The best coffee maker in the nation serves up cups of joe in Pasadena.
BY: Sophia Kercher
Photos: Sara Smola
On a bright crystalline sky afternoon, Sarah Anderson, the best coffee brewer in the United States is at a table at Pasadena’s Intelligentsia Coffee absorbed in the book, Food and History by Reay Tannahill. “I like to make everything I can from scratch, especially things that I can eat because I can share them with friends,” Anderson says, her deep blue eyes shining.
The 28-year-old, who is a senior barista at Intelligentsia, is this year’s winner of the U.S. Brewer’s Cup, an annual competition where the best coffee makers in America compete to see who brews the best cup of coffee using what they call a “manual method” (think French press or pour over). The event is led by the same organization that stages the gastronome favorites, the Latte Art Championship and Barista Championship. “It’s underrated,” Anderson explains. “The barista competition, which features rock star baristas, is more widely publicized.”
At the U.S. Brewer’s Cup, hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, Anderson beat out 37 coffee brewing aficionados from all over the U.S. The main event involves the competitors presenting their coffee of choice in front of a judging panel, which tastes the coffee while hot, warm and cold (the coffee sweetens as it cools). “At Brewer’s Cup 80 percent of your score comes from how it tastes and how you describe it. So, if I give you a coffee and I say it tastes like blackberry, lemon and ginger, you have to taste all of those things and nothing else,” Anderson says. “If you taste other things that I didn’t describe, I could get marked down for that.”
Anderson, who lives in Los Feliz, is poised and knowledgeable about her craft. She has a degree in sociology and business from Chapman University but she says she knew even in high school that she wanted to get into coffee. She worked tirelessly for months before the competition, developing her palate and perfecting her award-winning brew alongside her Intelligentsia support team.
For her U.S. win, she selected a special Geisha varietal from a renowned farm in Bolivia called Finca Takesi that is unique because it grows its coffee at steep elevations of 6,561 to 8,202 feet above sea level. Her eyes widen, and she appears dreamy for a moment, as she recalls her selection. “This coffee was beautiful. It smelled like jasmine and it tasted like oranges and honeydew melon, and it was light and juicy—it was just beautiful.”
Anderson cannot only wax poetic about the virtues of the perfect beans while being both smart and charming but she has this coffee brewing stuff down to a science. The San Diego native went on to become a finalist at the World Brewer’s Cup, which took place this summer in Gothenburg, Sweden. Part of her success came from her impressive brew method that is part French press and part pour over. “You start with a glass container with a handle and just put the coffee grinds in there and hot water—about a 1 to 15 ratio, and then after a minute stir the top layer that floats up,” she explains. “I let that sit for another five minutes—so six minutes altogether—and then I pour it through a paper filter and let that drip for two and a half minutes.” The results were award winning.
For World, Anderson took a risk and brought a boutique species of bean, called Eugenioides, that she calls “the mother of all coffee” which she loved for its surprising sweetness, unique taste and scarcity. The world competition is different than the U.S. event in that one round involves competitors receiving a pound of the same coffee, and they have two days to experiment with it before the judges taste it behind a curtain to keep their votes objective. Next, the judges choose the top six competitors with the best brew to give a presentation featuring a coffee the competitor chooses. “I was the only woman to make it to finals, so I’m the best woman coffee brewer in the world,” Anderson says. She smiles playfully, “That’s what my mom likes to tell people.”
Pasadena Intelligentsia is lucky to have her talents. She has worked on Colorado Boulevard for more than three years, bringing her passion for coffee with her. Anderson says that because Pasadena is not as trendy as, say, Silver Lake, specialty coffee is still getting introduced to some people in the area. “Pasadena is a great city,” Anderson says. “And people are becoming more comfortable paying $5 for a cup of coffee because they are recognizing that it costs more to pay the farmers who grow the beans a fair price,” she says, adding, “They know what they are paying for—they are getting a really good cup of coffee.”
When she’s not at Intelligentsia or experimenting in her kitchen, Anderson plays around with letterpress arts or she will pop by other coffee hot spots like Proof Bakery in Atwater Village—where she orders her coffee black. Will she maintain her title as the best coffee brewer in the nation and compete in 2016? “Oh yeah, it’s addicting,” she smiles wide. “While you’re doing it you’re like, ‘why am I doing this?’ And then when it’s over you think, I want to do it again.”
Sarah Anderson’s Tips for the Perfect Cup of Coffee
The number of brewing methods for specialty coffee can be overwhelming. There are old-school percolators, vacuum pots and coffee cones for a pour over method, among a myriad of other options. But what does the best coffee maker in the U.S. use at home? “I’ll do French press if we are doing milk and sugar, but if I want something lighter I have a Chemex at home that I really like. Or if we go camping, I have an AeroPress that we use that’s really easy to use for camping—it’s all plastic so you can’t break it.”
Coffees vary by what region they are from. African coffees tend to be lighter and have more citric acidity while Central and South American coffees are softer, often described as having a cherry or chocolate taste and they have a more mellow acidity. “I like the Central and South American coffees for the first cup of coffee in the day and then something more exciting—an African one for the afternoon.” Make sure your beans are fresh—that’s what gives coffee its unique aroma and flavors.
It’s important to grind less than a minute before brewing to capture the best of the bean. You want a grind that’s not too fine so it doesn’t make the coffee bitter, but not too coarse so it doesn’t get sour. Experiment to find the best for your brew. Anderson advises, “There’s a kind of sweet spot so it should be sweet on its own and not too sour or bitter.” And if you want to take your coffee to the next level, consider using a kitchen scale to measure your grinds instead of a scoop. She recommends a 1 to 16 ratio for a French press brew.
There are two things to consider for water—temperature and quality. Anderson recommends brewing with water at 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit (which is just off boiling). She also warns that the biggest mistake people make when brewing is not paying attention to the water. In Los Angeles County, we have hard water that has such a high mineral content that Anderson says Intelligentsia uses two different water-filtering methods. “We have one that standard carbon filters out all the chlorine and stuff, and the other completely strips the water—so it’s completely pure and has no mineral content,” she explains. “And we have a little valve while we mix the two, so we have the exact mineral content that we want.” Intelligentsia is so dedicated to crafting the right water for their pours that they sell their filtered H2O in growlers at their Pasadena location. Anderson warns, “If you buy a bag of our beans and it tastes kind of funny at your house—it may be your water.”