By THERESA WINSLOW
The Capital of Annapolis
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Andy Sprenger doesn’t make your average joe.
His coffee is a mix of art and science, with ingredients carefully selected and measured to the gram, water heated to just the right temperature and poured in specific ratios in specific steps.
“There are so many variables you have to control,” Sprenger said. “It gets very nerdy to produce that absolutely ultimate cup.”
When the process is finished, he inhales deeply and describes one such coffee like a wine connoisseur, talking about notes of jam, cocoa and tropical fruit.
In the world of competitive brewing, it isn’t excessive — it’s essential. And the 39-year-old Centreville resident is one of the best in the world.
Sprenger, who works at Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, is the two-time reigning U.S. champion and finished second earlier this month in the World Brewers Cup. There were competitors from 23 countries in the Vienna, Austria event. Sprenger was tops in a field of 43 at this year’s U.S. event, held in April in Portland, Oregon.
“Andy’s a great presence and he cares about the coffee,” said Nick Cho of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in the San Francisco Bay area, who helped organize the U.S. and world contests. “He makes you feel like you’re in good hands. Being a roaster, he’s (also) able to speak about the coffee in a more complex, more complete way.”
Sprenger not only had to manually brew coffee, but give a presentation to a panel of judges as he served them. His talk was a mix of coffee information and history.
“They want what you say to them and your service to improve their overall experience of the coffee,” Sprenger said.
He was pretty nervous, but said it helped keep him focused. He finished just a half-point behind the first-place brewer, who hailed from Australia. Sprenger said the judges wanted him to spend a bit more time discussing the aromatics.
Last year, he failed to make the final six at the world event. So, his recent finish was satisfying in one respect and disappointing in another, being so close to the top.
“It’s bittersweet,” Sprenger said.
Nevertheless, Vince Iatesta, owner of Ceremony Coffee, was pleased with the showing.
“It’s a great personal accomplishment,” he said. “I’m proud he represents Ceremony. He’s a master.”
Iatesta accompanied Sprenger to Vienna and served as his coach, offering advice as well as helping with practice and preparation. To get some idea of the preciseness involved, both men removed a small amount of chaff from each bean before grinding, just on the off chance it could add a hint of bitterness to the brew.
Beyond the accolades, Iatesta said the contests are a good way to emphasize quality coffee over inferior convenience drinks.
“As roasters, we want everyone to experience coffee the way we do,” he said.
For both the U.S. and the world competitions, Sprenger selected a special Colombian variety of coffee called Geisha from the farm of Cerro Azul. It costs $34 per half-pound and is roasted to order at Ceremony.
Sprenger brewed a similar coffee at Ceremony’s Russell Street location last week to demonstrate the competition methods. After grinding the beans, he picked up the cup and breathed in. “When you have a coffee that’s this beautiful,” he said, “it gives you an indication of what you’re going to achieve in the cup.”
Counting on beans
Sprenger didn’t really fall in love with coffee until college. His parents gave him an espresso machine for his dorm room, and he enjoyed the coffee culture in shops in Washington state.
But he never thought about going into the coffee business until he took a job at Ceremony (formerly Caffé Pronto) nine years ago. Sprenger originally intended it as stop-gap work while he searched for environmental or ornithological positions. He ended up enthralled by the daily grind.
“Once I started, I saw huge potential,” he said. “I saw a never-ending ability to learn more about coffee. I’m a birdwatcher, and it was like I’d been given binoculars for the first time.”
Sprenger estimates he’s brewed thousands of cups of coffee, picking up new techniques and new ideas along the way. He’s also competitive, so he enjoys the challenge of trying to improve and seeing how he ranks among brewers.
When he returned from Vienna, he went out to dinner with his wife to celebrate. His children, ages 8, 4 and 2, made him a congratulatory poster. Then, he went to bed because he had to go work the next day.
The caffeine didn’t keep him awake.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)