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He won it in H-Town

Meet Pete Licata, the best barista in the United States

Pete Licata
Pete Licata, winner of the United States Barista Championship, celebrates with several of the contest's judges. Courtesy of Honolulu Coffee Co.
Pete Licata
"I was able to combine the pride of a barista, a roaster and an importer, and serve a cup of coffee that I could have easily talked about for three hours," Licata told CultureMap. Courtesy of Honolulu Coffee Co.

One of the most exciting parts of last weekend’s Specialty Coffee Association of America exposition, held here in Houston, was the United States Barista Championship. The winners from six regional competitions advance to the USBC championship held in conjunction with the SCAA exposition each year and compete in three elimination rounds. The six who make it to the final round compete for bragging rights as best barista in the United States and advance to the World Barista Championship.

Competitors have 15 minutes to prepare an espresso tasting with their chosen coffee. They must serve three courses to four sensory judges: A cappuccino, an espresso shot, and a specialty drink. Meanwhile, two technical judges evaluate the baristas’ technical and procedural skills. Every aspect of the competition – from the coffee to the glassware – is specialized.

This year’s champion is Pete Licata of Honolulu Coffee Co. in Hawaii. Licata, who got his start in coffee by way of a part-time college job, drew a lot of attention for his unique “farm to cup” approach to the competition. “He was able to take the bold and unique step of personally harvesting, processing and roasting coffees from Rusty’s Hawaiian in Ka’u and Wai’ono Meadows in North Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii,” Honolulu Coffee Co. bragged in a press release.

“Each step in the production of the coffee came with a steep learning curve,” Licata told CultureMap in a phone interview from Hawaii. “But I was able to combine the pride of a barista, a roaster and an importer, and serve a cup of coffee that I could have easily talked about for three hours.”

In serving his specialty drinks, Licata’s goal was to truly capture the story of the coffee. First, he prepared a tea that included three different elements from the coffee plant, which served to capture the flavor of the coffee fruit. He followed that with a French Press that represented the natural body and sweetness that he tasted when he first cupped the coffee in Honolulu. Finally, he served a single espresso shot, which he developed to highlight the coffee’s caramel and chocolate flavors.

“Each component was tailored to highlight different aspects of the coffee,” Licata explained.

For his cappuccinos, Licata used milk from Way Back When Dairy in Jacksonville, Texas, which happened to work extremely well with his coffee.

In case you couldn’t tell by the way he talks about coffee, Pete Licata knows a lot about flavor. “I’m really interested in the palette,” he explained. His other interests include martial arts and craft beer.

“This was only my second time in Texas, but I was amazed by the hospitality and I really enjoyed being able to make it down to Houston," he said.

Being the food and beverage connoisseur that he is, it’s no surprise that Licata was a big fan of Anvil. “I would have never expected to find something like that in Houston," he said.

He also highlighted Greenway Coffee and Revival Market as other local favorites.

Right now, Licata is focused on preparing for next month’s World Barista Championship in Bogata, Colombia. He’s still trying to figure out what his next step is going to be after that. “I have a lot of opportunities and potential business ideas. I’m trying to decide what part of the coffee industry I want to put my energy towards.”

All competitions aside, Pete echoed the sentiments of many other SCAA attendees in explaining his favorite part of the exposition. “Seeing people from around the world is the best part – there’s such an amazing sense of community that it feels like a family reunion," he said.

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