Behind the Scenes: Starbucks Barista Innovation Challenge

When collaboration, cascara and competition collide

It almost feels like a scene out of a reality cooking competition. Glasses of all shapes and sizes and an array of ingredients are lined up on the table. The back room at the Starbucks Reserve® Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle is buzzing with energy. Baristas are stirring, shaking and sampling their creations. They’re getting ready for the Barista Innovation Challenge.

What started as a group of passionate baristas creating and sharing new recipes is now an official monthly competition. In collaboration with the Starbucks Reserve Brand team, baristas at the Roastery are challenged to create a new drink based on that month’s theme. After a few weeks of preparation, they present their creations to a panel of judges. A winner is chosen and the following month, the drink is featured at the Roastery’s Experience Bar.

“The Barista Innovation Challenge is all about the baristas showcasing their creativity and their ability to innovate,” said Steven Delano, a coffee master on the Global Coffee Innovation team and one of the competition’s coordinators. Delano is a former Roastery barista himself.

Watch as we take you inside the September competition.

The Theme: Create an experience featuring cascara. Chances are you’ve never heard of cascara, so here’s the scoop. Coffee beans are actually the seeds of coffee cherries. As the coffee cherry is processed, the skin and pulp are removed from the cherry and left out to dry. Voila, you have cascara. Fun fact: cascara means husk or shell in Spanish.

Cascara is often served on its own as a tea-like beverage. But the baristas’ quest was to create an educational experience around cascara and highlight it as an ingredient in a beverage.

The Preparation: A total of eight Roastery baristas participated in September’s competition. To prep, they held two play sessions. They experimented with different ways of using cascara and paired it with different ingredients, including fresh fruit and bitters.

The Competition: It seemed fitting the competition took place on September 29, National Coffee Day. One by one, the baristas presented their drinks, each one as delicious and creative as the next. There was a mix of hot and cold beverages, and they used cascara in a number of ways, including a cascara simple syrup. They drew inspiration from the history of cascara, their own family traditions, even the coffee cherry itself.

Three members of the Starbucks Reserve Brand team served as the panel of judges. I didn’t envy them in the least. All of the drinks were so unique and tasty — I couldn’t have picked a favorite if I tried. As they evaluated the drinks, the judges considered taste, creativity, whether the drink fit with the theme and how each barista brought the story to life.

The Winner: The honor went to coffee master Ian Harmon and his drink, dubbed Day and Night. He created an interactive experience: two drinks to first be enjoyed separately, then combined as one. Day featured brewed cascara. Similar to how you’d brew tea, the cascara is steeped in water to extract flavor. Night was made from Cold Brew coffee. He added a mixture of lemon, ginger bitters and demerara syrup to both Day and Night.

“It’s like a marrying of two ingredients that were never meant to be separated. Because ultimately, it comes from the same place we all love, coffee cherries,” Ian said.

Ian’s drink was available at the Roastery’s Experience Bar in Seattle for a limited time.

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