Catching Up with World Barista Champion Pete Licata

As we share H.C. Valentine with coffee connoisseurs across the country, we have the opportunity to meet many talented individuals who are passionate about coffee. One of those great individuals is our friend Pete Licata, 2013 world barista champion. At the 2015 NRA Show, Robert Cole, vice president of marketing, and David Strahl, specialty coffee manager, worked closely with Pete as he crafted specialty beverages for attendees who stopped by H.C. Valentine’s and our sister company Royal Cup’s booth.   

Robert and David sat down with Pete to discuss his champion barista skills, do’s and don’ts for baristas and more…

1)      Tell us a little about your background as a barista.

I started working as a barista in 2003 at a local cafe in Kansas City. Immediately I fell in love with the people and procedures involved in making coffee properly. Soon after, in 2005, I competed in my first barista championship and was hooked. I kept competing over the next eight years until I finally won the biggest award there is, the title of World Barista Champion.

2)      What inspired you to begin competing as a barista?

Meeting the reigning world champion from Norway, Tim Wendelboe. I saw skill, prestige, and expertise with coffee like I had never imagined before.

3)      How has the world of competitive baristas shifted since you first began competing?

There have been many changes, both in the focus of what the baristas are doing and the rules about how to compete. I would say that we have shifted from primarily being concerned about techniques and skills into an all-encompassing knowledge of product, from the farm to the cup.

4)      What is a common mistake you see baristas making that could easily make their beverages more dynamic?

I think there are two major things, especially when it comes to espresso drinks. 1. An even extraction of the espresso, ensuring that the water is flowing through the bed of grinds as evenly as possible. 2. Frothing the milk to the perfect texture and temperature. The second will make the difference between a perfect latte or cappuccino and a “good” one.

5)      What is your favorite origin of coffee?

I used to always say Kenya. They are commonly bright, juicy, dynamic and flavorful. This year I have been tasting some seriously delicious Rwandan coffees though, with floral, sweet and decadent flavors coming out.

6)      Do you prefer espresso blends or single origin espresso?

I almost always prefer a well-balanced blend. Some single origins can be truly amazing as espresso, but often they are too much of one thing and not enough of another. Sour or bright single origins make my mouth sad.

7)      What's the craziest drink a customer has asked you to make for them?

Espresso in Dr. Pepper. He even encouraged me to try it since he was so excited about it. Definitely weird in my opinion.

8)      What is your personal favorite specialty beverage?

Beer…but if we are talking about coffee drinks I would say one of the many variations on an espresso affogato. You can’t really go wrong with ice cream and coffee.

9)      What is your go-to method for brewing a standard pot of brewed coffee?

I am actually pretty realistic with my standard coffee first thing in the morning, and I use a BonaVita home brewer. When auto drip machines are made well and maintained they can make great coffee! If I’m getting fancy and doing a pour over I really enjoy the Chemex brewer.

10)   Latte art has become a phenomenon in the world of coffee. What effect do you think this added visual has on the coffee experience?

Latte art is a double-edged sword. Far too many baristas focus solely on latte art and never seem to make great tasting coffee because of it (which is kind of the point of coffee in my opinion). However, when done properly, a great latte should be an indicator for a customer that the drink they are getting is expertly prepared in both technique and finesse. It adds an anticipation of tasting that first sip, enhancing the overall coffee shop experience. 

11)   What European or international espresso drinks do you think will be the next cool thing in America?

Since the flat white seems to have taken off here in the US, I suppose we should start thinking about other trends now. The “shakerato” is becoming more popular, which is espresso with ice and simple syrup or sugar shaken together to make a foamy, cold espresso drink. It is an Italian drink that is actually not unknown in the US, it just hasn’t taken off as much as the flat white.