Charles Babinski of Intelligentsia Coffee at the 2012 United States Barista Competition. Photo courtesy of The Specialty Coffee Association of America.
By Lisa Han
For most folks, juggling a dozen coffee orders on a Monday morning at lightning speed is a pretty impressive feat. But in the world of specialty coffee, there is a lot more to making a cappuccino than adding milk to espresso. Over the last 10 years, barista culture has evolved into a worldwide competitive art, shining a spotlight on the innovative minds and technical capabilities concealed within the coffee brewing community.
This week, some 54 professionals are gearing up for the 2012 World Barista Championship, an event that Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Tara Shenson calls “the Olympics of Coffee.” Competitors start off in one of five official U.S. Coffee Championships, before vying for the World Title. Other competitions in the field include Coffees of the Year, Roasters Choice, U.S. Cup Tasters Championship, and the USBC Brewers Cup.
Barista competitions aren’t the only thing keeping the specialty coffee community busy this summer. Last week was also Coffee Fest’s Chicago Latte Art Championships, featuring 64 competitors from all around the globe, a first place prize of $2500, and a trophy. Organizer David Heilbrunn explains that the rationale behind launching event in 2002 was to inspire an improvement in the quality of coffee: “You cannot pour latte art and not be creating a wonderful and amazing drink. It’s not possible.”
Both fields, however, have expanded beyond the question of quality to encompass a large community of producers and participants. Take Michael Phillips of Handsome Coffee Roasters, a celebrity in the coffee world. In 2009 and 2010, he took the crown at the United States Barista Championships, and then went on to win the World Championship title that same year. Now, he is heading to Vienna to see this year’s event, which is running from June 12 to 15.
Phillips explains that learning to perform under intense pressure is the hardest part about barista competitions: “You have seven people on a stage judging your every move and evaluating drinks you cannot taste all while being timed, photographed, and watched by hundreds of people live and many more online.”
It’s hard enough not to forget an ingredient or lose your cool on stage, but in each 15 minute round, participants must also keep in mind a barrage of other details as they prepare four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks. These criteria include cleanliness, taste, tactile balance, presentation, technical skill, and overall impression. Shenson explains, “Competitors should strive for a harmonious balance of sweetness, bitterness, acidity, and aromatics.”
Meanwhile, they must also explain the rationale and philosophy behind their choices of coffee, roast profile, and other taste elements to the judges.
Representing the US in the World Championships this year is Katie Carguilo of Counter Culture Coffee, who took the USBC title in Portland this April. Carguilo began competing eight years ago out of college before immersing herself in the New York coffee community. At Counter Culture, experts host weekly coffee tastings (aka “cuppings”), train their wholesale accounts on how to prepare coffee, and teach courses on everything from cultivation history to coffee extraction and brewing methods.
In addition to practicing her own performance, Carguilo advises new baristas to supplement their own methods by watching older WBC routines online. “Don’t try and copy what other people have done, but think about what in their presentation was compelling and use that to inspire the message you want to craft.”
It is therefore no surprise that her favorite competition category is ‘The Signature Beverage’—the greatest opportunity to demonstrate personal creativity and the keenness of one’s palate. Carguilo’s specialty drink this year has quite the origin story of its own. It revolves around the concept of underwater fermentation, and was inspired by a tasting from El Salvador producer, Aida Batlle.
Carguilo’s concoction incorporates unique ingredients with a chemist’s precision: “To emulate the flavors of green coffee soaking in that water, I use homemade plum nectar and jasmine green tea. Then I add a little vinegar and carbonated water (because vinegar and carbon dioxide are byproducts of fermentation), and top that off with the espresso from the Los Alpes farm in El Salvador.”
Other signature drinks in the past have incorporated flavors like mango, pistachio, orange, and even egg. Phillips expressed a personal preference for specialty drinks that stay simple in terms of ingredients, but are nevertheless thought provoking.
Crafting the perfect espresso and cappuccino is a challenge that is equally as nuanced. Phillips explains that cappuccinos must take into account texture, balance, and sweetness. Carguilo adds, “a perfect cappuccino is a balance between espresso flavor and milky sweetness, with neither one over-dominating the other, kind of like best friends.”
However, being able to taste the difference between good coffee and great coffee is a skill that can take years to hone. And while the industry is teeming with descriptive lingo—caramel, grassy, baked, astringent, nutty—sometimes the best drinks evade verbalization.
“A perfect espresso is tough,” says Carguilo. “Those are few and far between but you’ll know it when you have one.”
According to Heilbrunn, Latte Art Championships have seen no shortage of “wow” moments either. Participating artists must perfect their skills in special extraction and rolling to create silky textures, colors, and consistencies that are optimal for the hand-pouring of rosette leafs, hearts, and tulips. Just last week at the Chicago Championships, a competitor from Hong Kong poured a swan. “One time someone poured an elephant… and some of the dragons I’ve seen were amazing,” adds Heilbrunn.
In all aspects of competitive coffee, the talent has become more impressive than ever, and crafting a drink has grown far beyond basic tricks of the trade. Even so, those who find their way into the art of brewing seldom look back. When it comes to competing in coffee, it’s important to temper the bitter with the sweet. Take Phillips’ advice: “Have fun, don’t stress, and be nice to people. You’ll get more out of it.”