this?! What’s up with that?! What’s up with this?!” I’m like, “Dude, I don’t fucking know. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He was kind of scary and intimidating, but I ended up being friends with him.
We went to San Francisco one day on this coffee journey. Ritual had just opened. This was 2005, some time. They just opened the Blue Bottle kiosk. We went to this place called Organica, that Eton Tsuno used to own. He works for Temple now, but he was there, and then we went to Barefoot on our way back. It was this crazy journey, and I’m like, “Holy shit, this is real. This is cool, I want to learn more,” and ran with it.
How did the opportunity with Ritual come about?
I wanted to move and was gung ho about moving somewhere. I almost moved to Portland on the fly. I’m like, I want to move to Portland and try to get a job at Stumptown or something. I went to Ritual one day. I was picking a friend up at SFO and I was way early, so I went into the city and talked to Eileen [Hassi] and told her my dumb, ridiculous plan to move to Portland, and she was basically like, “You don’t have to move to Portland to make coffee. You should come in for an interview.” I was like, “Really?” So I went into an interview and got hired and moved the next week, I packed my little red car with all my shit and slept on my friend’s couch for a couple months. He was a vegan. It was weird.
Tony, would you consider him a mentor?
Totally. He’s totally like a really good motivator, and he’s the only person that knew anything at the time. He’s really passionate and I don’t know if you’ve met him.
I did meet him, actually, at one of the SCAAs.
He’s pretty intense, and he was just like, “You go do it bro! You go get it!” I was like, “Okay, cool, whatever.” He definitely got the drive going.
Any other mentors over the years?