Baristas from around the country faced off in Boston recently to determine who brews the best cup of coffee in America. Philadelphia’s entry into the national competition is drawn to the work, even though it’s bad for his health.
For many people, the criteria for a good cup of coffee can simply be that it’s warm and potent. But for Brian Gelletly, it’s much more than that.
“Really great coffee, it’s totally different than your normal experience with coffee,” said Gelletly. “You’re not thinking about ashiness and like overwhelming bitter flavors. When you get really good coffee and it’s brewed well, it’s like sweet, it’s bright, its got a lot of aromatics.”
Gelletly found his calling almost immediately upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. He attended a few cuppings — like wine tastings, but for specialty coffee — and was captivated by the role of the barista.
“I realized that a barista does have an important job for the coffee,” he said. “You can start with great coffee and if you don’t brew it well, it’s not gonna be great.”
This year, Gelletly was a finalist in the northeast regional competition, which qualified him for the U.S. Barista Championship. He’s the first Philly-based barista to ever make it that far. But it’s arguably the last line of work he should be in.
One day at work, he started feeling funny. “I just started feeling like I was losing feeling in my fingers and I was like, ‘I’m a little worried right now,'” Gelletly said. “I knew something was wrong and then, like a couple seconds later, I fainted.”
After fainting a second time, Gelletly sought help, ending up at a cardiologist. He doesn’t have a formal diagnosis, but the doctors say he should not drink any caffeine. So now when he works at Ultimo Coffee in South Philly, or when he’s competing, Gelletly tastes and spits out his work.
At the national championship
The championship took place in the massive Boston Convention Center. Baristas had 15 minutes to brew four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks. While they say the competition is about who can make the best coffee, it also seems to be about who puts on the best show. Contestants play their own custom soundtracks while trying to make perfect cups of java.
Gelletly’s performance was a little nervous and he finished a few seconds over time.
When the winners names were called out, he didn’t make the cut, but head judge Dan Streetman tried to encourage him, giving advice for next time.
“Keep at it. I mean, a barista competition very much can be an ‘any given Sunday kind of thing,'” Streetman said. “I think as competitor, there are so many things that are outside of your control that lend to your success to become a champion, that really the only thing you can focus on is your performance and how you did.”
It wasn’t long before Gelletly was back home slinging espressos at Ultimo. “I have a hard time picturing myself not making [coffee] all the time and giving and serving it to people,” he said, promising to try for the championship again next year. But until then, he’s content making what he hopes his Philly customers think are perfect cups of coffee.