Kaley Gann is a champion unafraid of failure. Kaley won the 2019 United States Brewers Cup champion with a brewing device she invented. Built with the user in mind, Kaley wanted to design something that’d bring her closer to her coffee and push her to be innovative and experimental. In this interview, we talk about how the brewer came to be and what it means to create and do new things in coffee.
Let's start at the beginning. How did you get into coffee?
Kaley: I worked at Panera Bread in college. I eventually left that job to work at Kaldi’s Coffee, which is based in St. Louis. We had a cafe in Columbia, Missouri, where I went to school. I started working there and that was where I discovered specialty coffee. And so during my time there, I moved up from being a barista to Libris sta assistant manager, then like a cafe manager while doing all those things.
I first realized coffee was really different from what I had previously experienced because I did a cup in one time and tasted a Kenya AA and it blew my mind then after discovering the craft around it and the science and that I liked helping people I just wanted to make it my career and I did.
At what point did you decide you wanted to compete?
Kaley: I wanted to compete for a while. I was working at Kaldi's, and at the time, general managers weren't allowed to compete because we were just so busy running our cafes. However, the company really wanted someone to compete in the Brewers Cup competition and I was the only eligible person. So I decided why the heck not?
Originally, I wanted to compete in the barista competition, but I was like, “eh, I’ll do brewers.” I would drive to our training facility in St. Louis—two hours there, and two hours back, twice a week just to practice.
I competed and totally bombed. But by that point, I had fallen in love with competition and the community. Even though I did poorly, I loved the atmosphere and I loved competing and I was hooked.
What was the biggest difference between your first year competing and subsequent years?
The second time I competed, I placed third at the national competition, which was a huge jump from my first year. I think the biggest difference was having access to a training space and having resources—I didn’t have to make long drives multiple times a week!
I also understood what the judges were looking for. I really learned about the importance of accurate flavor descriptors. It surprised me how precise the judges wanted competitors to be.
I also learned how important the compulsory round is. It was something that I had never practiced my first year and then started practicing my second year. That definitely gave me a really big leg up because not many competitors had ever practiced for the compulsory round until recently. You think that just making coffee tastes good is not something you need to practice on a regular basis! But you do!
There was a really small difference between all the top finishers, and when I found out that the difference between me and the first and second place finishers was so small, I really focused in on the feedback from the judges. I focused on three things: having a standout coffee, really nailing my flavor descriptors, and figuring out what was going to “set me apart.”
Well, you did just that! You set yourself apart by inventing a brewer! How did that happen?
Kaley: The story is actually quite funny. So I had just competed at the Denver qualifying competition. I had used the Phoenix 70 brewer from Saint Anthony Industries and manipulated a Kalita filter to fit into it—which was a little innovative, but nothing too wild.
I placed second and I thought, “Why am I not placing first?” A judge told me, “You’re being innovative, but we’d like to see more.” Of course, me being me, I took it to the extreme and decided I’d make my own brewer.
I was driving back from Denver with some of my co-workers and told them I was going to build a brewer for the next competition. I explained the concept to them and they were just silent. I was like, “Y'all, don't believe me! I know you don't believe me, but I'm going to do it!”
Can you describe the brewer you invented?
Kaley: I wanted the brewer to be almost entirely taken out of the equation. I wanted the brewer to have as little influence on the final brewed coffee. If it were possible, I would have a filter levitate in the air with no support and just brew coffee over it—clearly that’s not possible.
I wanted to design something that had no restriction—no angles that manipulate the brew. I wanted it to have a very flat bottom and be as open on the bottom as possible.
So that's when I started ordering borosilicate glasses and I crossed some food safe stainless steel wire to the bottom so that it was as open as possible, except for those few stainless steel wires that would hold the filter.
And that was it. It was so ugly. It was awful, but it did what it needed to do. After using this contraption I built a few times, I realized that I really like this steep 90 degree angle with the bottom as open as possible.
Can you talk a little bit about how the design of the brewer affects extraction?
Kaley: I was able to grind my pour overs at almost an aeropress espresso setting, which was awesome because the finer your grind is, the more narrow the particle distribution is. So I was able to achieve more balance in the cup, but at the same time, the coffees I’d brew were significantly cleaner—the flavor wasn’t muddled at all, which can happen with a finer grind setting.
I was super impressed with how clean the resulting brewers were and how clear the flavors were without sacrificing any of the body of the coffee. That being said, brewing with a device like this does rely a lot on agitation—and agitation at different points in the brew, which is exactly what I wanted. I really wanted the coffee to rely solely on my interaction with the coffee.
How did you make the brewer you used at the United States Brewers Cup Competition?
I went through a few prototypes. I brainstormed with my coworker, Jerry Ponzer, and we went through a few options. We thought about 3D printing it, or making it ourselves out of different materials, but that was going to be costly.
One day, as I was walking, I saw a mug made by Convivial Ceramics in Kansas City. And I was like, “I really like the shape. I like the look of it. I bet we can create a brewer out of this shape and this mold—and I bet it would be easy for Convivial to do that.” So I went to them, showed them what I wanted to make, and they said they could make it happen.
It’s wild that you invented a totally new brewer based on feedback from your judges at a coffee competition! It’s interesting thinking of those small moments that lead to big things—what does being innovative in the coffee industry mean to you?
Kaley: I think we tend to rely very heavily on tangible things. There are so many amazing tools for making great coffee, but sometimes we miss what we as humans contribute.
A lot of what makes coffee great comes from us and how we interact with coffee. I would like to see people, especially in the competition scene, not buy a new tool or gadget just because it's new and shiny—I’d like for people to focus inward and recognize their own talent.
Trust yourself. If a coffee tastes good and tastes good to you, then you’ve hit on something great. If you want to try something weird and new, then absolutely go for it as well. I have always been a person who, when I compete, I don't have fancy equipment. I don't use tools and I always do really well because it’s just me and my coffee, and I talk to the judges about what I’ve learned by brewing this coffee. Don't be afraid to try new things.
I love sharing this: I learn the most from my failures. I love making mistakes and I really get so much from experiences where I don’t win or do well because I always learn. My very first coffee competition was my most important because I gained so much knowledge and understood everything more clearly. Do not be afraid to fall down and get back up again, but also push your boundaries and also try new things. If you fail, that's awesome.
Watch out for Kaley’s brewer in 2021!
Interview by: Ashley Rodriguez