It was the final round of the U.S. Coffee Championships this past April in Boston, and as Linnea True waited to step in front of the judges, she ran through her 10-minute routine one last time.

First, a compulsory Irish coffee: Anacafe 14 coffee from El Salvador, Jameson Stout Edition whiskey, a cube each of white and brown sugar, and shaken heavy cream floated on top. Second, one of her personal favorites: a coffee margarita, made with a shot of espresso, La Gritona reposado tequila, fresh lime juice, homemade beer stout simple syrup, and a pinch of Maldon salt. After shaking that mixture with ice, she’d strain the ice out and do a final “dry” shake, adding in an ounce of aquafaba (the liquid from canned chickpeas) dyed with beet juice, which not only provided a frothy mouthfeel, but also tinted the otherwise brown drink pink.

It was an ambitious program, but this was the U.S. Coffee Championships, after all; there was no holding back. True took a deep breath, stepped up, called out for the producers to play her music, and began.

Two glasses with Irish coffees in front of a bottle of Jameson Stout Edition whiskey.
True’s practice Irish coffees for the 2022 finals. Photo by Linnea True

Born and raised in Colorado, True has worked at Boulder’s Boxcar Coffee Roasters for the past 10 years, first as a barista, then cafe manager, and now as its wholesale account manager. She’s not just a java expert, though. True has six years of bartending experience at establishments like Long Shots in Wheat Ridge, so coffee cocktails are the perfect marriage of her passions. She promised her friends that if Coffee in Good Spirits—the coffee cocktail category at the World Coffee Championships—ever came to the national level, she’d enter, so when it debuted at the U.S. Coffee Championships in 2020, she stuck to her word.

After flying through the qualifying rounds in Nashville in January 2020, True was slated to compete in the Portland championships that April which, unsurprisingly, failed to fruit. Two years of touch-and-go waiting ensued until plans finally solidified for a new final competition held in Boston. True was given the option to compete this past April or defer for a year. “It had been such a long time since I had competed,” she says, “but I was motivated. I was hyped up. I just wanted to go out there and see what I could do.”

In the end, True placed fourth in the 2022 finals but has high hopes for 2023. She’s already well positioned, having placed first out of eight competitors in a local preliminary round at Sweet Bloom Coffee. Though Boxcar does not have a liquor license, True practices at home, developing coffee cocktails for competition and, of course, for personal pleasure. Her love for serving any drink comes from the same place: appreciation for the community, the atmosphere of hospitality, and making peoples’ day through service.

Before she heads to the qualifying rounds right here in Denver this coming March, 5280 chatted with True about the trials of competition season, tips for aspiring at-home bar-ista-tenders, and the one person with whom she’d love to share a drink.

5280: For the uninitiated, what does a round of a coffee competition even entail?
True: So for my competition, Coffee in Good Spirits, I had 10 minutes to make two coffee cocktails. One of these cocktails had to be hot, one of them had to be cold. I had to incorporate espresso into one of the cocktails, and I had to brew coffee on stage and use that brewed coffee in one of the cocktails.

I have two judges that are actually tasting the drinks, so I have to make two identical hot beverages and two identical cold drinks. They’re judging my drinks on everything from taste and balance to how it looks. I have a technical judge that’s watching all of my movement and my timing if I’m messy. And then there’s the head judge overseeing all of it.

What drinks are you proud of developing recently?
We just had [the preliminary round for the 2023 U.S. championships] a couple months ago. Qualifiers are set up a little bit differently… You just draw things out of a hat. So I drew Citadelle gin, and I drew tonic syrup. I had about one day to come up with a coffee cocktail that included these two ingredients and a coffee that I had to brew on stage.

I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a gin and tonic, and I wanted to try to keep the gin and tonic separate, so the first thing I decided I wanted to do was use the tonic syrup in a heavy cream to do a cream float on top of my drink. I knew that with the coffee I chose and the gin, I wanted some sort of fruity component to bring that together, so I made a spiced strawberry syrup, and I brewed the coffee over ice so that this could be a chilled drink.

True stirs a coffee cocktail in front of judges.
True named her drink for the 2023 Denver preliminaries the Strawberry Super Moon. Photo by Matthew Temple

What would you recommend to home brewers that want to venture into coffee cocktails?
You don’t have to go all out and have 12 different ingredients in your coffee cocktail. You can make it really simple and have it taste really good. Just stick to [something] simple; stick to what you know you like.

When I’m experimenting with coffee cocktails at home, I usually brew my coffee in a moka pot, the little stovetop espresso maker that probably everybody’s grandmother has. Those make a really great little concentrated amount of coffee. For people at home that own an AeroPress, there’s a way to [make it] concentrated. Some people will also use a cold brew concentrate, which I think is a great idea because that packs a lot of coffee flavor in a small amount of liquid. There are very few coffee cocktails where you’re going to have like this huge amount of coffee and then little amounts of everything else. When you look at it as maybe just an ingredient rather than the base for things to be added to, that kind of opens up your imagination to what could happen.

So espresso martinis obviously had a big moment this year. What’s your take on the drink?
It’s one of those things that always seems to have this little surge out of nowhere. I think it’s great because I feel like it’s really approachable, and it’s, most of the time, pretty delicious. My personal take is that if you’re going to do it, there’s just a couple ingredients, so make sure that you’re using really good ingredients. Because if you’re making an espresso martini with some crappy espresso, it’s not going to be as good as if you’re using a specialty espresso.

And lastly, if you could make a drink for anyone dead or alive, who would it be and what drink?
The first person I thought of was Anthony Bourdain, and I don’t know if I would make him a coffee cocktail. My favorite drink to share with someone is just a cappuccino. That’s the first thing that came to my brain: just sitting outside of the cafe with Anthony Bourdain, having a cappuccino.

Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan is 5280’s associate food editor, writing and editing for the print magazine and Follow his dining/cooking Instagram @ethans_pan.