A huge congratulations are in order for Joe Yang, winner of the 2023 US Brewers Cup Championship! Yang competed on behalf of Artly Coffee, but he is a very connected member of the Portland coffee scene, working with a who’s-who of area coffee bars over the years, including Superjoy Coffee, Less and More, Abba Coffee Roasters, Case Study, and Vancouver, Washington’s noted Kafiex.
There’s multiple extraordinary things about Joe Yang’s Brewers Cup Championship win. He had no trainer or coach, but instead learned about the Brewers Cup by watching previous champions on YouTube. He brewed on a unique flat-bottomed aluminum dripper sourced from a friend back in China. He ran out of coffee between Semi-Finals and Finals, brewing his championship round on a coffee sourced just hours before the routine. He moved to the United States at the age of 30 and used ChatGPT to help him correct grammar for his routine speech. “I feel like I’m an example of someone who can compete regardless of the barriers,” Yang tells Sprudge interviewer Seiji Nanbu. “I want to encourage every barista to compete.”
Seiji Nanbu spoke with Joe Yang in the days following his 2023 US Brewers Cup win. This interview has been gently edited and condensed, and is accompanied by competition photography from Sprudge contributor Elizabeth Chai.
Hey Joe! Thanks for speaking with me. How are you feeling now after your big win?
I was pretty emotional the first couple of days after it happened, and I was very surprised I won with such strong competitors. I was surprisingly relaxed for the Finals, since I didn’t really expect to win and just wanted to put on a great show. After I heard my name get announced, memories of all the effort I had put in over the last few years flooded my head. I know I put in a lot of effort, but I feel really lucky. I put so much passion and effort into making coffee, but at the end of the day luck is also involved.
I’ve been competing for years, but would always compete in different categories so it feels like I won pretty fast. By way of comparison, the new US Barista Champion, Isaiah Sheese, has been competing for like a decade and just never gave up and kept doing it. I think that always participating in latte throwdowns and continuing to work as a barista really helped too. I’m always purchasing coffee from lots of other people, mainly because it’s my hobby to try different coffees from different companies to try to figure out how to brew the coffee in the best way.
Tell us more about your winning routine from the 2023 US Brewers Cup Championship. What sort of coffee brewer did you use?
Everyone always uses the same kind of drippers in competitions, so I wanted to try something new. I also wanted to have something I could tell a story with, and since I bought my coffee online from a stranger, I needed to find something else to talk about. That’s when my friend from China reached out to me about a new dripper he was working on. The dripper really helps give the coffee more sweetness and has a good flow. Personally I really like using a flat bottom brewer since it provides a more even extraction. I usually use a Kalita Wave, but it’s hard to make coffee in a fast way and I want the shortest brewing time possible in the competition. This dripper has multiple holes in the bottom for a really quick drain. The dripper is also made of aluminum and has really good heat conduction, allowing me to use a lower temperature at the end of my brewing.
Tell us your background in coffee—where have you worked, how did you get here?
I started my coffee journey in 2010 in New Zealand, where I went for college. China didn’t really have specialty coffee then, so I tried it for the first time in Australia and New Zealand. I also got my first barista job in New Zealand. I later went back to China and opened up my own shop there. After a few years I decided to leave China and go study at a country with a stronger specialty coffee culture.
I decided to go to the US and chase the coffee dream in 2016. As soon as I got to the US, I went straight to Atlanta to watch the US Coffee Championships at the SCA expo. When I saw the big competition here, I started thinking about my future and what I wanted to do. I started working at Case Study and signed up for the Brewer’s Cup competition. Later on I found a space near Portland State University and decided to open up a coffee shop with the help of my partner who got us the money. During the pandemic I ended up getting a new job at Artly Coffee, a startup from my friend who used to work at Amazon. I started helping them by showing them how to make coffee the right way, since they are engineers and didn’t really have any coffee experience. I made sure they used La Marzoccos instead of automatic coffee machines, since I think it’s important we make coffee in the best way possible.
During 2021 and 2022, I opened two more coffee shops with some talented baristas at partners. Because of COVID-19, we ended up finding some great empty spots that we turned into Superjoy Coffee Lab and Less and More. Now they run both coffee shops and I just help support them. I also love to help new coffee people open their own coffee shop. I recently helped my friend Joseph open up Abba Coffee Roasters here in Portland.
