By Nicolette Baker
This story was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of mind + body.
It’s an almost universal start to the morning: a hot (or cold!) cup of coffee. Milk, cream, sugar or black — however you take your coffee, everyone has their preferences.
Katie Britt starts each day with a French press coffee with coconut milk if she’s at home and a cold brew if she’s at the shop. She owns Red Banner Coffee in downtown Cape Girardeau with her husband, Robbie — a fulfillment of her longtime desire to run a coffee shop full-time. She says she usually drinks about one cup during the day, but she’ll taste test to make sure the store’s brews are in tip-top shape.
Britt says she’s always wanted to work in a restaurant; after graduating with a teaching degree from Southeast Missouri State University, she was hired at the Barnes & Noble Café. Her husband also took a job at a local coffee shop, and the pair rose to managerial positions.
This allowed them to learn the ins and outs of running a coffee shop and set them up to eventually own their own location in Cape. Before opening Red Banner Coffee — formerly Dynamite Coffee — in 2013, the couple moved to Seattle for three years after Robbie received a job offer to work with coffee. During that time, the couple learned more about the coffee trade, and Britt’s husband began competing in barista contests. That’s when Britt says she first heard of coffee-tasting competitions and started to consider them for herself.
During U.S. Coffee Championship “Cup Tasters” competitions, participants are given several sets of medium roast coffee, according to the competition website. Each set contains three cups — two identical coffees and one unique one. The participant may taste and smell the drinks to identify the unique coffee; those who correctly identify the most amount of sets in the least amount of time win.
Britt first competed in the U.S. Coffee Championship in 2018, placing in the top 15 in the New Orleans qualifying event and advancing to the next competition in Seattle. While she says she sometimes felt her nerves get to her, she placed fourth in the United States that year among 30 other competitors.
She says she felt confident when returning to the 2019 qualifying event, but despite her high hopes, she didn’t advance to the national competition. The loss hurt her pride, she says, and she felt discouraged from participating in future competitions. At that moment, she decided to stop competing.
Her husband Robbie had other plans, though. His encouragement led her to sign up for the next year’s event.
“He let me lick my wounds and tuck my tail for a bit, then told me I needed to compete again and wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Britt says. “I needed that push to know someone still thought I could, so I signed up again for the 2020 qualifying event in Portland.”
She passed the 2020 qualifying event and would have competed in the 2021 national competition in New Orleans, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. This year, she traveled to Boston from April 8 through 10 to finally compete for the coveted coffee-tasting trophy.
Britt says the most enjoyable part of coffee tasting is getting lost in the intricacies of the flavor and the “mental game” of competitions. The first year, she says she was nervous about becoming stuck while competing; the second year, she worried about a dry mouth impeding her performance.
This year, however, she was concerned about how much of her identity was wrapped in the competition. After two years of preparation, Britt says the competition meant everything to her. While she didn’t receive a finalist placing, she says she was able to move forward.
A balance of both mental and physical preparation is important to tasting competitively, she says, as well as appreciation of the beverage itself. She says God has revealed her sole identity is not as a coffee taster and allowed her to accept the outcome with peace.
She looks forward to future competitions and says her husband plans to join her in tastings, too.
As a toddler, Britt first enjoyed a cup of coffee with her grandparents — back then, she went heavy on the cream and sugar. Now, her resumé shows it’s clear she’s learned to appreciate coffee on its own, for what it is.
Become a master coffee taster
Coffee is extremely complex, Katie Britt, co-owner of Red Banner Coffee with her husband, Robbie, says; “flavor compounds” can be affected by hundreds of factors and require practice to identify.
To start coffee tasting on your own, Britt advises individuals to go back to the basics: the five different tastes. Tasting for bitter, sweet, salty, sour and savory notes can help identify the taste of the coffee. She says as a start, ask yourself which of these tastes are present in your cup of coffee.
To push yourself to look for more complex flavors, raid your pantry for practice. Tasting different fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices may help to later identify each of those flavors in your brew. Herbs and spices can be steeped like tea, Britt says, which can be drunk to better understand how they might taste in coffee.
The perfect pour over
Crafting a pour over can be complicated, Katie Britt says, but it always starts with quality coffee grounds. She suggests purchasing from a neighborhood coffee bar that roasts their own. Next, gather what you’ll need: ground coffee, filtered water, a heat source, pour over cone, coffee filter and timer.
Once you’ve practiced the basic pour over, you can add a few more extras: a grinder, scale, water kettle with gooseneck spout and thermometer. This is where things get a bit more tricky; Britt suggests consulting your barista or a YouTube video, as she says, “nothing beats a good visual.”
Practicing these steps help to pursue a perfect pour over — something Britt says she’s still working toward creating. She’s still learning.
“Perfection often feels like a moving target,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I think what we really are all looking for is something that tastes good, is repeatable and isn’t too complicated.”