For someone who has already drunk roughly six cups of coffee (espresso and drip cup) by 1:30pm in the afternoon, Intelligentsia’s designer, Matt Riddle, is far from excitable. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s without excitement.
“It’s not just me; everybody here’s really into coffee. You kind of can’t help it,” he says.
A former U.S. champion barista who placed third in the 2006 World Barista Championship, Riddle, 29, now trains and judges Intelligentsia employees for future competitions. And quite the teacher he is—as soon as I walk through the door of the company’s West Town roasting facility, he begins a commentary I imagine might be a voice-over to a factory visit on a “Mister Rogers” episode. Riddle motions to the man tending to the blue vintage German machine that’s making all that noise.
“Now, the roaster is keeping track of the time,” Riddle recites. “The roasting usually takes about fifteen minutes, depending on the coffee. Then there’s air-flow temperatures that he has to consider, and the temperature of the air inside. We’ve also got a probe inside that measures the temperature of the beans. The roaster is constantly watching and adjusting.”
Riddle knows all too well that a great-tasting cup of coffee depends on precise measurements and careful observation (from cleaning the machines to brewing). These are the basics he learned as an Intelligentsia barista five years ago when he began working evening shifts at the Broadway store.
The slender Riddle is even methodical in how he navigates among the bean-filled rubber barrels. When he arrives at a blank paper score sheet atop a barrel, which will soon tell the color of the current roast on a hundred-point scale, he is sure to point it out its significance. Roasters are judged (to the nearest tenth of a point) on how consistent they are in achieving the correct bean color for the type of coffee roasted. The bean, which begins as a green cherry seed, darkens from yellow to orange to French-roast-dark-brown, even black, with many colors in between. This scale also helps maintain the taste of each kind of coffee.
Quite like the roaster, Riddle pays attention to numbers, as he believes a good score, at least according to “industry standards,” can translate to a near perfect cup of coffee. In competitions the barista has fifteen minutes to make twelve drinks: three coffee drinks (cappuccino, espresso and signature drink) for four judges. Contestants are judged on a range of skills, from dosing to eye contact with the judges.
Although Riddle is naturally creative (he was a photography major in college and he designed the black cat logo for Intelligentsia’s signature espresso blend), he seems to take as much pride in his standard cup of coffee as his signature drinks (this past year he made a carbonated candied ginger coffee with lime). Two out of the three cups you give to the judge, after all, are standard. But even with his signature cup, he likes to stick to the basics.
“Keeping it simple is really the key for me. Once you start adding five, six, ten ingredients, then the taste kind of gets lost,” Riddle says. “In the rules, coffee is supposed be the overwhelming flavor so what you’re really trying to do is accent the coffee.”
Riddle has a tendency of talking more about the coffee than himself. Following the rules with flawless precision, he lets coffee be the star. (Laura Castellano)
Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea is located at 3123 North Broadway, (773)348-8058; 53 West Jackson, (312)253-0594; 53 East Randolph, (312)920-9332.