Archive for the ‘ Barista Competitions ’ Category

Jay’s Strange Jam

The eagerly anticipated opening of Jay Caragay’s second Spro location in Hampden, Baltimore, was pre-heated with a dawn to dusk Barista Jam last Saturday. The day was the organizational brain child of Lindsay Wailes, one of Jay’s Baristas for the new location.  The basic outline of the day went like this

-Eat a catered pastry and yogurt breakfast

-Coffee brewing Demos

-Eva solo, Clever drip, Chemex, Syphon, Aeropress

-Free play


-Competition rules and judging workshop

-Latte art workshop

-Catered diner


The crowd gathers early in the AM

Barista Joy "controls the moist" with a Clever Drip

It was a lot of stuff to pack into one day.  Jay’s Baristas had been put in charge of dialing in all the brewing parameters of all the methods using all the coffees they carry.  There were multiple roasters represented from Barefoot, Intelligentsia, Hines , Counter Culture, as well as local Baltimore roasters Bluebird and Zekes.  I like how Jay has delegated the brewing parameters to the staff.  Simultaneously empowering, instilling confidence, and raising skill levels, this ingenious training tactic has made the shop a better place before the doors are even open.  Each brewing method was demonstrated by the Barista who personally developed the shop’s technique for that particular method.  All the methods delivered extremely good presentations of the coffees specifically chosen for each brewing device.

Lindsay Wailes, event organizer, watches over a syphon brew

The space is located along a retail strip of old, narrow store fronts in an area where the architecture is reminiscent a little bit of Washington DC.  There is comfortable church pew (rarely do the two go together) and handful of two topper tables and chairs.  The bar area is designed with the Barista in mind.  An island of counter houses the brew bar, with a large hot water tower and it’s own sink, a single halogen burner for the syphons, a two bay stainless steel pour over station, and spare room for scales and things.  The old LaMarzocco Linea, developed and built as a prototype for Starbucks many years ago (but never placed in green apron service) now features bright halogen lamps that illuminate only when the group is activated.  The white light created by these babies is soooo much nicer than the blue shift of LEDs.

The white halogen shines on Hines

There was a cupping lead by Devlin, formerly a roaster from New Harvest in Providence, Rhode Island.  Scott Conary, USBC big time judge talked about rules and judges, and various interpretations of rules.  I lead a latte art workshop.  It was my goal to have a very informative workshop while keeping to a minimum of demonstration.  The only latte art I poured for the workshop was a single Monk’s Head design, which is something I like for people to practice.  It is a great “back to basics” skill drill.

Edit:  It has just occurred to me that Scott Conary is a big time WBC judge, not USBC.

Keep the glow alive

You can read about the latte art throwdown in the previous post, which I won.  It is the first latte art throwdown I have ever won.  I won a bag of people’s stuff, which was kind of cool.

What’s Going on Now

For my 7 faithful readers, I know I owe it to you to let the world know what has been happening in the long while since my last spastic post.  I don’t have any cool mods or refurbs to show at the moment.  But the last couple of months have been fast and busy.  Crap, it is sounding like a Christmas letter already.

Betty and me at the MA/NEBC

Betty of Spruce Street and me at the MA/NEBC

It seems like I am in Pittsburgh a lot these days, I could call this “What’s going on in Pittsburgh”.  The Mid Atlantic/North Eastern Barista Competition was held in Cranberry, just North of Pittsburgh.  I had the real privilege of volunteering for this massive event, which by the way, brought the crowd in like no other regional competition ever before.

The view from the Rennaisance Hotel, Pittsburgh

The view from the Rennaisance Hotel, Pittsburgh

Barista Kevin at Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Barista Kevin at Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Voluto Coffee, again in Pittsburgh, was a great experience.  While I was in town for three days of Grocery demo coffee, I stopped in here for 49th Parallel’s Epic espresso on a daily basis.  The crisp and uncluttered design was super sharp, the staff was knowledgeable and skilled, and the owners, Barb and Amalie, were warm and friendly.  It is definitely worth a visit for the coffee traveler.

Brandy of Lovers and Madmen, not in Pittsburgh

Brandy of Lovers and Madmen, not in Pittsburgh

My friends of Lovers and Madmen have finally opened after what seemed like an eternity of pre-opening preparation.  At Ludlow and 40th in West Philly’s University City,  these guys offer a much needed touch of quality beverages to that side of the Schuylkill.

