DENVER – Bayfield isn’t necessarily known for its great coffee, but in Shelby Williamson, the town produced one of the top coffee roasters in the United States. At the World Coffee Roasting Championship, Nov. 15 to 18 in Taipei, Taiwan, she will compete to prove that she’s the greatest in the world.
This is Williamson’s first year roasting coffee competitively at any level – her first competition was the Rocky Mountain Roasting Rodeo in October 2018 in Denver, where she now lives.
Willamson fell into coffee roasting almost by accident, she said. She first got interested in coffee while trying to pursue a different dream.
“I really wanted to open a bookshop,” she said. “If I could see myself doing something for a long time, I would love to open a bookshop.”
She said that when she really began thinking about opening a store, Amazon was taking over the book sales market, and for a bookshop to live, it’d have to have something extra – so she decided on coffee.
Williamson was living in Moscow at the time and didn’t know anything about running a coffee shop, so she sought out a job in the industry, eventually finding one as a production assistant at Corvus Coffee Roasters in Denver.
There, she became fast friends with Daniel Mendoza, who ended up teaching her how to roast.
“I was really lucky in that he was someone who was super knowledgeable about roasting,” she said.
After switching companies a couple times, Williamson now roasts coffee for Huckleberry Roasters, which has two locations in Denver.
Entering the frayWilliamson said she didn’t get into the competitive coffee roasting scene until one of her co-workers suggested she enter a local competition. Williamson won first place, and that qualified her for Denver’s regional qualifier for the U.S. Roaster Championship. She took second place at the qualifier, advancing her to the national competition.
She said that she was excited to be done with the competition, heading into the national championship in March in Kansas City. Outside of competing, she was trying to work extra hours at Huckleberry, which was going through a merger with another coffee company and was understaffed. But instead, she won first place, earning her a spot at the world championship.
Each country sends only one representative to the global stage, and Williamson is the first woman to represent the U.S.
She’s humble about that status.
“The way I always look at it is ... there are people who don’t compete who I know are much better roasters than I am – who I call for like, ‘Hey, I am confused, I need help right now,’” she said.
She said winning is validating because coffee roasting doesn’t have courses that you can take beyond the basics. It’s not something that you can necessarily get a degree in.
Mendoza, her early mentor, said Williamson is a great roaster because she is really particular, pays close attention to details and is well-organized. He said her ability to win competitions shows that it doesn’t take years of experience to become an expert.
“You just need passion and to be willing to learn and do what it takes,” he said. “That’s what she did.”
Competitive coffee roasting“Coffee roasting is really, really expensive,” Williamson said.
In the beginning, the organizers send every competitor 20 pounds of a coffee that probably costs $5 a pound.
“You can basically do whatever you want with it and use your equipment at your store to make it taste as good as a possible, she said. “Then you bring it to the competition and they taste all of them, they score all of them, and then you give a presentation on how you did that. Basically, you say, ‘Oh, I did these things, so therefore you should taste this.’ And then you get graded on how accurate that profile is for the coffee that you roasted.”
At the national competition, the roasting takes place on-site with a roaster that the competitors have likely never used before.
All roasters are very different – even two of the same model and the same manufacturer in two different locations will be totally different because you’re dealing with different altitudes, different humidities, different stack size – like your smoke stack and everything, which changes the air pressure, which changes the way that the heat is transfered inside of the coffee, Williamson said. “Roasting on a roaster you don’t know very well is actually pretty difficult.”
At the last stage, everybody gets the same coffee and has an hour to practice on the machine before writing a report on how they will plan to roast the coffee and then actually doing it. Once it’s roasted, the judges taste it (the competitors don’t get a chance to) and decide how well the competitors followed their plan and whether the coffee tastes like they said it would.
Competitors also have 30 minutes to do a green grading, in which they are given 350 grams of a green, or raw, coffee and have to give it a professional score on how well it was processed based on its density, moisture content and the like. At the world competition, competitors also have to make a blend of different coffees.
When it comes to the coffee itself, Williamson said the most important scores are balance and sweetness, but body, aftertaste, acidity and overall flavor are also considered.
Williamson said she has been training for the global competition by talking to every competitive roaster she knows and finding solutions to the problems they encountered. For instance, she tracked down the same make and model of roaster that will be used in Taiwan at a facility in San Rafael, California, and spent a week roasting on that machine.
“Even though it will be slightly different because it’s in a different location and altitude, learning the muscle memory of the controls is pretty important,” she said.
Coffee lessonsWilliamson said working in the coffee industry has taught her a lot and it has become important to her that people know where their coffee is coming from.
“Coffee that costs less than $5 a pound, roasted, is probably not farmed in the best practices,” she said. “Buying from small roasters is good because they have a greater degree of traceability on their coffees.”
As part of her job, Williamson goes to countries like Colombia and Costa Rica and visits the farms from which Huckleberry purchases coffee. Seeing conditions on the farms has taught her to be conscious about who farms the coffee she drinks and whether or not they are being paid a fair price by their exporters.
Williamson is content to keep roasting coffee for now, but she still wants to open that bookstore eventually.