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Local artisan coffee barista wins regional competition

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Alfonso Portela, “Fonzie,” a coffee barista at the Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters

Chocolate Fish Coffee Company
in downtown, has made it into the finals at the U.S. Barista Championship in Portland, Ore., April 19 to 22.

Fonzie takes his place at the competition after placing in the top six at the Southwest Regional Barista Competition in Santa Cruz in March, competing against 39 veteran top-ranking artisan baristas from Hawaii, California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. This is the highest ranking any barista from Sacramento has ever reached.  Watch an interview with Fonzie as a Finalist just before going on stage here.

At 21 years old, Fonzie has worked as a barista for a little over a year and a half at the shop. Following his desire to work with quality coffee, he sought out a coffeehouse with like-minded aficionados where he could learn and develop his skills.

“Baristas prepare delicious coffee,” Fonzie said. “Our main goal is to make sure that each customer has the most fantastic cup of coffee possible… to amaze people.”

Once hired at Chocolate Fish, he underwent a full training program, including learning about roasting

how to roast
, how to pull espresso, texture milk and make technically and artistically advanced coffee drinks. After approximately 50 hours of one-on-one training, testing and continuing education, Fonzie is still compelled to do his own research, experiment at home and take self-guided tasting tours throughout the region.

His training prepared him well for the top competition in the United States. Contenders have 15 minutes to prepare an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature beverage for four sensory judges while being watched by two technical judges. Throughout the competition, the barista must walk the judges through the history of the coffee, make superior coffee and explain the flavors that the judges should be experiencing. This entertaining show is also all set to music.

Fonzie spent months practicing, along with owners Edie and Andy Baker, selecting coffee and experimenting with sugars and honeys. The coffee itself plays a major factor. Edie Baker explained that she has visited Honduras farmer Jose Isidro Lara twice before selecting his beans. With this level of knowledge, Fonzie was able to precisely explain the history of his coffee from planting to harvesting to final processing and delivery of the beans during his dialogue.

Accessibility was the theme for his presentation. His signature drink consisted of simple yet elegant ingredients. The bottom of the cup was a local blackberry honey, covered with a layer of blackberry reduction. This was topped off with espresso and finally orange zest. By giving instructions to the judges to drink the entire shot, they were able to follow the dialogue that matched the flavors they found in the tasting.

The Bakers could not be more proud of Fonzie, they said.

"To start with someone and to help them learn, and then to watch them go and want to get more knowledge on their own is why we are here,” Andy Baker said. “We give them the tools that get them excited about learning more.”

Since opening the New Zealand-style coffeehouse four years ago, the Bakers have entered a total of four baristas into the competition. Robert August Norton also competed in the top 40 this year. When interviewing new employees, they have high standards for interest in the art of being a barista.

There is a clear tradition of developing that excitement in the staff.

“I have a weird, deep passion for this” Fonzie said. “Every time I come to work or talk to someone new, I learn something else or have another question that I need to find an answer to, and it is probably going to be like that for the rest of my life.”

The high standards are evident throughout the coffeehouse, including chocolates in the shape of fish made by Sacramento’s Ginger Elizabeth and pastries from Bennet’s.

“Anyone that comes in and is interested in coffee, I am more than happy to talk with them,” Fonzie promised. 

Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters


Chocolate Fish Coffee Company
is located at the corner of 3rd and Q.


Editor’s note:  Edits have been made to this article after publishing.

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