Interview: U.S. Barista Champion Pete Licata (Honolulu Coffee)

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How has winning the United States Barista Championship and placing second at the WBC changed your life?

Jeeze, a lot of ways. The whole experience I had through WBC this year, say last November through WBC, I learned so much more about coffee in general, from the beginning, from the trees, from the source of how farming practices actually come into play, different things you wouldn’t normally know, pruning the trees, fertilizing at the time, watching your rainfall, watching your flowerings and understanding how that’s affecting your next harvest, and then just the ripeness of the cherries on the trees, how the elevation is really affecting a lot of the flavor that’s coming in there, especially acidity, how ripeness is affecting the sweetness of the coffee. The coffee I made for WBC was really some of the best coffee I ever tasted. It was, I can’t even say enough good stuff about it, but at the same time it’s all extremely ripely picked, it’s all sorted after that, a lot of meticulous care went into that coffee. It’s kind of my duty not to mess anything up along the way either, so I got a good sense of all the work the farmer puts into the coffee, to go to the green product, that we then buy. A lot of people focus a lot on the barista side, which is what we have control over, but to understand all that encompassing knowledge and understanding and care that goes into a coffee, gives you a much better perspective on it. Right now there are very few people in the world who can say they know as much about preparing espresso and understanding how different things that are coming into play in both the roasting and growing aspects of your coffee, are affecting your finished product. There are a lot of ways that I can mess it up as a barista, but there are a lot of ways that I can mess it up as a roaster. There are a ton of ways I can mess it up as a farmer, a producer. It’s been really enlightening.

I feel my knowledge with coffee, and the confidence in what I’m talking about and what I’m doing, is tenfold what it was last year. In one year’s time, I feel like I’ve gone exponentially beyond what I had been at. It’s been really, really difficult. It’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, but it’s been really, really good because I feel I really have something to give to the rest of the coffee community at this point. I have a lot of first hand experience that very people get to give, coming from a background I came from and going to the farm level and working on that level, and also putting in the roasting side and understanding how that works too.

How much roasting experience did you have before the 2011 USBC?

Not much. I’d roasted a few batches. I roasted all my coffee at Downtown Coffee, which is where they’re selling my espresso blend. I’d done some roasting with him for a couple months, randomly, taking some of the knowledge I’d learned just from talking to roasters and trying to improve the flavor profiles of the coffees that Fred downtown was doing.

That’s the owner down there?

Yeah, Fred Hokada. Really nice guy, really great guy. He’s like, “You know, if you have any ideas, let’s experiment and try them out.” I’d done a little bit of roasting, but honestly not a ton, but I told him when I did this project for the barista competition, that I’d really wanted to roast my coffee as well, so he volunteered. He said, “Please come on by and roast whatever you want. Let’s do that.” He’s kind of learned from me, and I’ve learned from him and we’ve both kind of learned new stuff through experimenting and trying shots and doing different things. It was a really great learning experience. I was nervous for sure though, you’ve done all this work for a green coffee product, and I don’t know much about roasting at this point, so it’s a lot of experimenting with my own coffee. I tried to pick enough coffee so that I’d have enough that I could experiment roast and try to perfect the roast profiles, and it’s nerve wracking because, “I can’t screw this up. If I screw this up, my whole competition’s kind of trashed.” It’s not going to taste good. I’ll still have a great story, but it’s not going to taste very great.

What do you feel the Honolulu coffee scene needs to be great, if it isn’t already?

