Green Country Grown-Up: Ian Picco
Picco is the 2018 U.S. Coffee Roasting Champion
Ian Picco with his family
Ian Picco is a coffee expert. Earlier this year, he put his skills and knowledge to the test during a national competition in Seattle and won first place – taking home the prestigious title of U.S. National Roasting Champion. Next month, he will be heading to Italy to compete on an international level at the World Roasting Championship for Coffee.
As Director of Coffee at Topeca, Picco thrives on his knowledge and expertise of both the technical and scientific processes required to produce coffee. In fact, his niche industry, known as “specialty coffee,” ranks in a category above and beyond mass production, with focus given to carefully produced seasonal lots of coffee beans. His mastery extends in consistently extracting the optimum flavor of beans that are roasted in small batches. He is also the mastermind behind the educational component in the Topeca classroom, known as a place where people come from all over the world to glean knowledge about coffee, including the roasting process.
TK: Tell us about your background.
Picco: I am a first-generation Tulsan and 2004 graduate of Union High School. During high school, one of my first jobs was as a barista. After high school, I went to Evergreen State College in Washington State to study performing arts.
TK: How did you become interested in coffee?
Picco: I felt like I had a connection with coffee. As an artist, poet and drama kid, coffee shops were a place to hang out and seen as somewhat of a safe haven for misfits. In high school, I hung out at one coffee shop so often, they offered me a job. Being a barista was a skill that could travel. Coffee shops are always in need of skilled baristas.
TK: How did you become interested in working for Topeca?
Picco: After college, I briefly moved to Portland and then New York to pursue theatre. In 2008, due to the economic recession, jobs were difficult to find. About that time, I got a call from a friend in Oklahoma who needed help on her organic farm. She also knew about Topeca looking for help in the roastery. So, I moved back to Oklahoma and helped my friend. I also contacted Topeca about the opportunity. I was looking into getting more hands-on and involved in creating a product. In 2009, I started my career at Topeca. I would demo coffee at different Reasor’s stores. I also helped with the packaging and production and, as the company grew, I learned how to roast, cup, taste and analyze coffee.
TK: What is unique about Topeca?
Picco: Topeca is seed to cup, which means we are vertically integrated. We get the beans from the family farm and oversee the entire process from harvesting, processing and roasting the beans to sales and training.
TK: What does roasting involve?
Picco: Roasting marries art and science together. It’s a highly technical process to bring out the flavors of the beans in a way that is consistent across the board.
TK: How did you become qualified to attend the World Roasting Championship for coffee?
Picco: The competition included two rounds over two days. The first round presented judges with coffee roasted in Tulsa and was served as a blind tasting. This was followed by a presentation to the judges about the coffee, explaining my understanding of the technical accuracy and knowledge of the roasting process. I scored first place in the first round. On the second day, during the second round, the competitors were given a single kind of coffee bean to roast on premises and turn in to the judges. This was followed by another technical presentation, and I again scored first in that round, securing first place in the overall competition. After winning the U.S. Roasting Championship in Seattle this year, I became qualified for the World Competition in Italy in January.
TK: How has earning the title of 2018 U.S. Roasting Champion impacted your life?
Picco: After competing the year before and not qualifying, it was a personal goal of mine to win the title, and I did. I like to joke that winning gave me a few more likes on my Instagram page.
TK: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Picco: There is no end to learning, and there is always something new to learn in this industry. New science, new trends, cultural habits evolve and change over time. I enjoy educating people about specialty coffee. Sharing knowledge and experience with others is exciting.
TK: What does your family like to do for fun around Tulsa?
Picco: We are a family of culinaries who like to cook, eat and entertain in our home. Even my 4-year-old daughter has an adventurous pallet. We primarily eat at home, but when we get out, my daughter’s favorite restaurant is In The Raw on Brookside. She loves sushi and tuna. We also enjoy family friendly restaurants like Dilly Diner and Fuel 66. Dilly Diner for brunch on the patio so our daughter can play in the little kids houses. We can ride our bikes to Fuel 66 and enjoy the outdoor, pet-friendly atmosphere with games.
TK: How do you take your coffee?
Picco: Black. Unless it’s not very good, then I add cream and sugar.
TK: What would people be surprised to know about you?
Picco: I am very sensitive to caffeine. On average, I consume four ounces of coffee a day.
TK: When ordering at Topeca, what would you recommend?
Picco: Nitro cold brew is our newest drink. I highly recommend it. If you have tried cold brew before, this is different. The nitrogen creates a smooth and creamy texture. You can see the froth when it’s poured into a glass. Customers should be able to find it at Whole Foods, Sprouts and Reasor’s in Spring 2019. For now, you can find it at our coffee shops downtown.
TK: How can people learn more about specialty coffee?
Picco: I like to get people thinking about the whole picture of specialty coffee, not just the end result. The first Saturday of every month, we offer a Seed-to-Cup Coffee Class. This is a great way to learn more about the process of making good coffee. Classes are held at the Roastery at Admiral and Peoria in their state-of-the-art coffee lab expertly equipped with the finest brewing and roasting equipment around. The first Saturday class is limited to 18 people and cost per person is $10 for about two-and-a-half hours of hands-on education and instruction and includes a tasting. Three additional classes are available to choose from: Barista Fundamentals, Brewing Fundamentals and Roast Your Own.