In 1999 I came to the conclusion that I needed to either go back to school for my Master's or switch careers. And I really didn't want to return to school. So I asked myself, "If I could do anything, what would I do?" And I realized I had wanted to open a coffee shop for a number of years.
A month later I had it all planned out... I was going to buy a local espresso stand in a Seattle landmark carwash. Then at the last minute the deal fell through and I found myself out of a job. I decided it was time to get some practical experience in the industry, so I started my coffee career at a Microsoft cafeteria espresso stand while studying David Schomer's professional techniques for baristas. A few months later I joined Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company in the Greenlake neighborhood as a barista, then store manager.
I had the opportunity to attend the Specialty Coffee Association's annual trade show in Florida in 2001, which turned into a life-changing experience. It had been advertised that one could become a "certified barista" at the show. Turned out you had to participate in a competition to earn your certification. My wife recalls me calling her from Florida to tell her I was going to be competing in a barista competition and her laughing that it sounded ridiculous. So with no knowledge of what I was getting myself into, and zero preparation, I entered into the first of what would turn into many barista competitions.
These competitions have change over the years, but the gist of it was each competitor had to create three different drinks for multiple judges under a set time limit. The three required drinks were (1) a straight espresso, (2) a cappuccino, (3) a specialty drink of your choice, limited only by your creativity, but which should highlight and focus on the coffee. I achieved the goal of Certified status by producing said drinks, creatively concocting an uncomplicated mocha on the fly, but certainly didn't win any prizes.
The life-changing aspect came into play when that competition was immediately followed by that year's World Barista Competition. It was the second year for that particular competition, and the first time in the USA. The Scandinavian countries had been hosting similar events for years and the kinds of specialty drinks and top-notch presentations submitted by the European competitors were truly awe-inspiring. After witnessing their next-level professionalism, creativity, and serious dedication, I walked away from that event inspired and vowing to become competitive in time for the next year's Barista Competition.
Over the next year, I traveled with a small group from Zoka to Oslo, Norway, for their annual Nordic Barista Jam, where we were mentored, encouraged, entertained, and returned enthused and inspired. I started hosting weekly coffee cuppings from my apartment, encouraging our staff to develop their coffee tasting palate. I immersed myself in flavor pairings, cup sizes and shapes, and all the usual (and many unusual) ways to highlight and enhance coffee attributes.
The following Spring, our small group made the trek from Seattle to Long Beach, California, for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) trade show and North American Barista Competition (the only year it was actually called that). On Cinco de Mayo, just miles from my birthplace near East L.A., I was crowned the North American Barista Champion with my "Latin Love" specialty drink and much-improved performance.
About a month later I had the honor of returning to Oslo to represent the USA in the 2002 World Barista Competition (WBC) where I finished in 6th place. Subsequently, I participated in and judged a number of competitions around the globe; and also co-founded the Barista Guild of America to provide a support community for baristas: training, events, and community.
Meanwhile, I began an apprenticeship in coffee roasting under Zoka's then-head-roaster, Tim McCormack. Tim had roasted for Starbucks when it was still a smaller independent company, then co-founded Zoka with Jeff Babcock. I took over as head roaster while preparing for the NABC, so I was one of the very few who could claim to have roasted my own coffee for that event.
After that year's WBC I had several opportunities for travel, which began to include visits to origin in South and Central America. I was invited to Brazil for a regional coffee competition which would then determine their pricing for the year for that region's specialty coffees. It was an amazing and humbling experience, traveling to different coffee farms near Sao Paolo. I have since been to farms in most of the countries of Central America and have returned to Brazil, developing relationships with coffee farmers and importers, touring farms, and witnessing different processing methods.
Over my years roasting coffee, it has changed from what was once primarily dark roasts to the lighter roasts appreciated today for the broader spectrum of flavors experienced. I started the This Coffee Life project as an exploration of how different roasts and brew methods affect any given coffee, aimed at not just coffee enthusiasts, but also my friends and neighbors, and anyone who showed an interest. I enjoy hosting tasting events and pulling people from all walks of life in to do the testing and judging.
I enjoy seeking out and roasting the best coffees I can find. Many of the coffees I purchase are from very small farms. Sometimes the harvest is so small I will only get one chance to source that particular coffee. Join me on this journey around the coffee world, supporting small farmers, and learning all the nuances of each region batch by batch. Whether you like a pour-over or a shot of espresso, I have a coffee you would enjoy. If you are looking for something specific, reach out and let me know. I would be happy to roast something special just for you.
This project is a labor of love and I appreciate you trying out my coffee! Thanks for visiting!
Dismas E. C. Smith