There is no greater ambassador for specialty coffee here in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two than Morgan Eckroth (she/they). With nearly 7 million combined followers across TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram as @morgandrinkscoffee, the Oregon-base coffee professional brings specialty coffee into the homes of people who may not otherwise seek it out.
On the weekend of April 8th through 10th, Eckroth brought the United States Barista Championship to an entirely new audience. And she just so happened to win the whole damn thing in the process.
For even seasoned viewers of coffee competitions, what amounts to a “good” performance can be a bit cryptic; what makes for a great show and what scores the most points aren’t always one in the same. And while the score sheet remains a bit of a black box, Eckroth completely dismantled many of the barriers between competitor and viewer, demystifying coffee competitions—and by extension specialty coffee—in the process. Leading up to her performances in Boston, which she livesteamed and posted to YouTube, Eckroth took the unprecedented steps of not only posting tasting notes for their coffees ahead of the routine as well as making a how-to video so folks could recreate their signature beverage at home. This is perhaps the first time in competition history an onlooker, or a few million of them in this case, could enjoy a competitor’s signature beverage alongside the judges.
Make no mistake about it, though, this was a high-end routine. Training with world-beaters Onyx Coffee Lab—who have now won and/or coached national champions in back-to-back years for US Barista Championship and Brewers Cup—Eckroth’s performance had many of the touchstones of memorable Andrea Allen routines of years past, including an emotive, thoughtful script, freeze-distilled milk, and multiple high-end coffees from experimental farms, from Colombia no less, like the Sudan Rume and Eugenioides from the famed Cafe Inmaculada, which Allen used in her run to second place at the World Barista Championship.
Yet even with the similarities, this was not an Andrea Allen routine, this was wholly Morgan Eckroth. Whereas Allen often found her wow factor in the irreplicable, something that really only could be seen in the 15-minute confines of a barista routine, Eckroth’s brilliance is in their approachability. With their performance, Eckroth compelled the viewer to take part. “Make this drink at home. Wow yourself.”
We sat down with Morgan Eckroth to learn more about the making of their routine as well as what comes next for the social media celebrity and new US Barista Champion.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
First off, congratulations! How does it feel to be the US Barista Champion now that you’ve had a few days to sit with it?
It’s incredibly surreal still and I’m not sure that it will feel real anytime soon. I find myself still waking up every morning and instinctually going over my script on my morning drive to work or checking the fridge to make sure my freeze-distilled milk hasn’t melted down too far.
More than anything, I feel incredibly humbled to hold the title. It’s an honor and responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
Your routine was very of the moment, touching on the pandemic, specialty coffee’s recent focus on broadening appeal, and your own online presence as @morgandrinkscoffee. Can you tell us a little bit about what you wanted to get across with the routine and how it came together?
When I began brainstorming two months ago, I already knew that I wanted to document the process of preparing for the USBC online. My goal, first and foremost, was to leave at least a starting point for future competitors who may feel intimidated by the monolithic rule booklet that comes with this competition. If sharing my process could help even one person in the future, then I’d consider it a successful season.
With that in mind, the theme of digital accessibility and specialty coffee through the pandemic fell into place. One of the things that I also wanted to touch on, as someone who has worked as a barista through the pandemic, is the fact that hospitality has been difficult and painful for the last two years. Incredibly so. Yet, there are silver linings to be found in the progress made towards more accessible knowledge and general awareness of specialty coffee.
You began competing before you found social media success. How do you feel it has changed competition for you?
Having competed in two previous seasons of the USBC with varying degrees of success, I came into this year with quite a bit of hands-on knowledge of how this competition worked and, additionally, how I needed to improve. I’ve become very attuned to my own shortcomings as a competitor and spent a time this year working to overcome those. Granted, I still have so much to continue to hone and learn, now more than ever.
Coming to this year with the (still shocking) audience that I have definitely took a lot of thought. With my position comes a huge amount of inherent privilege and responsibility, weighing how that was going to play into the competition was something I did not do quickly. No matter what my success was, there was going to be fresh eyes on the competition so I held the responsibility of accurately representing my preparation and the overall USBC very close to my heart.
