World Barista Champion Michael Phillips
Coffee talk with World Barista Champion Michael Phillips.
“Do you want something to drink?” Michael Phillips asks, as if there’s an acceptable answer that’s not “coffee.” We’re at the Fulton Market roasting works and training lab headquarters of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, where Phillips worked his way up over the last seven years from roasting-floor laborer and café barista to the company’s recently appointed director of education. The Michigan-raised 32-year-old has seen his mug plastered on the covers of coffee trade publications since winning the World Barista Championship in London last June. He bested java jockeys from more than 50 countries, preparing espresso and cappuccino for a panel of judges in a 15-minute choreographed performance set to songs like ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” As Phillips meticulously makes me a cup of Intelligentsia Sulawesi Toarco Jaya Peaberry, we launch into some coffee talk.
What do you think it says about our culture that being a barista has become a competitive sport?
It says the most about communication. Because of the Internet, coffee people started talking: “This guy in Norway is doing crazy stuff. He’s roasting the coffee lighter, pulling the shots at a different ratio.” New ideas that normally would’ve died out inside of one coffee shop gain traction online. And as soon as that started happening, it became, “I think my coffee’s better than your coffee.”
What annoys you about mainstream coffee culture?
That it’s become acceptable for adults to regularly drink 20-ounce hot chocolates, but it’s not presented like, “Here’s your 16 ounces of milk, four ounces of syrup and two ounces of coffee.” It’s presented as, “Here’s your latte” or “Here’s your mocha.”
Do you have nightmares about being in a place where Dunkin’ Donuts is the only coffee option?
I’ll tell you something that’s depressing and hilarious: I spend so much time flying to the L.A. Intelligentsia locations, competitions and conventions that I developed a kit that I can get through airport security so I can grind and brew fresh at 30,000 feet. There’s a mini digital scale so I can weigh the beans and water, a hand grinder, an AeroPress brewer—I’m very self-sufficient.
How has it been adjusting to being a coffee rock star?
I was recently flown to South Korea to help certify coffee judges. I show up and I’m signing eight-by-tens for a never-ending line of screaming South Koreans. There were two life-size cutouts of me, but for some reason the feet on the cutouts weren’t mine. I was like, “I don’t own those shoes!”