What was your training like for your Brewers Cup routine?
I actually practiced everyday because I actually performed in two competitions this year, the Brewers Cup and the Latte Art competition. I had to separate my practice time, since I wanted to make sure I spaced them out. In the morning I’d practice for Brewer’s Cup and then practiced at night for the latte art competition. Since the Brewers Cup is so much talking, I’d practice in the morning in order to memorize my speech. In the evenings sometimes I’d go to Kafiex and they’d let me practice steaming with their Rancilio. They also helped me by letting me practice my routine with them, and giving me feedback. I didn’t really have a coach during practice, I’d just watch all the previous champions on Youtube and try to learn from those videos. During the championships I had a couple friends who helped me a lot, especially since I had to practice for both competitions.
What coffee did you compete with?
The final coffee I used was a Colombia El Diviso Anaerobic Sidra. For the finals I actually ran out of the coffee I was using. I had already given up on making the finals and packed up and sent all my equipment home. So when they announced I had made the top 6, I needed to find a new good coffee. That’s when my friend found me this coffee, and we quickly tasted it and went with it. I also decided to use a new grinder since my friend bought the new Comandante C60 and let me borrow it. I changed so many things before the final that I didn’t think I’d actually win.
That is an incredible story. Looking ahead, have you started thinking about the World Brewers Cup Championship yet?
I haven’t started preparing yet, but will definitely add more content to my routine. Talk more about the farmers and how baristas can contribute to the coffee world. Definitely going to switch to a coffee that I know in depth and have a relationship with. I will try my best, but I’m not going to worry about winning Worlds. I just want to finish in a nice way and stay positive throughout the competition.
How do you feel being a cafe owner has prepared you for this competition?
Being a cafe owner definitely gives an advantage for the competition because I can play around and practice at the shop. Also being an owner gives him more time and flexibility to practice and try different coffees. That being said, I think that all baristas should try to compete. I used to work at Case Study and the owner always tried to help me and get me whatever I needed for the competitions. Baristas seem hesitant to compete and ask the owners of the shops they work at for support. Having support is the most important key to competing.
Do you feel like language has been a barrier for you competing at all?
For me it definitely is. When I came to the United States for the first time I was already over 30. Learning English is really hard, so during the competition I had to kinda separate my brain to do Chinese and English and brew at the same time. I feel better about it now because of all the competitions I’ve entered. All the practice has really helped me get a handle on my language issues. This time I actually used ChatGPT to help me correct the grammar on my speech and also help me describe things. I prefer simple ways to describe things because it’s much easier to remember.
Do you think you’ll continue to compete in other coffee competitions after Worlds this year?
I haven’t thought much about the future, because I want to focus on the competition first. Personally I really like being a consultant in coffee, helping people start their coffee journey or shops. It’s what I really know and love to do. After Worlds, I will probably compete in USBC again and aim for the barista category. It’s a great way to keep up knowledge and stay in touch with what’s happening in coffee. I’m still young so I feel like I can keep competing a few more years. I will definitely need to find a coach for the barista category, since it’s the most difficult one.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
I would like to thank my family, because I had less time to take care of my kids while preparing for the competition. I have to thank the people who helped me during my competition, they really helped me dial in the flavor notes. I want to thank my sponsor, the dripper company who helped me with the dripper. My setup was very simple, whatever was cheapest on the internet. My tools were simple, and I hope other baristas understand its not about the tools. Money shoudn’t feel like an obstacle, there are a thousand ways to get what you need to compete. You also don’t need a coach, just use Youtube and have some friends who will taste and help you dial in the coffee notes. I watched a lot of videos of Elika Liftee (2022 US Brewers Cup Champion), and in everone’s videos you can take things that will help you with your strategy. Don’t be afraid, just compete.
Any last words for Sprudge readers?
I really want more people to join these competitions. I feel like I’m an example of someone who can compete regardless of the barriers. I want to encourage every barista to compete. After competitions I feel like people are able to see more of the coffee industry and it opens more doors for a career in the industry. If you love coffee, it can be a career if you find the right job.
Seiji Nanbu (@seijipdx) is a Sprudge contributor based in Portland, Oregon.
Photos by Liz Chai for Sprudge.