I would kind of describe the Honolulu coffee scene as a lot like a mainland cities were 10 years ago. People have done a lot of work and a lot of education and a lot of hands on community building and things like that with their cafés on the mainland. It hasn’t happened quite that same way over here. There are a lot of people who like coffee. There are a lot of people who like the café culture and just being in a café and sitting around. We do have a lot of tourists who come from all over the world and like the café atmosphere and the culture, but the biggest difference I see is that there hasn’t been as much of that kind of coffee geekiness, that you’ll get on the mainland. People want to geek out and learn about coffee. There hasn’t been as many actual connection to the coffee, which is strange since we’re coming from Hawaii, you have your roasters who are buying the coffee, but there isn’t a connection to it. Either a company has a farm where they get their coffee from, or they buy their coffee from one of the big brokers, especially in Kona, to roast that coffee. There are very few places that have an actually connection to the farmer themselves, the farming practices, how it was grown, some of the other demographics companies will put out there when talking about coffees from Central American countries. “Oh, it’s bourbon varietal and it’s grown at 300 meters and it’s average rainfall is this, and this is when it was harvested.” Nobody really does that out here. It hasn’t caught on in that way. I think a lot of that’s because there’s that big ocean in between. Where all that sophistication has been growing on the mainland, it hasn’t really been coming out here because it’s just a little bit disconnected and everything feels more separate.

Even with the internet connecting the world?

A lot of that stuff has to with going to the cafes, being at some of the events, like Coffee Fest and barista competitions and trade shows and things like that.

You need to get the SCAA out here.

Yeah. We just had a Coffee Fest in Kona.

Oh, you did?

We did, in Kona, if you went to Kona, it’s not a high population area, and it just doesn’t quite do it as far as the connection. Because it’s connected to all those farmers and the people out there on Kona, but it’s not as connected to the people of Honolulu, which is where the majority of Hawaii’s population lives, and the majority of the cafes. It’s kind of a different focus when you go out there.

So what are the brewing methods that you use here?

We just use a brewer for most of our coffee.

A Fetco?

A big Fetco, one and a half gallon, and we also use small two liter vac pots as well. We do French presses. We do different sized French presses. We’re trying to implement some pourover bars, but because these cafés were built and set up basically to brew coffee on a Fetco and making espresso drinks and having desserts and all the other stuff in there, it really wasn’t made in a way that works really well with a pourover bar.

In terms of layout?

In terms of layout, primarily. And then just kind of the business model of how it is. And we’re working actually right now on is trying to re-organize the store in a way that’s effective, to have more trendy coffee preparation methods, have some pourovers, have some things like that.

Are you convinced that pourover would improve the coffee in the cup?

Well, I think it would give a different feel for what the coffee company is. Right now you have your coffee of the day, you have your Kona blend that we do every day. Fridays we do one of our Konas, and then we have these small pots that we do for sampling because we sell our beans by sampling coffees out here, like this one tastes like, as soon as somebody pretty much comes in, but we don’t have a way for you to buy, “Oh I want a cup of the Maui coffee,” or “I want a cup of the Kona coffee,” only as a French press. If you don’t like the French press method, you’re not going to want to order that. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the French press method. I think it’s okay, but it’s a little too sediment-y for me.

What’s your preferred brewing method at home? You said you have Chemex in the car.

I always carry one in the car with me. Either a Chemex or usually anything with a filter. I like a Clever dripper. That thing works very well. Chemex is great. A lot of what I like to do – what some people did at the Brewer’s Cup this year – Chris Baca, do you remember him?


He did for his presentation – it’s really simple, but it’s really effective for making a good cup of coffee – is starting off with the French press method, putting your grounds in, brewing in a container, but then pouring the liquid through a filter, cleaning it up and making it a lot more smooth and clean tasting. I like doing that a lot. It’s a little bit more work to do, but it’s easy and it tastes really good.

One extra step?

Pretty much, and it’s kind of what the Clever is, more or less. It’s an immersion brewing method, and filtering it through a paper filter.

How has your role changed with the company since becoming U.S. Barista Champ? Has it?

It’s changed some. I was doing a lot of the stuff leading up to the competition as well. Say since last year when I talked to you, I’m doing a lot more project management. I’m doing a lot of interviews, for sure…I get together a lot of logistics on how we want to do something. For example, the Food & Wine fest we’re doing this weekend, setting up a couple of those things. Working a little more with farmers and the source level for the coffees, finding new coffees we want to use. Giving my input on what preparations we want some of the processors are going to use with some of the coffees we’re going to purchase. Going to different countries; I’m going to Taiwan next month and I’m going to Taiwan in November to actually open a store.


Joshua Lurie

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

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