Barista Andy Hao has been supplying Whitefish with specialty coffee for over a year now, but soon he will take his talents to the national level.
The Montana Coffee Traders’ barista, who works at the downtown Whitefish coffee shop, is set to compete in the U.S. Coffee Championship Barista preliminary competition in Austin, Texas, at the end of the month. Hao will be the first representative from Montana Coffee Traders to compete at the national level.
“I’m so excited,” Hao said. The competition is one of many held across the country in which baristas demonstrate their proficiency in understanding the intricacies of espresso, handling the technical aspects of preparation and mastering the many tasks of specialty coffee service.
Being a barista is “so much more than just making coffee,” Hao pointed out.
The preliminary round is the first stage of the national competition put on the Specialty Coffee Association, explained café manager Jessie Farnes. The national winner then has the chance to compete for the global title.
“I just hope I qualify” for the next round of the competition, Hao said. There can be anywhere from eight to 24 competitors at this level, with the top six advancing to the next stage. “All I want to do is learn as much as possible.”
The longtime barista has already learned plenty about the ins and outs of the specialty coffee business. Specialty coffee, he explained, is a designation from the Specialty Coffee Association based on the quality of the beverages and the service. He came to appreciate the diverse coffee categories after years as a barista.
“I always wanted to be a barista since I was around 17,” remembered the Los Angeles native who moved to Whitefish last July. “I knew I liked coffee,” particularly the aesthetic aspects of the beverage.
Starting at 18, Hao honed his craft at various coffee establishments, from Starbucks to ice cream shops that also sold coffee, to an internship with a small coffee shop in L.A. He said he has participated in a few “throwdowns” — “casual latte art competitions,” but the association preliminaries will be his first major competition.
“It just feels like a lot of pressure,” he admitted, but he said Montana Coffee Traders has been very supportive in sending him to the big event.
Farnes is confident in Hao’s ability to stack up against the best baristas from across the country.
“He’s what you call a ‘professional barista,’” she said. “It’s something he’s really passionate about. In his free time, he listens to podcasts about coffee and reads books about it.”
She said “working with someone with his energy and interest” in all things coffee influenced Montana Coffee Traders’ decision to send Hao to the national event.
Beyond flexing his coffeeshop chops, Hao is also looking forward to “mingl[ing] with a mass quantity of coffee snobs” and “see[ing] how things are conducted” at the event to bring that collective wisdom back to Whitefish.
Based on Hao’s experience on the national barista stage, Montana Coffee Traders may consider hosting one of the preliminary competitions in Whitefish in the next few years. “I see a lot of potential with the baristas here,” Hao said.
Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4459.