So many variables stand between a barista and the perfect espresso, perhaps the single purest expression of a coffee bean. For instance, there's where the beans were grown and how they were treated each step of the way from farm to cup. There's the fineness of the grind, which may vary based on temperature and humidity; the pressure at which the grinds are tamped in portafilters (the porous handles through which hot water flows), so they're packed neither too loose nor too tight.
Then there is the timing of the shot, which for optimal volume and quality should pour in somewhere between 25 and 32 seconds.
It demands a certain obsessiveness, and intuition, to master such a fussy, scientific process. And as many seconds as tick away in that sweet spot of muddy drip, an equal number of years can flow by before a person dials in just the right knowledge, technique and charisma to become the best of the best, to stand apart even while serving the masses.
But at just 29 years old, Charles Babinski's already there. In late February, he won the U.S. Barista Championship in Long Beach, California — after finishing as runner-up the previous three years.
"He got em ..." now reads part of the celebratory sandwich board outside of Go Get Em Tiger, the extolled Los Angeles shop that Babinski and business partner Kyle Glanville named for the concept of coffee as confederate, a resource that helps people "do the things they love doing."
A similarly playful vibe reigns across town at sister outfit G&B inside the Grand Central Market, L.A.'s answer to Seattle's Pike Place Market. It's the kind of trendy artisan food hub where a business called Eggslut, born in a food truck, now commands hour-long lines for a breakfast sandwich.
Babinski's businesses remain under constant customer assault as well, mostly by cheery young people who appear displaced from Portland. This is what happens, apparently, when someone like The New York Times' Oliver Strand drops by and concludes that G&B's iced almond-macadamia milk latte is "one of the best iced coffees in the United States, and almost certainly the best latte."
But even beyond the drinks, something's different at G&B and GGET: Instead of forming an orderly queue, customers pile at times two and three deep, as if ordering beers at a busy bar. It's a palpably vibrant social scene instead of a somber, impatient queue, where seats are sparse but smiles abound. The setup is by thoughtful design, generating exactly the energy and uniqueness desired by Babinski and Glanville.
What they've created is something being watched by those on the cutting edge worldwide. Which makes it hard for me to wrap my head around memories of Babinski and I getting gussied up in ridiculous costumes for booze-laced dinner theater shows at Sencha, Brent Beavers' old high-end Colorado Springs haunt. At the time, I was a long-haired, post-undergrad, kiss-ass server, and Babinski was an endearingly awkward, quick-witted, 17-year-old Doherty High School dropout turned capable line cook.
I had to know: How did our Charles become bound for the World Barista Championship in Seattle in April, and the co-owner of two on-fire L.A. coffee bars? So I got on a plane to find out.
Babinski is still about a head taller than most people around him, but now less gangly, filled out handsomely with a scrubby, dark man's beard and thick glasses. In a dark sweater and button-down combo, he looks intellectual to the point of mild-mad-scientist, operating as deliberately as the La Marzocco machine before him while he pulls espresso shots and heats milk. Traffic ambling past an adjacent G&B five-minute parking spot out front occasionally drowns out the steam wand's hiss and forces customers to semi-shout orders.
But I don't care about those people, because I already have an almond-macadamia milk cappuccino in front of me, and despite it being a hot drink with a lesser milk ratio, after one sip I completely understand where the Times' Strand was coming from. An organic Ethiopian Hama cooperative bean, roasted by Vancouver, B.C.'s Forty Ninth Parallel, lends dark berry notes and mosaic character while the house-strained milk's hint of date sweetness balances the acidity, with help from the macadamia's fatty roundness.
A rocks glass allows me to glimpse its settling strata, just as a chilled mason jar that receives my latte — and yes, it's damn good — reveals innards emulsified by a cocktail shaker for aeration and texture. Next comes a brilliant and beautiful turmeric almond macadamia tea, complete with a biting, sweet ginger-honey base and black pepper dusting, and a Fizzy Hoppy Tea made by carbonating a duo of black teas infused with lemony Citra hops. Lastly, the G&B Shake blends two scoops of local ice cream with a pair of double espresso shots and a restrained pinch of espresso grounds for a gusto of grit in the teeth.
Over at GGET later in the day, an $11 Full Nelson allows for a progressive espresso tasting. We start with a lightly carbonated white tea as a palate cleanser, before this alluring lineup appears on the countertop: an espresso (a San Sebastian Colombian roasted by Grand Rapids, Michigan's Madcap Coffee Company), a macchiato, a cappuccino and a fourth drink of the customer's choosing, in my case a decaf mocha using San Francisco's Ritual Coffee Roasters' Los Idolos Colombian.