For a long time, I’ve viewed my current career in two very distinct parts. There’s the part that’s social media based as a content creator and the part that’s me as a coffee professional. This competition was one of the first times where I felt like those two pieces truly came together, which was both terrifying and exciting.
More than any other routine, yours really brought the home audience on stage with you via Livestream, posting your signature beverage recipe on Instagram, and sharing the tasting notes you gave to judges with your audience beforehand. It was wonderful and refreshing though not entirely unexpected from one of the most famous coffee people on the internet. How did it inform your routine?
There were definitely some limitations due to sharing so much online. For example, we actually changed my signature beverage up in the final week before leaving for Boston and since the goal was to enable people to be able to make the drink at home, that led to me frantically filming and editing my signature beverage video literally less than 24 hours before we flew out. Additionally, once videos were posted about certain topics of competition (coffees, milk, script, etc) they were essentially locked in. Our preparation had to be incredibly precise and assured because there wasn’t really any wiggle room once the prep videos were posted.
All in all, it was a fun challenge and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I think, or at least I hope, that by sharing so much prior to the event, people who might not have had as much context to what the heck a barista competition was could watch the routines with understanding as to what was happening on stage.
You were coached by the competition-dominating team at Onyx Coffee Lab, and you had many of the hallmarks of an Andrea Allen routine. What effect did working with Onyx have on your routine?
It may be cliche but it truly takes a village to compete in the USBC and I’m still in shock that I got to work alongside the folks who I have looked up to for many years. It was collaborative on all fronts, which is what I think competing is really about.
Working with Onyx was a wonderful surprise that was truly birthed out of coincidence. When I found out that I was competing, I didn’t have a plan or even a roaster. Two days later my eventual coach, Lance Hedrick, stopped by the cafe I work at while he was on a work trip. We sat down the next day to catch up and had this light bulb moment where we both went, “Wait… This could make a lot of sense.”
We had two months to create an entire routine from scratch, which is not, by any means, a lot of time. A lot of decisions had to be made out of necessity and limited resources due to the time constraint but, that being said, it was an absolute pleasure to present the two coffees that I did. Both the Sudan Rume and Eugenioides from Inmaculada are stunning coffees and I fell in love with both of them. It was also a really exciting thing to use Eugenioides because I had the opportunity to really dive into the unique flavor profile it has and how it interacts with milk via video.
Will the partnership continue as you prepare for Worlds?
Absolutely. We’re already putting our heads back together to figure out what comes next. It’s going to be an exciting, fast-paced, difficult, and inspiring next few months leading up to Worlds and we’re all ready for it.
Speaking of the WBC, have you given much thought to what you are going to do? Are you planning on keeping the winning routine generally the same or do you want to do something completely different?
The bones of my routine are going to stay the same. The message of my routine this year was, more so than any past years I’ve competed, something I try to live and breathe every day. If anything, I’m ready to refine my current script even further. As far as coffees go, there may be some changes but we’re not totally sure yet. I’m incredibly excited to continue working with the team at Inmaculada so you can be sure that if and/or when we pick new coffees, the internet will know.
How does this win impact both Morgan Eckroth, the coffee professional in Portland, Oregon, and @morgandrinkscoffee, the social media star?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Frankly, I don’t have a clear answer right now. More barista sketches? Of course. Silly coffee YouTube videos? Yes, definitely.
I’m very much still a student of coffee. I want to learn more, try new things, experiment, and have fun with coffee for as long as I can. Where and how that happens has evolved over the last five years and I imagine it will continue to evolve.
What’s next for you and how can we follow along?
Coffee is next and lots of it. This summer is going to be a whirlwind of preparation and I hope you all are ready because once more, via the internet, you’re coming along with me. You can find me on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok at @morgandrinkscoffee and on Twitter at @twopartscoffee_.
Photos by Liz Chai for Sprudge