Ultimo workers among winning bean brewers


Over the course of three days in Durham, N.C., hundreds of coffee professionals descended upon the Big Eastern U.S. Coffee Competition to earn a spot at the U.S. National Coffee Competition in Seattle, Wash., this April. With coffee professionals traveling from as far as Maine and Florida, South Philadelphia baristas thoroughly impressed the esteemed judges and placed extremely high.

The competition, presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Barista Guild of America, includes two regions (Northeast and Southeast) and two divisions (Brewer’s Cup and Barista). Both divisions offer distinctly different challenges.

With Brewer’s Cup, competitors are judged in a tasting round in which they all brew the same coffee and are judged and scored based on taste alone. If they qualify, they brew and present their own coffee. With the Barista Competition, participants must face four sensory (taste and presentation) judges and two technical judges (execution of best practices) and present each judge with an espresso, cappucino and a signature beverage from their creative coffee imagination.

Unsurprisingly, Philly competitors did extremely well, representing a varied cross-section of cafés, coffees and geographies. But the big winner was Erika Lee Vonie, a resident of the 1800 block of Sigel Street. She finished in second place in the barista competition and missed first place by less than one-half of a point.

“I’m really, really happy with my place and score at Big Eastern,” the Ultimo Coffee Bar, 1900 S. 15th St., employee said. “I put an incredible amount of time and energy into preparing for this competition, and I truly feel I earned the place I got. I’m only half a point away from the highest score this competition season so far.”

She was bested by one barista, Counter Culture Coffee in New York City’s J. Park Brannen.

Her signature beverage was called “Lovage on Top.”

“It is a savory sweet, cold coffee cocktail made of an infusion of lovage (an herb which tastes like savory celery) soda syrup with celery and fenugree seeds, mixed with Tairora Cherry Project espresso from Papau New Guinea, which is chilled, with a very small amount of lightly carbonated spearmint/cucumber seltzer,” the Point Breeze dweller said.

Her boss and mentor, Aaron Ultimo, was extremely pleased and proud with her performance and results. Ultimo has been working with Vonie and James Klapp, a resident of the 1900 block of Hicks Street, who snatched second place in the Brewer’s Cup division, for some time, preparing them for last weekend’s competition.

“I am incredibly proud to have had both our competitors place so highly in both the barista competition and the brewers cup in such an amazing pack of coffee professionals,” Ultimo, also the proprietor of a second eponymous Graduate Hospital location at 2149 Catharine St., explained. “They have been preparing for months against a very strict timeline… through repeated practice they found the best ways to brew [their chosen coffees] and present it. Both spent uncountable hours tweaking their brewing parameters and technique…and refining a script that completely conveyed the levels of attention that went into making it taste they way it did, from seed to cup.”

Ultimo and his family, residents of the 1800 block of Mole Street, chose South Philly after a stint in Washington, D.C. He fell into coffee nearly 13 years ago after graduating from Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa. But his deeper commitment to improving coffee options in Newbold took root in 2008, when he was approached by John Longacre, the owner of South Philly Tap Room, 1590 Mifflin St., and American Sardine Bar, 1800 Federal St.

“It was a great opportunity for us to fulfill our dream without the risk of doing it totally on our own in a ‘high profile’ location somewhere in Center City,” Ultimo announced. “I loved the romance of carving out our spot in an underserved part of the city that had the potential to become the hub of a developing community. Since we opened we have seen a tremendous amount of support from the Newbold neighborhood.”

It may seem trivial and confusing to folks who just like to drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, but the competition scene is rife with coffee-lovers who are dedicated to providing top-notch coffee experiences for customers. And these competitions are great learning opportunities.

“The best way to get better is to do this more and more,” the event’s organizer, Hugo Neuproler, a 32-year-old from Vancouver, British Columbia, who explained that the top six from each region go on to compete at Nationals, said.

Brian Gelletly, a barista at Fishtown’s ReAnimator Coffee and resident of the 1400 block of South Broad Street, made the trip as well. He’s no stranger to competition and missed entry into Nationals by 71 points (the winner claimed 623 points).

“I enjoy competing because there is a bit of notoriety within the specialty coffee industry for people who do well, and it’s a good way to make a name for yourself and your company,” Gelletly, a former Ultimo Newbold fixture, said. “Practicing for the competition makes you focus more on tasting critically and working to improve your ability to communicate concrete taste-based information related to coffee.”

In their 15-minute presentations (points are taken off for every second one exceeds 15 minutes with a disqualification if passing 16 minutes), competitors are wired for hands-free microphones. It’s often with their words that baristas win the high scores to accompany great taste and technical skill. Vonie’s performance, for instance, was jam-packed with roaster names, farms, dairy details and highly-specific flavor profile notes.

Todd Carmichael, of La Colombe Torrefaction, snagged the title of Brewer’s Cup champion, while Square One Coffee representatives from Lancaster took home third in the Brewer’s Cup division (Caleb Lewis) and fifth in the Barista category (Hadassah Wilson).

“I was so proud to be a part of the Philly crew at the Big Eastern,” Gelletly gushed. “This is the most representation of this city and area I’ve seen in the five years I’ve been aware of the competitions.”

Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.