The setup of the first three drinks allows a taster to primarily experience the unaltered essence of the bean, in this case a bright tangerine note leading off the rich tones. Following the potent espresso shot comes a slightly diluted version (think: a drop of water to whiskey) to soften the acidic punch a touch, in the form of the macchiato. Then comes the cappuccino's balance, in which milk and coffee feel in perfect harmony and preserve that citrus complexity. The wild-card mocha is just fun, and despite holding the orange notes (as if a mild Mocha Valencia execution), lingers on the palate like a dark chocolate bar, sans cloying sweetness.
Even after years of paying attention to coffee, my head spins through deeper comprehension of each drink style.
Also, the excessive caffeine has my hands shaking.
At February's barista championship, competitors, inside of 15 minutes, had to present before a total of eight judges. Four were poured an espresso, cappuccino and signature drink, with the other four providing technical oversight. Each year, the espresso — that fickle, elemental benchmark — is graded with the most points, even though more creativity goes into something like Babinski's shot of Honduran espresso mixed in a blender with tiny amounts of grapefruit juice reduction and a juniper syrup he made, plus pine tree honey from a Santa Monica farmers market.
Ultimately, there's more at stake than just trophies and bragging rights.
"The competitions help give credibility to what we do," explains Andy Sprenger of Lakewood's Sweet Bloom Coffee, who's faced Babinski in coffee competitions and earned two U.S. Brewer's Cup victories himself. "They show a level of expertise and commitment we have towards sourcing amazing coffees and roasting them very precisely. ... In terms of innovation, we're always pushing, thinking of new ideas and new ways of brewing. And what you learn, you take back to your own cafe."
I ask Babinski if it's fair now to call him the best barista in the nation, and he demurs.
"Maybe the best barista competitor. The best barista is the person who knows your name, knows your drink, who you have a rapport with, a person who takes care of you. The idea that I could go into a coffee shop on the other side of the country and suddenly be better than everyone else who's there ... that's insane."
In fact, he views being a barista as an everyday job, not to be exalted. "It's about the daily needs and interactions and actual people. The job can't be sexy. There's nothing sexy about having to be nice to people at 6 o'clock in the morning."
Turns out it's a field he kind of fell into. At 19, knowing full well that he didn't want to build a career as a chef, Babinski moved to New York City — "because I had to go somewhere," he says, and a good friend suggested the lively locale.
"I just decided that school wasn't worth any time," he says, "and I wasn't going to pretend ... and go on and go through all the steps that everyone else did."
He worked for two years largely uneventfully at an Upper East Side cafe, then decided to hop to Chicago. A barista friend at another NYC cafe encouraged him to apply at Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea when he arrived. He'd never heard of it, but nonetheless did, and three months later got hired.
"Where the company has done really well is that it's served as a great training ground for people who're driven and wanted to learn coffee on their own," he says of Intelligentsia, which has been worshiped by coffee aficionados and favorably reviewed by media powerhouses everywhere. "They'll give resources to anybody who's willing to put in the work."
It's not that Babinski was immediately sold on coffee. While becoming a better barista, he moonlighted at a legal reporting business for a time and considered the law field — not a stretch considering his identical twin brother, after also dropping out of high school and getting a GED, is now pursuing a doctorate in Germanic studies at Princeton. But by the time he turned 23, he decided to commit to a single craft.
"I won't ever tell anybody that I actually want to be a musician, writer or artist," he says. "I'm just gonna always be a coffee person. And I'm going to take advantage of every opportunity that comes around. The competitions are a good example. It was something that I did because it was there and scared me a little bit, and I knew that I would be in a better place at the end of it than I was in the beginning."
Looking back, the Sencha years of his youth, where he learned "how to drink like an adult and be part of adult conversations," also informed a bit of his dogged approach to situations: "You learn how to work your ass off. I think that was a better lesson than I ever got out of high school."
From restaurant life, he also learned that "no matter the situation I was in, I could basically work my way through it. I had much less worries, apprehensions, problems ... you just put your nose to the grindstone and you get stuff done, and over time you'll start to get rewards that you wouldn't otherwise."
Knife cuts and oil burns aside, it beats therapy.
In 2010, Babinski transferred from Intelligentsia's home base in Chicago to Los Angeles. His boss was Kyle Glanville, the 2008 USBC champion who was responsible for three Intelligentsia locations there, including a Venice shop that today does more than $2 million in sales annually.
