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Healthy Competition: How This Champ Got it Done

Andrea Allen's victory isn't just a personal one.

by Team Trade | March 12, 2020

Reigning US Barista champ Andrea Allen wasn’t always standing in the winner's circle. But through hard work and perseverance, she brought herself, along with her hometown, team at Onyx, convictions, and those who had long been unrepresented to the center stage. Here, learn more about her journey to get there.

“Six years ago I drove away from the Big Central barista competition and swore that I would never compete again. I had just placed next to last in my first barista competition. I had broken a tea cup from my grandmother's china — my chosen wares for the milk and espresso course — and super glued it back together before using it later that day during my routine. I was three months pregnant with my first daughter. I couldn’t even taste my coffee without getting sick. And I wondered why in the world I had agreed to do this.

My husband Jon and I were working really hard to launch our coffee business, yet we were paying importers to just send us green samples and were not getting much interest in our wholesale program. Turns out being from Arkansas doesn’t exactly give people the best image of a high-end coffee program. We were looking for a way to prove to the industry that we were doing something special and different, and Jon, knowing me the way he does, knew that once I latched onto something, my competitive nature would not let me quit until I had won.

Turns out the shame I felt about doing so poorly only spurred me on to dig in my heels and come back year after year. I have made the finals of the US Barista Championships five times, three times placing second, twice being the only female, once being seven months pregnant with my second daughter. What I began to learn over the years was that what was important about these competitions was the voice it gave us in the industry. A barista competition is a niche environment. It’s essentially the top coffee professionals in the country gathering to compete, judge, and enjoy community. And this captive audience drives future trends in coffee and coffee culture.

Year after year, Jon and I chose to put deep-seated convictions ahead of decisions that may have scored us more points. We were working to promote our business of course, but we were also working on behalf of those whose voices were not present in competitions: producers, roasters, our own team at Onyx, at times women, and other minority cultures. The coffee industry is full of all sorts of cool sensory science, agronomy, and roasting theory. And for me all of that stuff continually points to the people in the industry. The beautiful thing about coffee is that at every point in the supply chain it’s moving through a person’s hand. Over the years I’ve seen this chain begin to look different. I see more women involved at every step. I see women pursuing and achieving excellence in every facet. And I’m inspired by those women who are not only leading the way for other women, but for the industry as a whole.

This year, I feel honored and humbled at finally winning the US Barista championship. The finals were filled with incredible people this year, the most diverse and talented finals I’ve ever seen. It looked much different than my first time competing at nationals where the finals were all men. This year — like every competition year — was filled with practicing on my off days and on holidays. It was filled with late nights of Jon and I talking through concepts, through workflow, through tasting notes. It was filled with my incredible team and family helping me, encouraging me, and watching my kids so I could practice.

I hope to encourage the coffee community to continue to push, to grow, to change, and to ask hard questions. The future of coffee is bright, and it includes all of us."

— Andrea Allen, Co-Owner, Onyx Coffee Lab