by Megan Giller
The hip-hop beat drops, and onstage, the barista jumps along. His voice rises, explaining his coffee’s taste profile over the sharp whir and clank as he grinds espresso beans, then quickly pulls four perfect shots. He approaches the judges, holding a tray of four white ceramic mugs and a metal steamer, his tattoos peeking out from his long-sleeve button-down. He pours the milk skillfully into the cups, tracing a delicate design as the cream mixes with the black concentrate. The crowd screams and claps, hoots and hollers. The music swells: It’s time for the judges to taste his first round of cappuccinos.
It’s no easy feat competing at the 23rd annual Specialty Coffee Association of America’s United States Barista Championship (USBC). This year, the event, in Houston, brought together more than 8,000 coffee lovers and 39 competing baristas, but only 26 made it to the semifinals, and only six to the finals. The winner gets a wooden trophy; a chance to compete in the World Barista Championship (WBC), held in Bogotá, Colombia, in June; a messenger bag; a blender; and the title of reigning champion.
But for the baristas, it’s not about all those things. “A lot of time baristas enter the competitions not so much for the glory as to improve their own skill sets,” said Intelligentsia Coffee’s Stephen Morrissey, the 2008 WBC winner and a judge and emcee this year. (After monopolizing the USBC in the past, the powerhouse Intelligentsia decided not to compete this year, only to judge.)
So who are these competitors? The George R. Brown Convention Center was teeming with tattooed twentysomethings wearing ankle-cuffed, dark-wash skinny jeans; distressed brown leather oxfords; and pearl-snap shirts. “Be responsible,” an emcee told one competing barista, referring to his power over the crowd. “I’m not generally good at that,” he replied, voicing the dilemma of an entire generation. But it seems he had found a calling, and a passion.
“There’s a stigma that baristas are snooty hipsters,” said Jared Truby, a semifinalist from Verve Coffee Roasters, in Santa Cruz, California. “We’re not. But we’re almost all purists.” In the specialty coffee industry, otherwise known as third-wave coffee, espresso lovers and black coffee drinkers—not scenesters—dominate the landscape.
It takes more than a powerful espresso, though, to win the competition. “You’re not just making the drinks,” said Daniel Read, a first-time competitor from Houndstooth Coffee, in Austin, Texas. “You also present your coffee and tell the judges everything about it.”
A week before the big event, Read was already “physically and emotionally exhausted” from rehearsing. As he grated dehydrated strawberries for his inventive signature beverage, Read described the competition. “You have 15 minutes to make and present 12 beverages—espressos, cappuccinos and a signature beverage—to four taste judges, as well as two technical judges and a head judge. The main judges look for taste and presentation. The technical judges score you on cleanliness, professionalism, tamping your coffee, dosing the same amount, your shot times. The head judge oversees everything and acts as an equalizer.” Read grated furiously, and the pile of dehydrated strawberry dust in front of him grew.
So what does a newbie like Read’s signature beverage look like? “Being from Texas, I decided to combine coffee and aspects of a margarita,” he told me. “It’s a takeoff of a macchiato, which is a one-to-one ratio of espresso to milk. Instead of milk, I’m using a soft gourmandise cheese and hand-whipping it with cream. After dipping the rim of my cup in simple syrup and the dehydrated strawberry granules, I’ll take a shot of espresso and a dollop of the cream on top.” He paused. “I served a version of this at the regionals, and the judges didn’t like it.”
Yet Read had squeaked into the national competition. Many of the other national competitors had entire teams who trained for months, as well as practiced on machinery they’d use on the SCAA stage; Read, on the other hand, had only been rehearsing for about a month at the store, with Houndstooth owner Sean Henry.
