Kyle Ramage laughs when you ask him if he feels like a celebrity.
“Maybe a Z-list celebrity,” he responds.
In the niche world of specialty coffee, Ramage is now a champion. Last month, he won the 2017 Barista Championship in Seattle, an elite industry competition that sends its winner onto the World Barista Championships.
It’s a competition normally dominated by baristas from San Francisco or New York, but Durham is on a hot streak.
Ramage works in Durham at Mahlkönig USA, a subsidiary of a German maker of high-end commercial coffee grinders that is based in an office park next to Bennett Place State Historic Site.
Last year, the winner was Lem Butler, a Durham-based coffee roaster at Counter Culture Coffee. Butler coached Ramage throughout the process.
The win cements the Southeast as a serious coffee region in the barista world, Ramage said.
“I am still kinda processing it myself,” he said, noting that the region has a slight chip on its shoulder. “For the Southeastern coffee culture, you cannot deny us anymore, and you can’t look down on us.”
Behind the bar
Ramage is the first winner to come from outside a coffee shop or roastery, but he spent years behind the coffee bar.
Originally from Mississippi, the 29-year-old moved to the area to study theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and began working at Jubala Coffee, a shop in Raleigh, while he was in school.
Butler, the former U.S. champion, first met Ramage at Jubala, when he was the Counter Culture customer support representative for the cafe.
“He’s an amazing guy, and what I really like about him is his skills as a coffee maker have exploded since I first met him,” Butler said.
Ramage said he fell madly in love with coffee at Jubala, before deciding to make coffee a career at Mahlkönig. He still remembers the cup that made him a true believer – a coffee from the Ethiopian Konga Cooperative roasted by Counter Culture.
“It melted my brain for what coffee could be,” he said.
While he talks, Ramage offers a cup of coffee he used for the competition in Seattle. It’s a Panamanian coffee that he’s obsessed with.
“You are drinking a coffee right now that presents flavors of white flowers and jasmine and tons of different citrus like stone fruit, and even malic acidity like in apples or tangerines and peaches,” he said. “There are all these crazy flavors that until you experience it you don’t think of coffee that way but ... it’s really captivating.”
The coffee retails at more than $100 a pound, and Ramage knows every intimate detail about it: the farmer, the elevation, the lot size and the day the beans were picked.
“That is one of my huge goals. I want to humanize these coffee farmers so that maybe coffee costs a little bit more but then we can pay (farmers) more,” he said. “For example, this coffee comes from Jose Gallardo, he is a third-generation coffee farmer.”
The barista competition is staged in three courses and with seven judges. The first course is an espresso drink, the second is a milk-based one, and the third is a specialty drink that requires the barista to conjure up a creative new drink. Ramage’s specialty drink involved mixing espresso, dark honey simple syrup and a tea brewed with hops – a concoction he swears comes out tasting like a bitter Earl Grey tea.
What made Ramage’s 15-minute presentation stand apart from the competition? Dry ice.
Pulling from a scientific paper on coffee’s reaction to temperature, he stored all of the beans he used on dry ice, which has a temperature of minus 109 degrees Fahrenheit. The brutal cold makes the beans brittle and more likely to grind into similar-size pieces, creating a more even brew.
He quickly begins to sound more like a chemist than a barista.
“It changes how it physically responds to the grinding process,” he said. “It’s crazy when we are talking about coffee grinding, we are looking at these really tiny particles and how they react to water. For most people, they have probably never even thought that was a thing.”
With a winning margin of only four points, Ramage thinks the scientific presentation helped put him over the top. The victory means that he will now head to Seoul, South Korea, to compete in the 2017 World Barista Championship in November.
Butler thinks Ramage will perform well in Seoul.
“He’s kind of mastered his nerves a bit,” he said. “You’re competing against yourself more so than other competitors.”
But before then, he’ll travel to Central America and Brazil to visit coffee farms and press events in New York and elsewhere.
Of course, he’ll also spend hours and hours of practicing. He estimates he has already put hundreds of hours in – though he still doesn’t feel anywhere close to being the best barista in the country, let alone the world.
“It feels good; I don’t want to say that it doesn’t,” he said. “I won the competition, but I am not the best … luckily my coffee tasted really good two days in a row.”
Making an exceptional cup at home
“People ask me all the time about doing an espresso at their house, but you should probably go to the coffee shop and buy it,” Kyle Ramage says.
If you want to make great coffee at home, the best investment is in a nice grinder and brewer. For those who really want to make a commitment, you can make a phenomenal cup with about $250 in investment, he says. He suggests Baratza grinders and Bonavita coffeemakers.
But don’t forget water quality as well. “Water is incredibly important; it can dramatically change the way coffee tastes,” he says.
The Triangle has relatively decent tap water, but Ramage says he still uses an odor and taste filter before brewing.