Meet Ben Jones, 2016 US Aeropress Champion
With a stacked field fighting the elements in front of a lively crowd, the 2016 US Aeropress Championship has crowned a champion. Ben Jones of Ristretto Roasters in Portland, Oregon brought his top recipe and knack for improvisation to center stage, took the gold in America and was crowned 2016 US Aeropress Champion. He heads to Ireland to take on the world in the World Aeropress Championships! Ben was gracious enough to answer some of our questions about competition brewing, entrance music, past lives, and everything in-between.
Where do you reside when you are not destroying Aeropress dreams in Atlanta?
We just bought a home in a little town somewhere between Portland and Olympia. I grew up in Portland, went to college there, started my family there, but it is time for me to get the heck out.
What did you do before getting into coffee?
I studied English Lit, Writing, and Education with the intention to teach. A bit of life happened, I got a gig in post-secondary special education where I developed and ran an espresso cart training program. I worked with 18-21-year-old kids who otherwise wouldn’t have developed the skills/ habits needed for independent adult life.
After 5 years of that, I decided I really wanted to work in depth with coffee.
What are your non-coffee related hobbies, and how do you describe yourself to people?
I like to make things. I’m a casual book binder and typewriter enthusiast. I like to read. I’m really just a regular guy. Beyond that, I have a yard to take care of and cars that need oil changes and kids that need to eat.
How did you get into coffee, and what was your first job in coffee?
I started brewing at home in 1999 after tasting my first “3rd Wave” plain black cup of coffee. That changed everything for me. I was in college and started doing all my homework at the cafe. After I began teaching, I got a part-time job at a little shop in Portland. Fun part of the story: the current owners of that space are Ristretto customers, so I still get to go back to that space often. So much nostalgia.
When and where did you fall in love with coffee?
It was that little diner mug of French Press from Stumptown in November of 1999… I quit my Mexican Mocha habit then and there.
Where do you make coffee outside of work and destroying American brewing competitors?
My role among my in-laws and extended family is to brew coffee at ALL holidays and gatherings.
Do people now have championship expectations when you brew a cup of coffee for them even if they aren’t into coffee? Do you try and blow their minds with every brew?
Oh, the expectations… I think expectations were a major factor in the rise of the geisha variety. It certainly wasn’t the flavor profile. People expect “championship” coffees to taste completely different from their normal cup. Even a moderate quality geisha will present novel to most casual drinkers, much like a natural Yirgacheffe. No matter what I am brewing, I aim for balance and clarity. I like my balance to blow minds.
Do you drink a lot of coffee outside of what you make, and where are your favorite places to get coffee as a customer?
I drink entirely too much coffee. I like to go first to a roaster cafe then to an independent that serves the same roaster’s coffee. I like to see the different ways the same coffee can be prepared and presented.
How did you prepare before getting the coffee you competed with? Did you brew it on any other devices to get a baseline for its potential? What is the process when you get a new coffee in that circumstance to make it taste first place worthy?
In the Brewers Cup, we get to use our own coffee. That equates to a lot of cupping with green importers. This year I took a coffee that was brought in by Catalyst Coffee Consultants. They were super helpful in the process.
With the AeroPress, everyone uses the same coffee provided by the beautiful people at Cafe Imports.
Who in your inner circle do you run your recipe by? Or are you solitary and trusting of only your palate?
I made up that AeroPress recipe the evening of the competition, at the venue. Water has a huge impact on flavor. I brewed a few and had my wholesale guy and our USBC competitor taste it. Based on their feedback I made a few changes. They never tasted the actual recipe.
Do you ever take into account the real-time viewing of other competitor’s brewing and make adjustments in the moment?
Not really. There are so many little factors that aren’t always easy to see. Plus, I think 2nd guessing yourself is one of the worst things you can do. Maybe. I’m not really certain.
Competitors were all sent the same coffee to compete with for the finals. What was the biggest challenge with the coffee you received for the 2016 US Aeropress Championship? Was it different than what you anticipated you would be sent?
The biggest challenge was using new water. Water chemistry is huge. Also, the competition was held in the courtyard, so everything got a little chilly as the show heated up.
