Switchback Coffee Roasters in Colorado Springs isn’t a particularly big shop. Still, the baristas are kept plenty busy slinging coffee. 

“In this café probably three to five hundred.” Sam Neely is referring to the amount of cups he could fill with coffee on a single shift at Switchback.

Sam Neely, director of wholesale at the coffee shop off Institute Street, spends more time on the roaster side of the business these days. He meticulously picks which beans the shop uses. 

If you do happen to catch him behind the espresso machine, it’s quickly evident the dude knows how to pour a great coffee. 

“Coffee is a drink that so many of us enjoy,” Neely waxed poetically. “When you stop and you think about it or you have a really good cup of coffee, it brings you back to every single step that went into producing that.”

Mike Grady

Neely has taken his talents to the big time. On the first weekend of December, he came to Denver to compete in the U.S. Barista Championship. 

It’s part of the greater U.S. Coffee Championships. 

“I had a panel of four judges that I was serving my coffees to and talking to,” Neely explained. “They were scoring me based on what I was saying, and how delicious my drinks were. There were also two judges behind me. Watching me move. Watching me make coffee. Making sure I was doing everything clean and fluidly. There was also a final head judge keeping track of everything.”

In addition to serving relatively standard coffee drinks, Neely had to present a signature drink. His special concoction consisted of four shots of espresso, lemongrass simple syrup, separated milk and carbon dioxide pressurized blackberry juice, all shaken and served in a wine glass and topped with jasmine dry ice. 

His performance earned him first place and a spot in the final round which takes place in Kansas City in March.

Neely appreciates competing in something he’s passionate about. 

Mike Grady

“It gives both myself and my shop a platform that I hope we can use to bring awareness to issues facing our industry,” Neely said. 

Issues he cares about like prices and working conditions for farmers who produce the coffee. Sam’s passion still comes back to the beverage he gets to share with people every day. 

“To me that’s what makes coffee so special is understanding the story behind the cup. And at the end of the day just being able to give somebody a cup of coffee that they’re going to enjoy. That makes all those steps worth it.”