They became friends, a relationship deepened in part by travel abroad together. Glanville saw natural leadership and a "cultural catalyst" in Babinski, who "has the right mix of confidence and humility. He's very specific, and the things he excels at he knocks out of the park."
Babinski made his mark at Intelligentsia's Venice location in particular, where he undertook the educational component. He revived a "slow bar" in the store's rear, where each week a barista would rotate in and create his or her own mini menu that employed fun pouring contraptions or ingredients to challenge themselves and customers.
"Charles saw the value in exploration," Glanville says, "and I knew that someone who sees that way would be valuable in the future."
In mid-2012, he approached Babinski and asked if he'd be interested in starting a business together.
"Charles was like, 'Totally, I'll put in my notice right away.' I was like, 'Whoa, we don't even have a business plan yet.'"
In October of that year, they opened a G&B pop-up inside of East Hollywood's now-lauded, organic preserves-driven Sqirl, where chef Jessica Koslow was just getting her solo start. At this past weekend's Taste & Savor event at The Broadmoor, where she guest-presented, she called Glanville "an empire builder" and Babinski "mysterious, but exciting, smart and interesting."
She tells me her customers still think fondly back to those early days, where "frenetic" energy helped establish a "homespun" authenticity. Jonathan Gold, renowned as the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, felt it immediately and gifted them an unexpected review in the Los Angeles Times in December 2012, which exploded both businesses.
Babinksi and Glanville handled the rushes as best as they could, but became frustrated with conventional line-style service.
"Why wait for them to get to us?" asks Glanville, 32, of his customers. "Why not deploy a more flexible, personalized way of connecting with them? So we got out from behind the counter and took orders, we were more efficient and people felt better about the transaction — it was chaotic and harder to execute, but customers appreciated that we didn't just stand back passively."
Says Babinski: "The implication with specialty coffee shops is that the best thing we can do is educate customers about coffee. Right?" Not true, he says. "The best thing we can do is give people delicious coffee and treat them like humans, like great people who come and visit us every day."
So when G&B and Go Get Em Tiger both launched brick-and-mortar operations within a few weeks of one another in May and June 2013, the partners instituted bar-style counter service that reminded them of active, all-welcome bar tops they'd seen in Madrid cafes. It was, to their knowledge, unique in the U.S. coffee scene.
"We wanted people shoulder-to-shoulder, not staring at the back of each other's heads waiting to order," says Glanville.
Plus, bar-style service allows for efficiency behind the counter. "We can knock out more drinks per minute than almost anybody," says Glanville. And they're damn good.
Glanville projects that G&B, which is by far the most bustling coffee counter I've ever seen, will hit $1.4 million in sales in 2015, mostly selling $4 and $5 items. Busy weekend days hit upward of $6,000.
With all the convoluted talk these days of "third-wave" coffee, whispers of pioneering a "fourth wave" of coffee were inevitable. In fact, the Denver Post was mocked by coffee blog Sprudge in early 2014 for allowing a source to singlehandedly declare us as already amid it. (He happened to represent a Hong-Kong-based manufacturing company working on making new-era coffee machines.)
So I ask Babinski to define the waves. His reply comes off as generous, given his overall disdain for the pigeonholing categorization.
"I'll probably get this wrong," he says, "but the first is like post-World War II commercial coffee. The second is like the Peet's and Starbucks, the retail. The third wave is the fancy coffee shop doing the pourovers and signature-style espresso with the best beans that come from the hardest-working farmers and so on and so forth.
"I think everybody wants to think that there's some kind of fourth wave or some sort of progression, but I think it's not a good way to think about this thing, as a progression. We're not necessarily getting better at all of these things."
In fact, he says, "I think the people who're having the best success today are having the best success in the same way that people were having the best success 15 or 20 years ago, which is you find the community around you that's interested in the product you have and you find ways to serve them well."
If it doesn't sound like a new "wave," Babinski agrees: "I don't think that's necessarily the fourth wave. It's just gonna be better spaces for coffee."
At G&B and GGET, the partners eschew fancy and time-consuming pourover service, which they acknowledge has a perfectly suitable place in the cafes that do specialize in it, for a more automated but quite exacting pour methodology.
By pre-grinding espresso by just a few minutes ahead in a turn-and-burn atmosphere, staff can quickly weigh shots out to within a tenth of a gram, depending on the recipe. One barista just weighs and grinds at length, passing pressed portafilters down the line to another who expeditiously pulls shots off a volumetric espresso machine, calibrated for a set amount of water. The line continues with someone steaming milk then pouring latte art and handing drinks over the counter.
