Jake Donaghy on Competitor Camaraderie and Becoming the U.S. Cup Tasters Champ

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A first-time competitor and experienced cupper, Jake relied on his palate to win the national competition in Portland, Ore., in April.

BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Featured photo by Nathan Hanna

Jake Donaghy has spent a decade in coffee, but he’d never graced a coffee competition stage before this year. A green-coffee buyer and roaster for Olympia Coffee Roasting—which has sent many competitors to U.S. CoffeeChamps events—Jake earlier this year was persuaded by Olympia Coffee competitors Sam Schroeder (the company’s co-owner) and Reyna Callejo to throw his hat in the ring in the Cup Tasters event.

After placing fourth at the Denver qualifier in March to earn a spot at the national championship in Portland, Ore., in April, Jake excelled in the competition—correctly identifying eight out of eight coffees in all four rounds—to become the 2023 U.S. Cup Tasters Champion. (His Olympia colleague Sam won the U.S. Coffee in Good Spirits Championship as well.) Jake will travel to Athens, Greece, this month to represent the U.S. at the World Cup Tasters Championship.

We talked to Jake to learn more about his recent competition experience.

Jake holds up a black cupping vessel in his right hand. Rows of matching vessels are lined up on the table in front of him.
Jake identifies the odd coffee in triangulation during the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship. Photo by Nathan Hanna.

Barista Magazine: First, how and when did you start working in the coffee world?

Jake Donaghy: I started in coffee around 10 years ago. I was doing public health work in the Peace Corps in Tanzania; I lived right on the border of Kenya for a few years, in a coffee-producing community. I’d gotten involved in an income-generation project with a group of women that were caring for children with HIV, and I kinda decided that coffee was a lot more fun than public health. I decided that if I could make it work, I’d like to try and pivot to coffee. As soon as I finished my Peace Corps service I moved to Seattle, and have continued working in coffee ever since.

Where did you work back in the States, and how did you end up joining Olympia Coffee Roasting?

Once I got back to the U.S. I had to start from scratch a bit, but with my experience in Tanzania, I got a job working as a barista and then also as a barista trainer, and then assistant green buyer, all at Seattle Coffee Works. After that I worked for an exporter in Mexico, doing quality control for a harvest. And then in 2021, I think, I saw that there was a position open at Olympia Coffee for a roaster/green buyer, and I applied. I’d always wanted to move to Olympia and really respected the company a lot. And everything kinda fell into place.

Jake tastes from a white mug.
Jake tasting during the competition. Photo courtesy of the Specialty Coffee Association.

On to Cup Tasters: Was this your first time competing in a U.S. CoffeeChamps event?

This was my first time ever competing. I definitely wouldn’t have even really thought to do it unless Sam and Reyna, who were going to the CoffeeChamps qualifier in Denver in March, had been like, you should compete, it’ll be really fun. And I was like, well, all right, if you guys are, it seems like a fun excuse to go to Denver and hang out and meet people and see old friends from the industry.

You qualified for nationals at the Denver qualifier; did you do much to prepare for the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship between the qualifier and the national competition?

Uh, not really. I do production cuppings every day, and I try to be intentional about it I guess. I also had buying trips before both competitions, so, I guess that’s pretty good practice in itself too because you end up trying tons of coffees that are the same variety grown hundreds of feet from each other, so they’re very similar and you have to disentangle the differences. I feel like that’s kind of training in itself; I guess I was pretty lucky that I was able to just use my work as a way of training.

Jake with the announcer at the competition.
Jake, a green-coffee buyer and roaster for Olympia Coffee, with emcee Maria Cleaveland during the U.S. Cup Tasters Association. Photo by Nathan Hanna. 

Can you talk through round by round how you approached it and performed?

I think in the first round I took second in my heat; we both got eight out of eight coffees correct, and he edged me out on time. And then the second day I think I was number one for that day.

For the final round, I decided I should just go for speed because everybody had been finishing pretty close. For the first rounds, I had been double- or triple-checking my cups before sliding anything forward for each set. And then I was doing that for the first three or four sets in the finals, and I realized, why am I doing this? I should just be going as fast as possible. So then after the first three or four sets I would put my first guess forward, and then I ended up having my fastest time; I beat my personal best by over a minute or something. (Jake and second-place finisher Andrew Shelley each went eight for eight in the final round, but Jake won with a time of 2:22 compared to Andrew’s 3:36.)

Jake hugs a friend.
Jake is congratulated by Ignacio Umaña from Caravela Coffee after winning the competition. Photo by Nathan Hanna.

What are your initial thoughts about representing the U.S. at the World Cup Tasters Championship in Athens?

I’m really excited to be able to represent the coffee community from the U.S. I think that’s gonna be really fun. And I can’t wait to meet the competitors from other countries; I think those are probably friends that I can meet and then end up seeing at other coffee events in the future. I think that’s the part that I’m most excited about—that, and renting a scooter. I’m very, very excited. I feel so lucky to work for a company that supported me and paid for my flight and lodging through the whole process. It’s been wonderful.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just think the competitions are a really fun thing, and I’m glad they exist. I think they really do bring people together. I had an absolute blast the whole time we were in Portland. Whether I’m competing or not next year, or maybe judging, I would like to continue to be involved in some way.

Source: Barista Magazine

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