Morgan Eckroth is always actively searching for the next challenge.
The newest 2022 US Barista Champion is known by over 7 million combined followers as @morgandrinkscoffee on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. Together, they watched Morgan take on the Barista Championships in Boston live on social media.
For Morgan (she/they), her journey in coffee and digital marketing began in college, where she took on a part-time barista job while working on her marketing degree. She started building her TikTok channel in mid-2019, and when she branched into YouTube, she saw an opportunity to turn her journey into an academic capstone project for her graduation.
She asked her advisor, “If I were able to turn [growing my platform] into a very trackable and recordable project, would building a brand on YouTube be an appropriate capstone?” To her surprise, her proposal was approved, and she set an end goal to reach 100,000 subscribers in three months. Like most challenges Morgan sets for herself, she knocked this one out of the park and was given the green light to graduate with full marks.
“I like being busy, and I get really bored if I’m not doing stuff,” says Morgan. “I like having projects and goals. I have the honor of being able to do, as a career, a lot of the things that I love, and I like pouring my heart into them, so it’s a lot of time management.”
So how does Morgan balance her social media channels, part-time barista shifts, and preparing for barista competitions?
“Lots of coffee.”
Morgan isn’t new to the competition scene, but this year was the first time she had to pull together a performance in just two months. In a chance alignment of the stars, an opportunity presented itself to Morgan for a collaboration with Onyx Coffee Lab for a coach-competitor relationship that blossomed into an amazing journey of friendship with passionate coffee people.
“Lance Hendrick happened to be in Portland, and I was handing the coffee over the bar to him, he was like, ‘do you want to work with Onyx? So we ended up grabbing a coffee the next day and talking for two hours,” says Morgan.
“We came to the realization that a lot of my goals of bringing more transparency and awareness to barista competitions very much aligned with Onyx’s foundations and core pillars.”
Morgan’s approach for her channels is to make content for people outside of specialty coffee as a steppingstone to get to the next level. “A huge majority of my audience is nowhere near the specialty coffee industry. It’s like, let me show you this weird little world that I really love, and it’s super cool, and maybe you’ll like it too,” she says.
With her 2022 participation, Morgan saw an opportunity to lift some of the curtains around high-level barista competitions. “It’s a very niche, highly detailed, highly skilled competition that’s hard to explain to people. When you watch as a person outside of coffee, and there are judges scouring every portion of what [the barista] is doing, and they’re giving all these explanations, you’re like, it’s just coffee. How can it taste like that?” says Morgan. “It makes sense when you understand the competition, but it’s about laying the groundwork in a super approachable way.”
In the two months leading up to the competition, Morgan dedicated time to explain what the competition was to her followers, including details like the roles of tech judges, scriptwriting, and taste descriptions. Her candid transparency even took industry-member viewers by surprise as Morgan shared her competition coffee and signature drink recipes – normally closely-guarded secrets – with her followers before taking the stage.
“I wanted anyone watching the actual routine on the day of to have a good foundation of understanding. “It went really well, and there was a strong connection and reaction with my followers because it was a journey that all of us went on for two months,” she says. “I kinda just dragged everyone along with me,” Morgan adds with a laugh.
Morgan’s channels are about bridging the [large] gap between your average viewer who might not even drink coffee with her fellow specialty coffee professionals.
“Most of us understand we should be paying more for coffee and that we should be bringing value to the industry. We want this industry to grow, and there are many systemic problems within this industry that we want to address. However, getting your average consumer to that point is really tricky because they have none of the contexts that we do.”
The way Morgan does it is through humor – namely, her barista sketches that are silly, fun, and easily relatable regardless of which side of the counter you find yourself on. “It starts to build that foundation of trust between me as someone who has all this supposed knowledge about coffee and someone who might not. It’s this trade-off of slowly stacking bricks of trust until eventually that consumer will have the same layer of knowledge that you do,” she shares.
One challenge that Morgan grapples with in the world of competitions is the extremely high level of monetary investment that goes into a barista routine. “I was privileged enough to work with Onyx Coffee Lab, and they essentially sponsored the coffee I was using, which is a huge thing,” says Morgan.
The coffee beans presented on the barista competition stage are some of the most exclusive coffees in the world, like Morgan’s Eugenioides and Sudan Rume coffees from Inmaculada Coffee Farms in Colombia, two ancient varieties that have resurfaced through extensive research and cultivation. (If you still think Gesha is wow-worthy, you have some catching up to do.)
