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At 'Big Western' coffee competition, talk of a surging L.A. specialty coffee trade



Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Brian Watt/KPCC
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
A 'Handsome" cappuccino made by champion barista Michael Phillips.
Brian Watt/KPCC
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Barista Chris Casassa explains the importance of acids in his coffee creations.
Brian Watt/KPCC
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Judges in the Big Western Barista championships evaluate the offerings of barista Chris Cassasa as he prepares the next course.
Brian Watt/KPCC
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Brant Curtis of Montebello-based Wilbur Curtis, supplier of coffee brewing equipment
Brian Watt/KPCC
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Michael Phillips, founder of Handsome Coffee and a champion barista, makes free cappuccinos at the Big Western coffee championships in Los Angeles.
Brian Watt/KPCC
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Pete Licata of Kansas City, won the 2013 World Barista Championships in Melbourne, Australia
Brian Watt/KPCC
Barista Chris Casassa of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco prepares coffee creations for the judges.
Peter Giuliano, Sr., director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, says he lets his 18-month-old daughter taste a little coffee.
Brian Watt


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Coffee lovers converged on downtown Los Angeles over the weekend for the western region competition of the US Coffee Championships. Coffee makers talked of L.A.'s surge into the top ranks of cities with specialty coffee markets.

"Big Western" attracts top brewers and baristas from everywhere west of the Rockies hoping to advance to national and world competitions.

The competition changes cities from year to year. It came to Los Angeles at a pivotal moment for the local industry.

"We’re in the middle of a coffee renaissance here in Los Angeles," said Peter Giuliano, senior director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. "Right now, it’s a really exciting time. Coffee shops are popping up in Culver City and Venice that are some of the most extraordinary coffee shops in the world."

And, Giuliano claimed, the world is starting to take notice. 

"For the first time, people from Europe and Asia are coming specifically to Los Angeles to check out the coffee scene here," he said.

Giuliano didn’t have statistics at hand to back up his claim, but a number of people in the industry said they’re seeing the same growth. Brant Curtis works for his family’s 73-year-old Montebello-based business, the Wilbur Curtis company. It makes high-end coffee brewing equipment and accessories. Curtis said three years ago, he started to focus primarily on supplying specialty coffee shops.

"When I started we had Intelligentsia and a few other small local shops here in L.A.," said Curtis, "and now you’ve got Stumptown, you have Blue Bottle, you have Verve.

The coffee roasters he named all set up shop in Los Angeles in recent years. Stumptown is based in Portland, Blue Bottle in Oakland, and Verve is headquartered in Santa Cruz. Two years ago, three former employees of Intelligentsia, based in Chicago, opened Handsome Coffee Roasters in downtown L.A.'s Arts District.

Heather Perry, of Klatch Coffee in Upland, said she doesn’t feel threatened by the influx. She thinks the competition will be beneficial for all.

"As more people come down and the market grows, it just helps more people consume it, so as you get more competition, you get a larger base and a larger market and larger audience," Perry said.

Perry, a U.S. champion barista, said her family’s Upland-based roasting company has a shop at LAX and in South Korea. She said in each of the past three years, Klatch has seen double digit growth in sales.