‘It took a lot of tasting horrible things,’ but Sumner barista is the best in the USA

Sam Spillman loves coffee.

Like many people, she starts her day with it, leaving early from home in Seattle to travel to work in Sumner.

Because coffee isn’t just her passion — it’s her job.

Spillman is the coffee education specialist for Dillanos Coffee Roasters, meaning she gets to experiment with coffee and then train clients how to work with it.

“I fell in love with coffee in the beginning because of community,” the 26-year-old barista said. “I just loved being where people were at, and I felt like coffee always brought people together.”

On March 17, Spillman was nationally recognized for her expertise when she won first place at the U.S. Barista Championships in Kansas City, Missouri.

At the competition, which is part of the larger U.S. Coffee Championships, baristas from all over the country have 15 minutes to serve 12 drinks: four espressos, four cappuccinos or milk beverages, and four signature beverages to a panel of judges.

Four judges score on taste, which is 47 percent of the overall score, while two others follow contestants as they make their coffee, watching for technique.

“They’re watching to be sure you don’t spill a lot of coffee. They’re making sure you start your shots as soon as you lock in your portafilters. They’re making sure everything is clean and set up,” Spillman said.

It’s OK to spill, as long as you clean it up, Spillman said. Points are deducted for exceeding time limits.

“A point is a lot, because last year I missed finals by half a point,” Spillman said. She’s been competing for five years.

The baristas also are talking during their so-called “routines,” sharing a story about coffee. Spillman spent months rehearsing, down to each movement.

Spillman’s story took the judges back to the beginning of the coffee process: the farm.

In preparation for the competition, she took a trip to La Palma Y El Tucan, a coffee farm in Colombia.

“This experience changed everything for me,” Spillman said of the August trip.

In Colombia, she met farmers who have been hand-picking coffee beans their entire lives. She saw how one arabica coffee tree only makes about a pound of coffee in one year, and of that, many beans get thrown out for quality reasons.

It gave her new perspective, Spillman said.

“We need to tell that story better,” Spillman told The Herald in an interview March 25. “As coffee professionals, we’re trying to grow this industry.

“If we can focus on where it came from and focus on what’s important with coffee … I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The experience also inspired Spillman’s signature drink. She used passion fruit juice, coconut water and sugar to create a passion fruit sipping vinegar and combined it with a lychee-infused soda water.

To top it off, she created an orchid aromatic fog — “There’s so much science that goes into coffee,” Spillman said — which she poured over the beverage for scent.

The coffee tasted like watermelon, passion fruit and grapefruit.

“It was pretty tasty. It was fun. It took a lot of tasting horrible things, though, to try to figure it out,” Spillman said about the drink.

It paid off.

Spillman was the only barista to get a score above 600 points, totaling 618 and securing her title of U.S. Barista Champion.

“That was a big surprise,” she said.

Spillman is the first woman to place first in the U.S. Barista Championships since 2014. She said she couldn’t do it without the support of her husband, Brian, her coach, 2017 Barista Champion Kyle Ramage, and her team at Dillanos.

She will now compete in the World Coffee Championships, an international competition held in Boston in April.

David Morris, Co-CEO of Dillanos, said Spillman had been “training like an Olympic athlete” to prepare for the competition and is glad “the world is exposed to Samantha and her wonderful and infectious attitude.”

Spillman started her career as a barista when she was 17 in her hometown of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She moved to Seattle when she was 18, where she started working under the guidance of 2014 Barista Champion Laila Ghambari.

Spillman attended Seattle Pacific University and earned her degree in business and marketing. She’s been working for Dillanos for two years.

In sharing her experience, Spillman hopes people are thoughtful when they order their next cup of coffee.

“Being a barista is a lot of hard work,” she said. “You’re moving quickly, and you’re pumping out drinks, and you’re engaging and talking, and it’s a lot of hard work.”