Isaiah Sheese of Archetype Coffee in Omaha, Nebraska is the 2023 United States Barista Champion. Sheese has been a USBC staple since he broke onto the scene all the way back in 2009, at the South Central Regional Barista Championship in Austin, Texas. Since then, he has competed in nine seasons—making the national round of competition each time—and judging another two. Sheese’s USBC career has had a steady upward trajectory, making his way to the Semi-Finals six times before finally breaking into the Finals in 2020, where he placed fifth. Then, after taking a year off in 2022 (the 2021 USBC was canceled due to COVID), Sheese returned in 2023 to complete the story arc, taking the top spot and being crowned the US Barista Champion.
To say that Sheese put up a dominant performance would be a bit of an understatement. His Semi-Finals and Finals runs—Sheese earned a bye in Round One by placing second at Denver Qualifying Event—posted the two highest scores of the weekend by a fairly wide margin; his 661.5 in the Semis was over 15 points higher than the next closest score, put up by the then-sitting USBC champion and ultimate 2023 Runner-Up Morgan Eckroth. He turned the screws even tighter on his routine for the Finals, posting an astounding 672.
The 2023 routine had many of the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from Sheese after watching him compete over the years. His soft-spoken delivery gave a quiet confidence to his performance, with an intentionally-paced script that never seemed to feel the pressure of the 15-minute time constraint. And Sheese always brings an intriguing coffee. Eschewing the Geshas and Eugenioideses of past seasons, he opted for a Pink Bourbon variety coffee—a “happy accident” cross-pollination of Red and Yellow Bourbons, per Sheese’s routine, quoting the king of meditative delivery Bob Ross—but not like one we’ve ever seen before. Grown by Lucy Fernanda Galindez in San Agustin, Huila, Colombia, the coffee was then turned over to Diego Bermudez of Finca El Paraiso for his “thermal shock” processing method. (A washed version of Galindez’s Pink Bourbon is currently available from Archetype.) It served the lynchpin of what was a very pink routine—but subtly so, inasmuch as something can be subtly very pink.
With the US Coffee Championships now in the rearview, we spoke with 2023 US Barista Champion Isaiah Sheese to learn more about his routine, how it came together, and what we can expect two months from now in Athens for the World Barista Championship.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Hey Isaiah! First off, congratulations! How does it feel to be the US Barista Champion?
Surreal. When competing in any competition there are zero guarantees that you will ever win. This competition has so many variables and nuances, that I honestly didn’t know if I could ever pull off the big win. Luckily Lem, Pete, and Andrea all won after competing for quite a few years. Their example of perseverance helped to keep my hope alive.
You’ve had a steady upward trajectory at the USBC, and in fact, my colleague (Sprudge competition photographer) Liz Chai told me repeatedly that this was your year. Did it feel that way to you? What set this year apart from prior years for you?
Aww thanks Liz. This year has felt really special, but to be honest, so have other years in the past. I do however feel that this year has been the best representation of us as a company both in what we value and creativity. We also approached this season way differently than we have in past years. I don’t think we have ever been this strategic, looking at the score sheet and figuring out how we can get the points. Judging in the past definitely gave me a different perspective.
You’ve competed previously with pretty extraordinary coffee varieties in the past—Gesha, Eugenioides, etc—but this year you went with a Pink Bourbon, granted one with a hell of a story. What made you want to use this coffee?
We have been working with Kyle Bellinger of Osito Coffee for quite some time. He took Jason and I to Colombia in 2018. That trip left a pretty big mark on us. On that trip we met with the La Muralla group, and with Lucy Galendez as a member, we cupped her coffee. That group shared with us one of the most memorable meals of our lives cooked over a fire made of dried coffee trees. We have been buying all of her Pink Bourbon ever since, and buying La Muralla as well. I always knew I wanted to compete with her coffee, but just needed to figure out the best way to showcase it. Diego Bermudez was the missing link. With Lucy’s amazing coffee, and Diego’s next level processing, we knew if the forces combined, we would have something extraordinarily special.
It was a very pink routine. Pink shirt, pink sneakers, pink imagery, pink sig bev, even pink flavor calls (no P!nk soundtrack though). How did that all come together?
Maybe there will be a P!nk song at Worlds. How did I miss that? It was both a visual homage to Pink Bourbon and a bit deeper as well. We as humans taste with our eyes. Lucy’s coffee has always been pink in flavors to us. Adding color to the presentation I think helps to connect the dots to our tongues. It sets an expectation and can be subliminal in a positive way.
Tell us a little more about your signature beverage. It felt both technical and playful and was visually stunning with the aromatic smoke. Was was your process for creating it?
Honestly, this may have been the fastest I have ever created a sig bev. I knew I wanted to use the acids and sugars found in fruit to transform the peach notes of Lucy’s coffee into other fruits. So I started looking at scientific fruit charts that listed their acid contents. Then it all fell into place by applying scientific method with acids. Then I added the fructose. The hardest thing was finding the right fat to add to balance it. I felt in my brain there was a butter syrup somewhere. So I dug into my cocktail books and low and behold the Liquid Intelligence book saved the day.
We dubbed 2023 The Year of the Milk Course. You used a cryo-desiccated milk for yours. Did you try other methods before choosing the one you did?
I always try way too many things when it comes to milkies. I feel like it is the trickiest course to find balance in. I started with 3 different freeze distilled milks all at different ratios. They weren’t playing very nice with Lucy’s coffee. I’m not a fan of bullies, so I decided to give the cryo-desiccated milk a try. After finally figuring out the best ratio to use of cryo-desiccated milk to regular milk that worked best, we knew we had a match made in heaven.
You have two months until Athens. Are you planning on making any modifications to your routine?
Lucy and Diego’s coffee have gotten us this far, no way we are turning back now. We have just enough coffee to get us through Worlds. We definitely aren’t scrapping the routine, but we do plan to elevate it. With everyone of our routines, we have always had another element ready if/when we made it to World’s. This is our chance!
And how do you think the Bob Ross reference will play with an international pool of judges?
This is a very valid question. Thanks to ASMR and YouTube, Bob Ross has gained quite a bit of worldwide popularity due to everyone being locked down and stressed during the pandemic. However, we also have some other work arounds that should make the presentation applicable to all of our world judges, audience, and friends.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
First and foremost to Lucy and Diego for taking a huge risk on this passion project. Neither of them had to do this. It truly means the world to me that they trusted me enough to go through with it. Osito Coffee and The Coffee Quest for organizing all of the logistics. All of the sponsors and organizers that put on the USCC. Without them providing us a platform we wouldn’t be able to do what we love. The Archetype Coffee Staff for all of their support. Jason Burkum for coming along for this ride all of these years. My wife for letting me chase this crazy dream that didn’t seem possible. And lastly, everyone that has supported me all of these years when I didn’t know anything about coffee, didn’t have any money for all the things, those that have encouraged me, and cheered me on. This championship season is for all of you! We weren’t crazy, I just wasn’t quite ready yet. This is the year.
Photos by Liz Chai for Sprudge