You may have heard a short bit of our chat with Counter Culture’s Erin McCarthy in our Season 02 kick-off episode of Unpacking Coffee. Erin was the U.S’s first World Brewers Cup Champion in 2013 and heralded by Sprudge as The Best Coffee Brewer On Planet Earth. We couldn’t have been more thrilled to have Erin on the show.

Today, we’re sharing our full interview filmed during his recent stint as a barista at Seattle La Marzocco’s cafe. Our chat covers ground from coffee taste and place to Erin’s own home barista tips.

Interviewing Erin McCarthy at La Marzocco Cafe in Seattle

Our Conversation

Kandace: Can you just start out by saying your name, where you’re from, what you do?

Erin: Yeah. My name is Erin McCarthy. I work for Counter Culture Coffee out of New York City as a tech. That’s also what I do. I won the 2013 World Brewer’s Cup Championship. I started out as a barista and then kind of got into the competition circuit for like three years.

Kandace: You were the first American to win?

Erin: It’s true, yeah. Yeah. I started in coffee in 2003 for a roastery in upstate New York called Gimme! Coffee. Yeah. As a brief stint in Athens, Georgia where I roasted for a smaller roasting company, which was super neat to live there for a year.

Erin McCarthy Counter Culture Quote

Counter Culture drew me, it had like a … both the other roasting companies that I worked for too had a very kind of strong focus on real sustainability and quality kind of together and education. When this tech job came up, I had done a lot of barista training and some managing and I wanted to a different aspect of it. I thought, “Yeah, I kind of don’t know much about espresso machines.” I got to know a little bit working for Gimme!, because they had a really good kind of tech program there, but I was never a tech before this.

On Coffee Flights

Erin: I tried to kind of make it a little journey, if you will. The Gesha variety is an heirloom variety from Ethiopia. The seed that Moises and Marysabel, the producers, planted is the same the variety that can be found in Ethiopia and has been found for hundreds of years.

The SL28, the SL stands for Scott Laboratories and that was created in a lab with the purposes of higher production and resistance to disease for Kenya. What’s really neat about that is it’s one of the most popular varieties grown in Kenya, so when you taste this coffee it tastes like you’re drinking a Kenyan coffee, which is super neat. To kind of also separate that idea of a taste of place and kind of layer it, now like,

“Oh, variety can also taste a certain way. Even if you grow a Macintosh in Washington as opposed to upper New York state, tastes very similar, right?”

If we’re talking about Central America where these coffees come from, there’s really only a handful of varieties that have traditionally grown there. That’s because of kind of the way that coffee made it’s way around the world through the spice routes and the trade routes in the 1600, 1700s. It’s really all from one tree. One variety all descended from that. That means that when things get a little rough for one variety, a disease has the capacity to wipe out an entire crop. Whereas if there’s different varieties growing on the same farm, you have the ability to start shifting production from one set of coffee trees to another. That’s kind of a lot of what struck me as kind of the importance of talking about this stuff too.

Erin McCarthy variety quote

The way that, us, people in specialty coffee have communicated the way that coffee can taste, kind of on the timeline of that we talked about processing a lot.

You can do a wash process where the seed is taken completely out of the cherry and sat and fermented. It’s a stone fruit, so the fruit that hangs on to the seed, just like in a apricot or peach, same thing with a coffee seed, so try to get that off as much possible and wash it a ton. That gives a certain flavor profile no matter what coffee that you’ve used.

Then, there’s the natural, kind of traditional way of taking the coffee off the tree, cherry and just letting it out to dry. Then, the cherry, the fruit gets really hard. You have to crack it open at the end and the seed comes out, right? Because that seed is dried in the fruit it’s got a lot more of the kind of berry fruit taste to it, a lot more sugar.

There’s kind of that way to talk about coffee and that’s actually a really neat way to introduce coffee consumers to the fact that coffee doesn’t just taste like general, kind of, chocolate kind of taste.

Going further than that, it’s really just kind of more recently that we’ve started to introduce different varieties, right? You can kind of not just taste a coffee that’s a Kenyan coffee, right? You can talk about a Kenyan coffee that is SL28 or Kenyan coffee that is a wash process or a natural process. It’s pretty neat that the development of it there’s just so many layers you can open up.

Absolutely, yeah, yeah. That one you just picked up is the SL28. That’s the kind of traditional variety that’s grown in Kenya.

Erin McCarthy home brew tip

At home, I just a Chemex or a Kalita.

The first two years that I competed in the Brewer’s Cup I used a Chemex. What I would say to the home brewer is that the whirly blade one gives you a lot of different sizes of grounds. If you have a certain amount of time that you’re brewing the coffee in, the smaller grounds that are ground finer will extract really quickly. The bigger ones will extract more slowly. If there’s a really extreme variance you’re always going to get kind of weird tasting coffee that might be like a little on the bitter side, also maybe a little sour, kind of over check and under check at the same time. True burr grinder is the way to go. Also filtered water or just throwing your tap water through a Brita, feel like a lot of people do that anyway.

Kandace: I think that’s actually all that I had for you.

Erin: Awesome.

Kandace: Thank you so much for chatting…