“I’m trying to make a name for myself,” said Amelia Wimmer, barista at Tried & True Coffee downtown. It’s early Sunday morning before the rush of weekend customers, and she’s crafting a cappuccino, which she serves up in a pastel teal cup. The cappuccino is remarkably smooth, without any bitter or burnt tastes. It’s a drink that doesn’t seem to say “look at me,” but yet there it is, a subtle attention-grabber.
In January, this desire of hers led Wimmer to place in the U.S. Barista Competition qualifiers in Knoxville, Tennessee. She then moved on to the finals in Seattle a couple weekends ago, where she competed for a chance to go on to the world finals in Seoul, South Korea. In the competition, baristas from all over the country are given 10 minutes to make and serve three drinks to judges, explaining them as variations on a theme.
“It’s like giving a TED Talk,” said Wimmer, describing the format of the competition. “The theme is important.” Her theme: Good coffee is about good people.
Though she didn’t place in Seattle, Wimmer said she isn’t disappointed by the outcome because just participating in the competition has helped define her as a barista.
“I’m not as into the science of coffee as others,” she said. “Hospitality is my strength.”
It’s easy to see how Wimmer conceives of hospitality. At Tried & True, she carries on multiple conversations, works the espresso machine, rings up orders, and changes the music with gusto, without apologies. What’s most noticeable is how she interacts with customers, many of whom know her by name.
Growing up in Portland, Wimmer said she was always exposed to the world of specialty coffee, but struggled to find work there without experience. She connected with Tried & True’s owners, Collin and Ann Schneider, in Portland when she sent them an unsolicited email requesting a job. “They didn’t know who I was,” she said. “I was like 18. I guess they liked my email.”
In Corvallis, she has found a place where community and coffee come together, and a platform from which to springboard to national competitions like the U.S. Barista Competition.
According to Wimmer, by placing personal value on everyone in the supply chain, from growers to customers, Tried & True has become a success since it first opened over two and a half years ago at its tiny downtown location. That philosophy has become part of her personal constitution on the job.
“I try to be so accommodating that it changes people,” she said, noting that even the least friendly customers are often softened when they come into the coffee shop. “Customer service is a tool to get to know someone.”
Her signature drink, which she presented in Seattle and Knoxville, reminds one of an era of traditional bartending when taking care of people was perhaps more important than today’s obsession with quality and ingredients. “The goal in drink-making is to bring out whatever flavors are in your espresso,” she noted. In hers, the coffee has notes of citrus and stone fruit. She plays on those flavors by adding apricot shrub, orange garnish, and a large cube of ice. “It’s like an old-fashioned,” she said.
Wimmer said that the competition opened doors for her. Even though she didn’t win, the experience and the networking opportunities have still been valuable.
“Specialty coffee is a niche thing,” she said, “but once you’re known, you can do anything you want.”
What she wants now is to keep making coffee, maybe in Portland, where she both grew up and first encountered specialty coffee.
“There are lots of opportunities there,” she said. For now, though, she’ll continue to serve up coffee at Tried & True downtown, where the work of making a name for herself seems to be already done.
By Cameron Shenassa