BY HEATHER WRIGHT — The folks at Vigilante Coffee Co. have a lot to celebrate these days: new cafe service style, new menu items, new location opening in College Park. Now they can add top-five roaster in the country to the list.

Chris Vigilante, CEO and “green buyer” of Vigilante Coffee Co., was rated as a top-five roaster at the 2017 U.S. Coffee Championship (USCC). The event was held as part of the Specialty Coffee Association’s Global Specialty Coffee Expo from April 21-23 in Seattle, Wash. The USCC started in 2002 and now has five different events: Barista Championship, Brewers Cup Championship, Cup Tasters Championship, Latte Art Throwdown and the Roaster Championship. Vigilante placed fifth in the U.S. Roaster Championship (USRC), which is designed “to highlight the art and craft of coffee roasting,” according to the USCC website. First-place finishers from all five categories will go on to world championships. The winner of the USRC, Mark Michaelson from Springdale, Ariz., will go on to the World Coffee Roasting Championship, held in Guangzhou, China, this December.

Vigilante explained that he applied for the USCC Qualifying Event last year but was waitlisted. This year, there were two qualifying regional “CoffeeChamps events” held in Knoxville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, respectively. Eligible for roaster and barista qualifying competitions, Vigilante, along with other competitors and staff from Vigilante Coffee, travelled to Knoxville in January, where he placed sixth (out of approximately 60) in the roaster competition. “I squeaked in,” Vigilante said, as only the top six finishers from each of the two regional events (plus the 2016 national champion) moved on to the USRC. Vigilante had less success in the barista competition, placing 48th and declaring it “a learning, humbling experience.”  

Vigilante said he drove across country to Seattle with Franklin Ventura, “[Vigilante’s] head roaster and a huge part of our team,” as his coach for the competition. The USRC consisted of two rounds. For the first round, according to Vigilante, roasters were previously mailed “a compulsory coffee” from Columbia: “a red-honey-processed coffee with features that made it tricky to roast.” At the competition, judges blindly sampled the compulsory coffee submissions and heard a brief presentation from each roaster, “describing the flavor notes and sharing green and roasted coffee knowledge,” according to the USRC website.

In the second (“selected”) round, roasters chose their own coffee to submit. Judges blindly sampled these coffees and then heard brief presentations about them.

Each round’s results comprised a tasting score (e.g., aroma, flavor, body, sweetness, etc.) and a presentation score (green coffee knowledge, roast knowledge,flavor description and accuracy, etc.). Points were deducted from the tasting score for any defects and from the presentation score for exceeding the time limit. Results from the two rounds, compulsory and selected, were combined to attain a competitor’s final score.

Vigilante had the greatest success in the selected round. He said that he submitted Vigilante Coffee’s Kenya Gathiruini because “it was our best coffee of 2016,” receiving 95 points from Coffee Review and becoming a staff and customer favorite. Vigilante received the third-highest score of 125.14 in the selected round. Judge Neal Wilson’s tasting notes proclaimed, “very well-balanced, really well-executed roast,” “tons of floral on the flavor,” “orange blossom” and “great sweetness.” Head judge Tony Auger’s notes on Vigilante’s presentation read, “awesome presentation” and “very professional.” Vigilante said that visiting the Kenyan farm in February gave him “more green knowledge” of the beans and allowed him to give credit to the farm in his presentation.

Vigilante said that his submissions’ ratings might have been higher if he and Ventura had not taken a 12-day road trip to Seattle. When asked what he would do differently next time, Vigilante said, “I’d get the coffee there faster,” and added, “I’d focus less on the presentation and more on the roasting.” Although Vigilante did well in the presentations (receiving top marks of 10s from all three judges in the selected round for his green coffee knowledge, for example), he said that tasting scores were weighted more heavily than presentation scores.

Although the length and variable conditions of the cross country drive may have compromised Vigilante’s coffee submissions, the trip was good for both business and team-building. Along the way, Vigilante and Ventura had pop-up cup tastings in a variety of locations, such as Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, Ill. Ventura said their pop-up at Goddess and the Baker, a cafe in Chicago, allowed them “to solidify the relationship,” and the cafe is now committed to carrying Vigilante coffee. Vigilante and Ventura also mountain-biked in Colorado and Utah.

One of the best parts of the trip was in coming home, however. Vigilante said he was touched and impressed by the reception that they and their successful finish at USRC have received since returning to Maryland: “The reception we received back home was phenomenal.”