Isaiah Sheese on Becoming the 2023 U.S. Barista Champion: Part Two
The owner of Archetype Coffee discusses his approach to competition, approaching the World Barista Championship, and much more.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo courtesy of Pacific Barista Series
Last month in Portland, Ore., Isaiah Sheese won the 2023 United States Barista Championship (USBC) in his eighth time taking part in the national competition. Isaiah lives in Omaha, Neb., where he owns the retail-roastery Archetype Coffee, which has three cafés and 11 employees.
Yesterday, we talked to Isaiah about orchestrating his 2023 competition coffee and creating his routine. Today, we talk to the competitor about his journey through Barista contests, his approach to the upcoming World Barista Championship (WBC) in Athens, Greece, and more.
Barista Magazine: You’ve been competing in Barista since 2009, but you sat out in 2014 and 2022, and judged instead. How did those two years help you as a competitor?
Isaiah Sheese: If you look at the history of me competing, I’ve placed in the top six I believe in every regional or qualifier I’ve competed in, with the exception of one. But it wasn’t until after I’d judged that I felt like I was actually playing the same game that everyone else was. Because you read the rules as a competitor, but it’s not how you read them, it’s how you’re interpreting them and applying them. Before I judged, and never having anyone on staff that had judged, I could play the game at the regional level, but at the national level, I was missing a lot just by not understanding things.
Archetype’s roaster Jason Burkum has been your key collaborator for most of your USBC routines, including this year’s winning one. Can you talk about that partnership?
He’s my partner in crime; it’s really a huge collaboration. I always write the script—the words have to be mine because of the way my brain works—and then he’ll go over it. And we’ll collaborate on the tasting notes, and on the sets. This time, he’s the one who basically created the sets, working with a carpenter in town. So yeah, it’s a lot of co-creating together on different sides of the thing.
You won the 2023 USBC, but you also competed in the U.S. Brewers Cup this year and placed 14th?
(Laughs) Yeah. Jesús Iñiguez from our team came in fourth at U.S. Brewers Cup this year. But early in the competition season, I wanted to light a fire under Jesus, so I told him I was going to compete in Brewers Cup and beat him. I registered for the qualifier in Baltimore and placed second, so I competed at nationals in Portland.
But it was way harder than I anticipated. Doing two competitions at once, man, it splits your brain. One was going to suffer, so I really just focused on Barista and then I was like, I’ll go and do the best that I can in Brewers Cup. I did not have the mental capacity to commit to both. But I can still say I’m top 15 in the U.S. in Brewers Cup, right? (laughs)
You’ve competed in Barista since 2009 and finally won the USBC. How have you been processing that and feeling about it?
It’s super humbling. It’s definitely been a really long journey. And I would say that in my early years of competing, I don’t think I would have been a good champion. I didn’t put in the work like I should have. I always justified it like: Well, we don’t have a training lab, and I work bar five, six days a week. But those are excuses. If you listen to any champion, the one thing you can’t have is excuses.
I think I’ve matured a lot on both sides of things. I think trying to win back then, it was more or less trying to prove something. And in this competition, when you’re truly an ambassador, I don’t think it’s about proving something. I think it’s about who you’re representing. You’re not just representing your coffee shop, you’re representing the specialty-coffee industry. We’re supposed to be serving our community, helping people, and being an example, and I think that’s definitely more of where my heart is now than it was back then.
You said a while ago that you’re trying to grow slowly and responsibly with Archetype. It sounds like your progress in competition is similar.
Absolutely. It took building a lot of relationships over the years to be able to pull this off. People are important. As much as I love coffee and I want to produce the best coffee that we can, I don’t want to do it stepping over people. I believe there’s a way that you can do business where you’re taking people along with you and building people up and encouraging them.
With Archetype, business is hard. Making money and being successful is a really hard thing. And the path that most people would often take is the easier path, and that’s just money, money, money. Relationships take a lot of time and a lot of effort, but that’s always been a value of ours. So it’s just trying to grow responsibly and trying to incorporate those things in every area of our lives, from the community that we have here to our farmers and our importers.
You’ll compete at the WBC in Athens in June. Do you think you’ll change much for the world stage?
We have another idea for Worlds that we’re hoping to execute. It’ll be similar, but we want to elevate it. The goal is always: How can we push it? How can we introduce something new? The script will probably be pretty similar, but the mechanics of how we’re doing things will probably be different because we can choose from nine different stage setups, which is not an option we get at the U.S. competition. So that gives us more opportunities to do some interesting things.
The other thing is, I can only do what we do. You have to figure out what your game is and learn how to play it, and play it well. We’ve always had a really small team. We always bring other voices in, with opposing opinions, just to check ourselves. But at the end of the day it’s just you on that stage, and you have to be able to 100% believe what you’re doing. So we will do what we do.
Source: Barista Magazine