For the first 21 years of his life, Sam Balean had an aversion to coffee. It wasn’t until he entered a coffee shop in New York City that, upon smelling the aroma, he ordered himself a cappuccino. After the first sip, Balean knew that there was so much more to coffee than he originally believed. Volunteering at church cafes, as well as the nonprofit coffee shop Origin Coffee, Sam excelled as a new barista and became certified after just two weeks. To further his knowledge of the craft, Balean moved to Taiwan to work at Milkglider Latteartist Unity, before continuing on to Rothrock Coffee in Pennsylvania. He has participated in many competitions, including Coffee Fest, SPLAT, and Califia Farms, often winning first place and ultimately becoming the 16th best barista worldwide. He continues to volunteer at Origin Coffee and currently works at Pour Choice, training other coffee lovers and aspiring latte artists.
Daniel Vu was always the type of person who struggled with figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. Bouncing between his many interests and career ideas, Vu felt that nothing really seemed to stick. Holding on to his lifelong love of art and hands-on activities, Vu happened across a job at Peet’s Coffee and Tea and immediately discovered a budding passion for coffee. After four years in the coffee industry, Vu discovered the concept of latte art. Upon getting a job at Bitter + Sweet in Cupertino, he began developing his newfound craft, which he says significantly improved once coworkers introduced him to latte art videos on Instagram. Today, Vu is the new owner of Bitter + Sweet.
“Competing has introduced me to many great friends in the industry, and now my job has become my career.”
Nikki Menafra initially viewed the start of her coffee career as a way to feed her never-ending high school coffee addiction. After first getting a job at Caffino, a drive-through coffee shop, Menafra continued to work in the coffee industry for the next eight years. Getting her start in third wave coffee at Bellano Coffee, Menafra participated in her first Chromatic Throwdown at Hotel De Anza, where she was eliminated after the first round. She then set her sights on Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco before returning to the South Bay and beginning her journey with Chromatic. Menafra feels that starting at Chromatic was the turning point in her career, and she is now the assistant manager of Chromatic Coffee Santa Clara.
“The team is made up of some of the most talented coffee professionals I have ever had the chance to work with. We all work hard every day because we love what we are doing, and we just want to share it with anyone and everyone.”
Photography by Aurélia Faudot