“They are beautiful, wonderful, incredible coffees to present, but that being said, they are so inaccessible to your average person,”
says Morgan. “Even though I love what I’m serving, I hate that part about competitions.”
Going beyond the coffee investment, Morgan reveals she personally spent around US$500 on gear and serving ware alone, not including travel expenses and hotel bookings. In addition to supplying their own coffee to serve an espresso, a milk coffee beverage, and a signature drink to the judges, each barista championship competitor must also prepare their own ingredients, vessels, and any other presentation accessories like menu cards or drink displays. It can get pretty complicated, and they still have to factor in how to safely transport all of their gear to the competition venue. (Overweight baggage fees at the airport counter still hurt as much as they used to pre-pandemic, if not more.)
“One of my goals in the future with competitions is that, as we continue to peel back these layers around it, we can find ways to make it more accessible,”
says Morgan. Organizations like Glitter Cat Barista and @getchusomegear are already doing an amazing job of making coaching and resources for competitions more accessible for marginalized coffee professionals. “Seeing things like that pop up really makes me happy and continuing forward, even if I’m not competing, I want to make it as easy as possible for others to compete,” Morgan adds.
For Morgan, despite its challenges, the barista competition represents an elevated version of what baristas do in their day-to-day work.
“Competitions allow for a lot of innovation and attention to aspects of coffee that are up-and-coming, and by showing these exciting and expensive things on the stage, it opens them up to a wider audience. In the years following, we generally start to see more adoption of these things, so in that way, the barista stage is important because it’s the most high level of what we do,”
Coffee and digital content go hand-in-hand now more than ever. Morgan Eckroth is excited to see what direction her career takes now that her influencer identity is starting to mesh together more closely with her role as a coffee professional. “Who I present myself as online is who I am in person. It’s a portion of myself. It’s not all of me, but I’m a pretty passionate, really energetic, usually hyperactive person who cares a lot about coffee and hospitality,” she shares. “I’m just making my silly videos, and I’m so glad people love them. If sharing my passion allows them to grow theirs, that’s always the goal.”
“I had this one experience where I walked up to deliver drinks to this lovely family, and the dad was like, ‘My daughter and I realized we watch you for different reasons. She watches you on TikTok, and I watch you on YouTube, and neither of us had any idea that the other enjoyed your content.’ That was the coolest experience of my life,” says Morgan.
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More fun facts about Morgan Eckroth:
- The one flavor note that completely threw her off was tomato. “My gut instinct was, ew, I don’t want to drink that, but it was wonderful, delicious, and complex. It was one of those strange moments where I had to recontextualize how I thought about coffee.”
- Her deserted island coffee tool is the French press. “Batch brew, cold brew, milk frother. You can do anything with a French press, and if I need versatility, that’s the way I’m going.”
- Milk and sugar don’t trigger her. “Here’s your Gesha; enjoy it however you want.”
- She was maced on a barista shift. “We had someone get very angry about one of our pandemic policies, and they sprayed mace into the entire front of the shop. I didn’t expect to check that off my bucket list, but I did, so I’m glad that’s off the plate.”
- Morgan has a secret side hobby. “Writing is the one thing I’ve kept to myself so far. It’s not monetized or posted online. I haven’t even trusted my partner with it. I love writing fiction, and fantasy and sci-fi are my preferred genres for reading and writing.”
- Her iconic YouTube video intros are powered by socks. “I have a long hallway leading into my kitchen, so I start running on one end and hope I don’t fall. I always say, ‘hello there,’ and it’s just a Star Wars reference. I wish I had a deeper reason.”
Morgan is a staunch believer in the barista career. “It’s exciting to see the collective push for better wage equality, transparency, and increase in wages for being a barista. It’s a highly-skilled career because you have to develop so many hard skills and soft skills in customer service. But it’s still frequently an underpaid job,” says Morgan. “There’s a huge discrepancy in how much baristas are paid, and it adds to the struggle of how much we value people and their roles at.”
With the ongoing push to validate the value that baristas bring to the supply chain, Morgan’s advice for anyone working in coffee is to be confident in your skills. “Go into situations with confidence because no one else is going to have so much confidence in you if you’re not reflecting that in yourself.”
Now that she has the US Barista Champion title under her belt, Morgan will be busy over the summer of 2022 preparing for the World Barista Championships in Melbourne. “It’s an honor, one that I don’t take lightly, so it’s very exciting. I don’t view my work in coffee to ever have an endpoint. It’s just continuing forward to find challenges and address them, so right now, I’m actively searching for the next challenge.”