Kaley Gann of Messenger Coffee in Kansas City, Missouri is your 2019 US Brewers Cup champion. After a second place finish at the Denver Qualifying Event, Gann—the hometown favorite—took an early lead and never looked back. This is Gann’s first win in three years competing, besting her third place finish from the 2018 US Brewers Cup. In the first round, Gann edged out perennial US Brewers Cup Finalist Jacob White of Bird Rock Coffee for the top spot by a mere .13 points, thanks in no small part to her third-highest scoring compulsory coffee. But for the Finals, she increased her Open Coffee score by over three points, an astronomical leap in the game of millimeters that is the Brewers Cup. Gann’s 91.35 Finals was the third-highest score in the entire competition, less than a point behind Klatch‘s Jennifer Hwang and the aforementioned White (don’t phone in your compulsory coffee, y’all).
Even as a return Finalist, Gann was by no means the heir apparent; she was up against a murderer’s row of competitors, including four other return Finalists in Hwang, White, 2017 runner-up Chelsea Walker-Watson, and multi-time Finalist Justin Goodhart. The only non-Finalist in the mix, first-time competitor Lance Hedrick, is an accomplished Latte Art competitor who represented Onyx Coffee Lab, a Finalist in just about every event at the US Coffee Championships and the home of the 2017 Brewers Cup Champion Dylan Siemens. There was no clear favorite this year; it was truly a dice roll.
But Gann’s performance had all the hallmarks of a high-scoring routine, both in the US and at World’s: an exotic and well-renown coffee, a custom brewer, meticulous detail in her script, and an out-of-the-ordinary brew recipe (190°F water? 28g water bypass? What?). And while these are all interesting details that make the Brewers Cup such an exciting competition to watch, what set Gann’s routine apart was her ability to nail her flavor calls. As Counter Culture‘s Kathy Altamirano—Gann’s Head Judge during Round One and her Sensory Judge during the Finals—tells Sprudge, “Kaley named cherry cordial as a flavor call and it was exactly that. It was a flavor that stayed in the cup from hot to cool.”
In the end, after all the scores came in, what looked to be a dice roll was anything but. It was a top competitor starting strong in Qualifiers who only got stronger as the competitor wore on. To find out more about her winning routine, her coffee, and her new brewer, Sprudge caught up with Kaley Gann digitally from her home in Kansas City, Missouri.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us a little about your history in coffee? How did you get started? What’s your current role with Messenger?
I started in coffee almost nine years ago and worked for Kaldi’s Coffee in Columbia, Missouri. I was the General Manager of the cafe there then moved to Kansas City almost two years ago to work with Messenger. My current role at Messenger is Cafe Operations Manager.
Can you tell us more about Perci, your winning coffee?
The coffee I used is a natural Gesha from Ninety Plus Coffee. It’s grown in Panama and undergoes a unique uneven fermentation process that makes it very complex and overall interesting. I first tried this coffee in China when I was working with [multi-time Chinese Barista Champion] Jeremy Zhang and (current Chinese Brewers Cup champion) Du Janing and really enjoyed how it tasted, especially because it was so different. They gifted me 11 kg of green Perci to take back to the States and roast for competition.
I really enjoyed the coffee in China but was unsure of how well we can roast it, especially with only having enough for one roast. I had another speech and another coffee ready in case the Perci didn’t taste great after roasting it. So, two days before I competed in the first round I decided which coffee and speech I was going to use—our roaster Kiersten Rex totally nailed the Perci roast and it tasted great so we used it!
We have to know more about your custom brewer. How did it come to be?
The brewer! My favorite part. I had this dream design for a while now. I wanted a brewer that was completely open on the bottom and a straight-up 90 degree angle, because I wanted as little influence from the brewer as possible. So, no restrictive holes or angles that would influence speed or muddle flavors. I noticed that each competition season I use a brewer that has a steeper angle and a more open bottom (i.e., V60 to Saint Anthony C70) and I noticed I loved the resulting super quick extractions because I could grind finer, get more flavor/complexity, while keeping the brew super clean. So, I wanted a brewer that was as steep and as open as possible.
I made a couple of prototypes that were horrible and ugly, but I am not great at making things (admittedly). So, I went to Convivial with the design and they were able to make the brewers. The bottom is still very open with just a few ceramic beams to support the filter, so the extraction remains very fast. What I found was better than I ever imagined: higher extraction yields, more flavor, easy and quick brew, and SUPER clean and clear. As far as filters go, both Fellow Stagg filters and Kalita filters fit in the brewer, but I used the Kalita because they are a bit thinner and allowed quicker flow rate.
I would love to partner with a company that already makes brewers and refine the design. In working with ceramics there can be some small inconsistencies but that could be eliminated when using 3D printing and consistent mass manufacturing. I want to call it the K90 (Kaley, 90 degree angle) because it’s simple and fun.
Will the K90 be available for purchase?
Stay tuned! I’m hoping to look into this after Boston.
You finished second in the Denver Qualifiers and had the highest score going in the finals. How were you feeling heading into the Finalists announcement? Did you feel like your name was going to get called?
The finalists announcements were so stressful. It’s so hard being the last name called. I was surprised because anything goes in these competitions, and I was surrounded by so many ridiculously talented competitors. I went into this year already stepping out of my comfort zone and doing something different (unfamiliar coffee, custom brewer) and I honestly wasn’t sure how either would be received; however, I went into it knowing that I did my absolute best, took feedback from last year’s national competition, and changed how I approach competition as a whole.
It’s fair to say based on your reaction that you were surprised that you won. What did it feel like when Justin’s name was called and you realized that you were the new US Brewers Cup champion?
It felt amazing to win and I was relieved/surprised because, again, I went way outside my comfort zone for this competition—but what I enjoyed the most was being able to stand up next to five wonderful people who I have an immense amount of respect for and who represent the industry well. Any one of those people could have won and I would have still been very happy.
Are you going to be updating your routine for the World Brewers Cup?
I will be using the Perci again for the world competition but will need to refine my speech a bit to make the language more accessible to judges. It will be similar to Nationals, I think.
If you could brew coffee for any person, living or dead, who would you brew for and what would you brew?
Ray Bradbury, all the way.
Do you have any advice for those wanting to compete in the Brewers Cup next year?
If you have a good idea, but lack confidence in execution, just do it. Go for it. It might be terrible, it might be amazing. You really don’t know until you put yourself out there and try. Step outside of your comfort zone in order to grow and broaden your horizons.
Lastly, are there any people you want to thank? Coaches, teammates, friends, relatives, pets?
Kate Blackman (mentor), Joel Bigelow (coach), Jeremy Zhang (mentor/friend), Du Janing (friend, fellow competitor), Matt Foster (friend, CIGS champion!!), EVERY single Messenger employee, sponsors, Sam (husband), Convivial… I have had more help and guidance this year than any other season and I am eternally grateful. I’m not representing myself—I’m representing an entire team and all I want to do is make them proud.
Thanks Kaley! We’ll see you in Boston!
Photos by Elizabeth Chai and Charlie Burt for Sprudge.
SprudgeLive’s coverage of the 2019 US Coffee Champs is made possible by Joe Glo and Mahlkönig. All of SprudgeLive’s 2019 competition coverage is made possible by Acaia, Baratza, Faema, Cafe Imports, and Wilbur Curtis.