"If a machine can do it as well as a person, have the machine do it," advises Babinski. On his end, it frees up time to interact with customers — as does not roasting his own coffee. He believes buying from other great roasters is comparable to, if not cheaper than, what it takes to roast your own. Plus, he says, "we can cherry-pick from the best coffees."
During the Barista Competition, Babinski says, about 80 samples were dropped by G&B and GGET by roasters hoping to curry the favor of meticulous baristas whom they know will treat their product and reputation well. He rotates through only four to seven at a time, he and Glanville "blind cupping" (or tasting) through a rigorous scoring mechanism and test extractions of each roast. As soon as a bean "stops performing," they move on. Were you to stop at G&B or GGET before and after work on a given day, you'd likely drink different single-origin espressos, as they cycle through rather quickly. The team blows through more than 600 pounds weekly between the two shops.
All of which is nice and reinforces our local-boy-makes-good narrative. But it begs the question: Short of your own L.A. jaunt, when and how will you get a sample of G&B bliss?
G&B's titular duo does plan to open a second Los Angeles-area GGET in Los Feliz by summer, and truthfully, you do have to head to the source to experience the team's exact craft. But Babinski may put a fingerprint in the Springs around midyear.
Plans remain very tentative at this point, but Babinski has already been playing a consulting role to help KRCC's Noel Black potentially launch coffee service of some sort inside Mountain Fold Books, the six-month-old downtown Colorado Springs reading spot co-founded by Black's wife, Marina Eckler. If plans jell there, or possibly elsewhere, Babinski has told Black he'd come out to help pick coffees and crash-train a staff. Plus, it would afford him a chance to visit his mom, who still lives in town.
"What I like about Charles is that he places the coffee above the culture," says Black, who was that close friend who recommended Babinski split for New York years prior. On a recent trip to L.A., Black stopped by G&B to catch up.
"I'd never really tasted coffee before then," says Black. "I had no idea coffee could be this good. ... It was like eating an heirloom tomato for the first time, when all you've had before then was grocery-store tomatoes."
Now might be a fair time to mention that great cups of coffee do already abound in Colorado Springs, regardless of the different service style and sans crazy L.A. traffic. Spots like Urban Steam, The Principal's Office, the Wild Goose Meeting House, Colorado Coffee Merchants, R&R Coffee Cafe and SwitchBack Coffee Roasters are just some that have elevated the retail coffee experience already to Third Wave standards, and plenty of others get the job done stylishly enough when you're seeking a competent perk-up.
Phil Goodlaxson of Denver's Corvus Coffee, a small-batch roaster working to encourage sustainable practices and direct-trade methods, says that just four years ago, Colorado was pretty far behind cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. Now, he says, "we're on the forefront," with Coloradans having already broadened their enthusiasm for craft beer and farm-to-table food. The Rocky Mountain Craft Coffee Alliance board member sees that "there's a lot of rethinking what the retail model can be," in terms of overhauling "canteen-type" ordering and pickup — which, of course, is exactly what G&B and GGET are doing.
After a 12-hour day at G&B, Babinski relishes a bowl of tonkotsu at Ramen Champ, Eggslut chef Alvin Cailan's hip new stop in Chinatown. The background noise of a steam wand has been replaced by gurgling and searing sounds from large stockpots and active fryers. The air's laced with aromas of pork and chicken belly, and muddy broths. Babinski talks about his fiancée, and then growing up in the eastern sprawl of Colorado Springs. Also about finding L.A. to be the most welcoming place he's lived, contrary to his early presumptions.
He inquires into the whereabouts of our former co-workers and we reminisce a bit on Sencha, which, it should be noted, also helped propel chef Shane Lyons to his own New York Times write-up in NYC for Distilled New York. We talk about epic performances in our literary dinners, and about trajectories that have taken us all so far apart physically and professionally. He reiterates a gratefulness for real-world experiences early, that otherwise would have been deferred.
It's about more than just not giving up and working hard. Ultimately, it's about loving what you do so much that you go all-in and rise to a personal best. It just so happens Babinski's personal best defines the nation's best.
"Charles is such a fantastic competitor," says Sweet Bloom's Sprenger. "He's going to be one of the top coffee professionals known worldwide."
That's who our young Charles has become, and anyone who's shared any stage with him is proud of him. Whether he wins the world championship or whether he's the face of a mythic fourth wave of coffee or not ... well, we'll see.
Either way: Go get 'em, tiger.