The competition was beyond steep. To Read’s 12 beverages, the more sophisticated servers answered with closer to 20. MadCap Coffee’s Ryan Knapp, a slender roasting expert with a cropped black beard and a snappy vest, showcased two Colombian coffees grown by brothers on adjacent farms, the Luis Reinoso and the Didier Reinoso. To highlight “the incredible nuance in coffees grown so close together,” Knapp served rounds of Luis cappuccinos and Didier espressos as dramatic music hummed over the loudspeakers. He then moved on to his signature beverage. Knapp made a dark chocolate ganache using a Rogue 80 percent cacao, then paired it with the Luis espresso to bring out the full-bodied flavor and rich malt notes. The Didier espresso, not to be outdone by its brother, was combined with homemade grapefruit juice—made with fresh grapefruit, blended grapes, water and honey—to focus its clean, vibrant citrus tones. “Stir, check the aromatics and enjoy,” Knapp encouraged the judges. He created and served 16 beverages in 15 minutes, all while speaking about his coffees’ origins and subtle complexities.
Read’s virgin margarita-and-cheese beverage was starting to feel a little weak.
But it was Honolulu Coffee Company’s Pete Licata’s performance that really curdled Read’s cheese. A serious-looking 32-year-old with a shaved head and a thick, chocolate-toned beard, Licata began his presentation with Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.” “Today I have a story to tell you,” Licata told the judges. “The story of your coffee, and how it came from the fruit on the tree all the way to your cups today. This is also my own story, my journey in preparing and processing and roasting this coffee and bringing it to you.” As he prepped his elaborate three-part signature beverage, Licata detailed how he had picked red typica beans from Rusty’s Hawaiian estate, dried and cured them using a honeying process at a nearby farm and roasted them himself.
The first part of Licata’s “sig bev” consisted of a tea he brewed onstage, using parchment with mucilage on it from the drying process and cascara from the coffee cherries he had picked. Next he made expert cups of French press to bring out the natural acidity and fruit flavors of the coffee; he finished with a shot of espresso, completing the journey from light to heavy flavors, all while focusing on sweetness. And that was just a third of the competition. Licata quickly moved into a round of cappuccinos, using a natural red and yellow caturra picked at 2,000 feet and cured with fruit for three months and then a washed coffee from a Waio’no Meadows farm at 3,200 feet in North Kona. A strong round of espressos with layered-coffee dosing, their aroma rich and tropical, finished the set. Twenty drinks in total, in what seemed like an effortless presentation. The judges, blinking dizzily on their caffeine trips, swallowed two sips (“It’s rude to spit,” said Teresa Von Fuchs, a nose-ringed judge from Dallis Bros. Coffee, in New York City), paused and then resumed furiously scribbling notes.
By the finals, only six competitors remained: Knapp; Licata; Trevor Corlett, of MadCap Coffee; Nik Krankl, of Gelato Bar & Espresso Caffe, in Los Angeles; Lorenzo Perkins, of Caffé Medici, in Austin; and Kevin Bohlin, from Ritual Coffee Roasters, in San Francisco. During one of the final routines, I spotted Read in the audience; he had been eliminated in the preliminary round, but he didn’t seem too bummed. “I was hoping to make the semifinals,” he said. “But I came and performed, and I’m happy.” The Gorillaz’s “Kids With Guns” blasted from the speakers, and we both turned to watch the show.
Tensions intensified as the last finalist wrapped up in 14 minutes and 53 seconds. Would the winner be Bohlin, who had juiced two whole pineapples for his signature beverage, a four-part affair with espresso, pineapple juice, honey and sparkling water? Licata, whose complex performance had required a slideshow for the judges? Knapp, who after his routine had heartily pulled espresso shots for anyone with a semi-clean cup? Or Krankl, who had made his own wooden and glass trays, scales and place mats in his grandfather’s shop?
The winning espresso was a carefully layered concoction, with notes of Meyer lemon at the start, strawberry then blackberry at the bottom and chocolate caramel throughout. It was Pete Licata’s, of course; the judges had loved his honeying process, hands-on knowledge and polished performance.
But who knows—on the international scene, Licata’s handpicked, cured and roasted presentation could look as provincial as a margarita. For coffee lovers, all roads lead to Bogotá.