Seeing the coffee community come together over at the Barista Throwdown at this year’s annual Seed to Cup Festival was fantastic, caffeinated fun. If you haven’t been to the festival before, the Maui Coffee Association combines local coffee farmers, coffee roasters, and coffee brewers with food, chef demos, live music, the much anticipated throwdown competition, and lots of coffee to drink at the beautiful Maui Tropical Plantation grounds.
I had the pleasure of judging at the competition this year, along with Joy Marra from Maui Coffee Roasters, and Kiki Russel, an organic farm inspector. The 16 contestants were phenomenal. It’s harder than you think to make latte art with varied cup sizes, steaming pitchers, and machines that you’re not familiar with. Exactly how the milk foam combines (and doesn’t combine) with the coffee crema to make magic is the secret of the barista. While I’ve never been a barista myself, I have consumed nearly 1 million coffee drinks (a conservative estimate), and sucked up to a lot of them.
What? I need their special talents.
So what happens at the throwdown? Well, the baristas go toe to toe with each other to make the prettiest cup. The artist that wins each round moves on to the next level. Round one starts with a whole milk latte, round two is the dreaded almond milk latte, round three is the macchiato, and round four is freestyle. Everything moves really fast, as if we’re all drinking these coffees.
While I wanted everyone to win, the top barista was Mark Kove, a ringer from Kona. He brought his own tools and got nerdy during his freestyle round, which brought him the title. And as much as I wanted to be all mad that the title wasn’t taken by a Maui-grown barista, the fact is that Kona has a pretty strong coffee culture too, and (fine, I’ll admit) Kove is a really cool person. Second place honors went to David Kaye of Cafe Cafe, and third went to Silas Carpenter of Old Lahaina Coffee.
“I flew out in the morning for the throwdown and flew back to the Kona that same day on an evening flight… wish I could have stayed longer,” says Kove of his journey to Maui’s Seed to Cup. “I had a blast being part of the competition and mostly connecting with others who are passionate about coffee. Maui’s coffee community is full of some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Kove was representing White Nene Coffee Roasters, yet when I googled it, I couldn’t find anything about it. Before I called foul, I asked him about it.
“I worked for Daylight Mind Coffee Co. for two years as a barista and trainer,” says Kove. “However, it has always been on my heart to open up my own shop. I plan to open White Nene in Kona sometime at the end of this year. It will be a small roastery and cafe with the focus bringing the community together over the love of coffee. There aren’t that many specialty coffee shops here on the Big Island so I hope that White Nene will contribute to the local community by bringing delicious, beautiful coffee, cool hangout space, and great customer service.”
OK, that does sound cool. But I needed to know more. Kove told me about living on crutches and how the coffee community has been super accepting of living with a disability.
“As far as my crutches: Many people don’t know but I have a long-term disability,” says Kove. “I used to be a construction worker but I got into an accident when a house collapsed on me. I received traumatic injury to my spinal cord and doctors said that I would live my life in a wheelchair. So actually, I lived in a wheelchair in a hospital for almost two years after my injury. However, after those two years, I started noticing improvements in my legs and started to push myself to start walking again. Thirteen years later, I’m walking! Even though I’m still on crutches, my heart is full of thankfulness and I see so much of how I am so blessed!”
“The coffee community has always cheered me on. Even on Sunday when I was competing, it was astonishing how much support I was receiving from baristas and spectators who I don’t even know! All the words spoken to me after the competition has been so encouraging and full of support!”
He says his biggest support is his wife Sadie, who couldn’t come with him on Sunday because she was in a wedding that day.
“My biggest support is my wife… she has supported me throughout my journey as a barista. She has always encouraged to put myself out there and compete and show my latte art to the world.”
For Kove, coffee is all about connections.
“The thing I love about coffee is that coffee is all about people and community,” says Kove. “Of course you can enjoy coffee by yourself, but it’s so much better to sit down with someone, talk, and build relationships over coffee! I’m passionate about what I do because I am aware of how something as small as a beautiful cup of coffee can brighten someone’s day. What I love about the barista lifestyle is connecting with other people who are also passionate about coffee… learning and being inspired by one another. Also I love how I can express my artistic side of myself and my creativity through latte art.”
Mark Kove – White Nene Coffee Roasters, 1st Place
David Kaye – Cafe Cafe, 2nd Place
Silas Carpenter – Old Lahaina Coffee, 3rd Place
Julie Nguyen – Mill House Roasting Company
Luigi Bella – Independent
Elijah Wright – Hawaiian Village Coffee
Nick Love – Made In Hope Cafe
Drea Riggins – Crema Maui
Asher Boyle – Crema Maui
Lesila Halaliku – Maui Coffee Roasters
Naomi Smith – Wailuku Coffee Company
Angelo Bella – Made In Hope Cafe
Olivia Morris – Maui Coffee Roasters
Maria Oxenford – Wailuku Coffee Company
Alec Bayer – Wailuku Coffee Company
Blake Harrell – Sip Me