Kaley Gann, Messenger Coffee manager, wins big at first U.S. Coffee Championships held in Kansas City
Upstairs, in the quality control room at Messenger Coffee Company, manager Kaley Gann proudly brandishes what at first glance appears to be a white, ceramic coffee mug.
On closer inspection, though, there’s no handle, and the bottom is open, slotted with nine large square holes. It’s actually a coffee brewer. Gann designed it, and, last month, it’s what helped her place first in the U.S. Coffee Championships Brewer’s Cup.
“I’ve always liked it,” Gann says, of the Brewer’s Cup competition. “It’s a lot of science and chemistry, while still having some creative freedom. You can do a lot with it.”
Gann was one of three Kansas Citians that participated in the U.S. Coffee Championships, which was held this year in KC for the first time. Other KC competitors were Joel Bigelow, also of Messenger Coffee, and Gisel Alvarez, of Monarch Coffee. The latter two competed in the Barista Championship, another one of the five categories in the event.
“It was cool to feel like KC has progressed enough in the coffee scene to be able to sustain [the event] and hold its own with these people coming in from Seattle and New York and Portland,” says Bigelow, who’s been competing in the championships for four years. He and Gann coach one another in their respective competitions. “People from these major coffee cities, they’re coming and getting excellent coffee in Kansas City.”
All competitors in the national championships made it through several preliminary and qualifying rounds that took place over the last several months. Gann got her ticket to the national competition after placing second in the Denver qualifying round last December.
After that, Gann took the judges’ suggestions to be more innovative and started creating her own brewer. She also spent a week in China training with that country’s Brewer’s Cup champion, where she was introduced to the coffee that made her winning brew.
The design of Gann’s brewer allows for a finer grind, which Gann says results in a stronger coffee without any bitterness, and adds more flavor and complexity without muddling flavors. Because of that design, the judges were able to distinguish the flavors in the brew Gann presented them. She used Perci, a geisha variety of coffee grown in Panama by Ninety Plus Coffee, that Gann describes as a complex blend with notes of cherry cordial, berry rooibos tea, milk chocolate, and white wine.
In the Brewer’s Cup, competitors work with pour-over brewing methods. In the first part of the competition, brewers have ten minutes to give a speech driven by a theme that ties together the recipe, brewing method, and flavor calls, while brewing three cups of coffee, all identical in flavor that are then judged by three judges and a head judge. In the second half of the competition, all brewers are given the same blind coffee that they then have 38 minutes to practice with and draft a recipe for. They are then given seven minutes to brew three, identical cups for the judges.
“I didn’t even get the coffee I was going to use until, like, a week before,” Gann says. “We had one chance to roast it well, so we roasted it four days before I competed. So, literally, in two days I had to decide if I wanted to use it.” But, she adds, “Generally, if you have a brewer that you like, you can generally make any coffee taste good on it.”
Only four of Gann’s custom brewers — the K90 (Kaley, 90-degree angle) — are currently in existence, although she’s having more made for the World Championship. While Gann drafted the design and played around with some 3D printing to create the brewer, she ended up going through Convivial, a ceramic manufacturing company in the West Bottoms to bring the brewer to life.
Up against steep competition, Gann says she had no idea what to expect when it came time for the final announcement of the winners in March. Many of Gann’s competitors had more than her three years of championship experience and were people who Gann had spent years looking up to.
But Bigelow says he was not at all surprised when Gann received the top score out of the six finalists.
“I was going to be so surprised if she wasn’t going to be a finalist, and I was pretty sure she was going to win,” Bigelow says. “She had everything lined up; she’s such a good presenter. What she presented was substantial.”
With her big win at nationals, Gann advances to the World Coffee Championships, held in Boston, April 11-14. Gann says she owes her win at nationals to everyone who supported her on her way to the top.
“I didn’t feel like I won, I felt like we won,” Gann says. “It was just such a group that was pulling for Kansas City to win.”