When Kansas City barista Laura Clark filled out a scavenger-hunt BINGO card in January, she had no idea what was about to unfold.
She didn’t know it would land her in Melbourne, Australia, a few months later to participate in the biggest coffee event in the world and witness fellow Kansas Citian Pete Licata win the World Barista Championship.
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Nor could she have visualized the explosive effect it would have on her career — the Barista Magazine blogging, the networking among top coffee professionals and the future opening before her.
It’s a new take on a classic story, how a coffee-obsessed hipster found herself in the Land Down Under, drinking coffee with folks the likes of Reg Barber (maker of the finest espresso tampers), Mike Phillips (World Barista Champion and owner of Handsome Coffee), and Sarah Allen (editor/publisher of Barista Magazine).
The magical ride began in Kansas City’s Crossroads District, in a converted ballroom in January, when the Big Central Barista Championship (BCRBC) convened and baristas from 16 states competed under an historic chandelier for the titles of Regional Champs.
It was a three-day event filled with coffee, beards, iPhones and lots of caffeinated excitement. One of the sponsors, Natvia Natural Sweeteners, had a BINGO sheet for attendees to fill out, with squares for mustaches, latte art, signature drinks and other common sights at the competition.
First-time competitor Clark said she only entered because “they were giving away a bag of coffee with a completed BINGO board. As a coffee fanatic, I could not turn down free coffee.”
With the completed board came an entry in the all-expenses-paid “Send Me to Melbourne” competition.
To her surprise, Clark won.
Head barista at Homer’s Coffee House in Overland Park, Clark is relatively new to the coffee world. But as a graduate of the James Beard accredited Broadmoor Technical Center Culinary Arts Program, she’s been involved in the world of taste creation for years.
Her food and drinks blog, KC Morsels, chronicles her gustatory adventures in her hometown. Given her experience and aspirations, it made sense for her to compete in the BCRBC. Her signature drink used a Guatemala La Voz espresso roasted by local E.F. Hobbs, and focused on the theme of legacy: highlighting the hard work of the farmers and roasters who make coffee what it is.
“I wanted to pull out the flavors of the coffee in a simple drink everyone would enjoy,” she said. “I infused my espresso with cherries and candied ginger, then used equal parts espresso and sparkling water in stemmed glassware. I then lit a cara cara orange peel over the drink to add a light acidity.”
Her preparations for the trip to Melbourne drew on her background in art and her excitement about coffee.
“I knew that this would have a big impact on my professional coffee career,” Clark said. “As much as I wanted to have fun, which I did, I knew that I was going to network.”
Because this was a new experience for her, Clark wanted to make her business cards stand out from the crowd. Eventually she printed her own cards using a linoleum block carved with images of a Chemex and mug and hand-printing her information.
She also customized a pair of that hipster staple, TOMS shoes, by dying them in coffee. Being recognized in Australia because of her shoes by an Instagram follower was a triumph of social media for Clark.
Once in Melbourne, Clark enjoyed VIP treatment from the Natvia team, meeting many prominent people in the coffee industry and getting a peek backstage at the World Barista Championship.
“Not only did I get to see a lot of new products, but also to put faces and names with companies that I follow on Twitter or Instagram,” she said. “Each and every one of these people were easy to talk to, genuinely nice, and interested in my questions and opinions.”
A big highlight of the trip was seeing Pete Licata win World Barista Champion.
“Not only do I think he represented the United States well, I think he is awesome at representing the ever-growing Kansas City coffee scene,” Clark said. “To hear his name get called was just amazing. I was so happy, I was crying.”
Seeing the competition stage helped her realize that though it will take a while to get there, someday she wants to represent the United States on that level.
The trip to Melbourne has made a huge impact on Clark’s professional career, giving her more courage than before to pursue her passion for coffee wherever it may take her.
Stepping from the local to the international coffee culture has broadened her vision and helped her make the connections to move toward her eventual goal of owning her own shop. Realizing how little she knows has given her a new enthusiasm for pursuing knowledge of the ever-changing coffee cherry.
Now back in Kansas City, Clark is thrilled to be celebrating the magical beverage that brings people together all across the world.
“Kansas City, watch out,” Clark said. “Our coffee community is growing.”
Emily McIntyre is a freelance writer who specializes in covering coffee culture. A Kansas City area native, she pursues coffee excellence throughout the country with her husband, a roaster, and her toddler.