Is Aeropress your preferred brewing method outside of destroying American competition? What would you use if you could only make coffee one way for the rest of your life?
That is a completely unfair question; I have a hard time with favorites. My kitchen, like most coffee people, is overrun with brew gear. I frequently use the Bee House, Chemex, and Kalita Wave. AeroPress is definitely a front runner for regular use.
Probably, because of its diversity, the AeroPress would be my one-and-only brewer if I had to choose.
In the finals, the competition was outside at night with a pretty brisk side wind whipping through. What adjustments were you able to make to counter the weather? Did you expect to be outside brewing?
I have an Old German beer can kozy that I used to insulate the AeroPress. Mike Cannon, who took 2nd, used a cardboard box to shield from the wind. Thermal stability took it home on that cool Atlanta night.
There were some heavy hitters from all of the different regionals. Who did you feel was the biggest threat in the competition, and who did better than you initially thought would do well?
I had my eyes on Megan O’Connell and Neil Oney. Luckily, I was put up against them in round 1. I figured I had it made if I could clear them. And Dylan McClain. He frightens me in the best way. Honestly, I came in to have fun because that is what our competitions are about. I got to high five a bunch of people I only know through Twitter. That was great.
Coffee is very communal and often times not competitive. Was anyone trash talking during the competition? Was someone unleashing a competitive nature you didn’t know they had?
Like I said, we have fun. If someone let the beast loose, I missed it. There was too much fun happening.
Closers in baseball and professional wrestlers all have entrance music that enforces their personas. What would be your entrance music if allowed to pick a song?
Who are the 3 people you would like to share a cup of coffee with, and what would you brew for that occasion?
Second, I would like to have a cup of coffee with Andy Sprenger. He is someone I’ve always enjoyed seeing but have never really sat with over coffee. I’d love to hear his thoughts on the business and art. We’d be at a diner in a small town, sipping whatever they had on the burner. Cream and sugar.
Third, none other than Alan Adler himself, inventor of the AeroPress. I’d choose a well rounded south Colombian.
Who influences you in coffee?
I work in Portland and there are a lot of guys who ‘built’ the Portland coffee scene but no longer work in coffee. They are entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, designers, small business owners, all types of fun jobs. When I get to make coffee for them, I like their feedback. We chat about how things have changed. It is always inspiring. Sometimes they even like the coffee.
Pre-competition meal… What was it, and what will it be?
In Atlanta we had arepas at a little Venezuelan street cart. So good. Messy. There was a lot of beer, gin, and whiskey involved too.
For Dublin, I have no idea. Something traditional.
Biggest thing you learned from competing in Atlanta?
Gin over cotton candy is both better than I expected and not as good as I thought. Or, I learned that I should trust my intuition a little more. Don’t overthink life.
Favorite non-coffee book?
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. So much angst.
Trailblazers or Timbers?
Timbers. I have a hard time with sports that allow 100 goals per game.
What is your spirit animal?
How many paddle agitation is too many?
Depends on water temp, grind size and the coffee. Probably stop at 20 though.
Best unknown coffee roaster in Portland?
Anyone who does it in their garage. That is a special kind of bravery.
Best cup of coffee you’ve ever had?
February 2013. A Colombia & Castillo blend from Louis Alberto Rivera, a small producer from Monserrate La Plata in Huila, Colombia.
First thing you do when you win the World Aeropress Championship?
You will find me running through the streets of Dublin with an American flag cape singing the Star Spangled Banner. In the morning I will be waiting in line to see the Book of Kells.
Where would you like your statue constructed when you bring home another gold Aeropress?
In Portland, at the intersection of NE Glisan & Cesar Chavez Blvd, there is a gold statue of Joan of Arc riding a horse. I want a statue of me, kneeling before her offering a mug of coffee in one hand, AeroPress in the other. Cesar Chavez, Joan of Arc, AeroPress. It’s the trifecta.
How often do you use the golden Aeropress to make coffee?
Every day. Several times a day.
Would you rather be known as the 2016 US Aeropress Champion or some other place in the World Championship?
Whichever gets the best endorsements. I just want to pay my bills.
That was a lot of fun and we thank Ben for his time and candor. Keep an eye out for the actual recipe Ben used to become 2016 US Aeropress Champion.