Sara Peterson is still enjoying her success from last month’s U.S. Barista Championships, where she took fourth place. Her co-workers, Chris Baca and Jared Truby, also competed and received impressive scores. But Peterson, retail manager of Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz, is now the highest-ranked female barista in the country.
After serving up cups of the House Brew at Verve, Peterson sat down with City on a Hill Press to talk about not only what goes into the coffee cup, but what goes into the process of becoming a barista with serious bragging rights.
City on a Hill Press: How does it feel to be the highest-ranked female barista in the nation?
Sara Peterson: It feels pretty good. You know, I didn’t think about the girl element to begin with, until other people pointed it out to me.
The competition isn’t necessarily representative of how many women [are in the industry] — there are great women in coffee. But it was definitely an honor to be acknowledged at the top of it.
CHP: How did you and your coworkers celebrate your success?
SP: I guess this could be our celebration event — we’re going to do a tasting on Sunday, May 16. We did one right after Westerns [Western Regional Barista Competition] and, for three hours, all three of us who competed served only the courses that we would serve to the judges, so we only served our espressos, our cappuccinos and our signature drinks.
CHP: What is your signature drink?
SP: Well, it [has] changed a little bit from competition to competition, but for the U.S. [Barista Championships] it was a kind of drink that was a balance of simplicity and sophistication. There’s a little bit of tropical fruit and jasmine in the fragrance, but citrus was the main theme.
When I first tasted my coffee the acidity was really sparkly, so lemony and bright. It sounds silly, but it almost reminded me of a lemon soda … so I played around with that a lot.
CHP: Where do you learn to incorporate all these unusual elements into your drinks?
SP: I love to cook and bake, so for fun I read cookbooks, baking books, recipes. To me that’s enjoyment, reading. It’s weird, but you can taste so many different things in coffee, so when you find something — like mine was citrus, [so I was] like “OK, I’m gonna play with that.” I guess if you’re in wine, or beer, or cheese, or pastry chefs, chefs, anybody — you’re trying to develop your palate.
It makes it easier for consumers to want to try a coffee or to be open to it if you can relate that coffee to a food and say, “this reminds me of a chocolate-covered strawberry.” People know what that tastes like, so they’re a little more open when they taste the coffee.
CHP: Have you always wanted to be a barista? Do you anticipate continuing your work here?
SP: I grew up in the Midwest and we didn’t really even have coffee shops back then. But I think when I was in eighth grade I first found out about coffee shops … my older brother would go hang out at coffee shops and I was like, “that’s so cool.” And then I just thought, “I wanna have a coffee shop when I’m older.”
I always wanted a job that would include creativity, that was a social job, and then I just love coffee. And then there’s also a lot of ways that you can be involved, just to better your community. Or even helping communities overseas, like where we get our coffee … so there’s this local thing and there’s this global network, and it’s just a good fit.
If I wasn’t doing this I’m not quite sure what else I’d be doing. I just feel kind of at home in this job. I like it.