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Friday, July 9, 2010

Chicagoan Takes Title as World's Best Barista

Chicago Sun-Times

Four years ago, Michael Phillips was packing coffee bags in Chicago's Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea production facility and thinking he wanted a career as a coffee roaster. Today, he's the world champion coffee barista -- an honor bestowed on him late last month at the 11th annual world barista championships in London.

Back home now in Chicago, his victory still surprises him.

"I really didn't think my chances were that good because the competition from countries like Denmark and Ireland was strong," said the new world champ. He first began to develop an interest in good coffee while in college in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and later in Minneapolis, where he moved after college and developed a serious love affair with espresso machines.

Phillips bested baristas from 52 other countries to win the 2010 world title and become the first American to take home the trophy.

Phillips isn't new to the world specialty coffee-making stage. He was the U.S. barista champion for the last two years running, and he wound up third in the world competition in Atlanta last year.

This time around, Phillips wowed a panel of international judges with a carefully choreographed 15-minute coffee-making finale set to music of his own choosing, which even included a couple of peppy ABBA songs.

"I like music that puts me in a positive frame of mind," explained Phillips, who was required to prepare a cappuccino and an espresso for each judge, plus a specialty drink he created that was actually three different coffee concoctions made using beans processed in three different ways with three different taste profiles. The specialty drink that helped Phillips win the world title doesn't have a name because he prefers not to name his coffee drinks.

Phillips had to overcome one big obstacle he hadn't counted on to claim the 2010 world barista title. Shortly after he won the U.S. title a second time in April, he broke his pinkie finger playing kickball and was in an arm cast up to his elbow for 1½ months. After the cast was removed, Phillips spent most of the short time left before the world championships just getting his fingers back in working order and learning a new job at Intelligentsia, where he is the assistant director of education who manages trainers at the company's coffee maker bars here and in Los Angeles.

So what's next for the world's best maker of specialty coffee drinks?

"I have a job I love," said Phillips, "but I'm also going to be traveling a lot as a coffee ambassador and learning from some of the best people in the business."