So that is what’s up right now.  Oh, I almost forgot, the Counter Culture Coffee Training Center in New York City is just about ready to recieve guests and students.  You will have to check here to find out about it.

Aurelia Updates

OK, so the Aurelias that are out there in coffee shops are basically the same as the WBC spec Aurelias, but not exactly. They can swap out the valves located in heat exchange intake and outlet, and valves in the group head, to achieve a near perfectly repeatable brewing temperature with only a 1 or 2 second flush time. My co-worker in Atlanta, David Lamont, did have in his possession a WBC spec Aurelia for a brief time, and he experimented with the Thermofilter device to find beautifully stable brew temperatures.

The WBC spec Aurelia with temperature stabalizing valves install

The WBC spec Aurelia with temperature stabalizing valves install

Nuova Simonelli has achieved stable brewing temperatures in a heat exchange machine by carefully controlling the flow of heat exchange water into the group head. Bear in mind that the group head holds 1 liter of brew water in a reservoir. While the NS people use their soft pre-infusion and ergonomic steam valve control as their big selling points, it is the ingenious temperature control that becomes the shining star on the crown.
Imagine if you will the water sitting in the heat exchanger for some long period of idle time. This water has become too hot to brew, while the 1 liter of brew water in the group head reservoir has become too cool. A careful injection of super heated water, coupled with appropriate convection to blend the two temperatures inside the group head itself, would yield brew water at a desirable temperature. Conversely, a heavy load of drink prparation would move the over heated water form the exchange to the reservoir, raising the heat at the group head. But again, activating the pump will blend the cooler HX water with the hotter reservoir water creating a flow of appropriate brew water into the portafilter. The 1 or 2 seconds of flush time will purge cooled water from the pre-infusion chamber and bring brew temperature water in place and ready for extraction. The NS people have said that longer flush times will raise the temperature of the brew water. This seems consistent with filling the reservoir with more and more HX water. This analysis is purely my synthesis of the information I have been able to gather from various sources and through communication I have had with those who have Scaced the WBC spec Aurelias. I may be wrong about the details of the temperature stabilizing process, but my explanation is an attempt to make sense of the facts that I do have, which are:
Fact 1- Aurelias for the WBC are not exactly the same as Aurelias currently being sold.
Fact 2- The difference in how the two set ups function lies in swapping out a few Gicleur valves located in the HX and the group head.
Fact 3- Aurelias without the WBC set up function like any other HX machine, only with a very slow temperature fluctuation.
Fact 4- Aurelias with the WBC spec valves hit the same brew temperature every time.
I do not know what the NS policy will be concerning retro fitting original Aurelias with a new set of valves, but if I owned one I would definitely asked about getting it done.
My experience using the Aurelia was very pleasant from a Barista’s perspective. There is good clearance between the bottom of the spouts and the drip tray which makes moving cups and shot glasses easy. The angle of the front ledge does give good sight lines to the working area. While some have found the steam a little fast, (reduced in the WBC spec, and cool pipes to the touch), I had no problem texturizing excellent milk. I was not bothered by the dribble of the pre-infusion chamber, but if you are NS has a part you can have installed that drains the excess drops in an unseen fashion.
All this leaves only one major complaint. Can NS style the appearance of the machine to be more appealing to the eye? They have other models that are a sight to behold, like the Adonis for instance.
Much more stylish, the Adonis offer curves and sparkles.

Much more stylish, the Adonis offers curves and sparkles.

MANE Barista Jam in Full Swing

Today we hooked up four GB-5s, splicing electrical cord, duct taping it to the rug, and in some cases rigged a little hard wiring, to get things up and running for the East coast Jam of the year.  Jon Lewis, billed as “Keynote Speaker”, wheeled in a cart which was outfitted with a hand crank grinder, thermal French Press, and pumping device.   He brewed some coffee in the press after which he poured the liquid into a bucket of water, pumped the coffee/water solution with the handle driven pump into one cup, and poured it’s contents into someone else’s cup.  That cup was poured into another, and then again and again, until the whole audience had both received and gifted the coffee to others.  All the while, Jon talked of letting it flow, let it flow, let it flow like Ralaph Waldo, let it flow like Ultimo, let it flow like Giuliano.  There was also something about creating our own deliberate life as an artist would create a work of art.  Don’t forget, he was dressed in brown overalls and dark brown specs, as he was to be the espresso shot of the collective Baristas.  Thusly did we commence the Barista Jam.

A Spro Down was to follow, and I am wanting a rematch against Aldo’s Rich Westerfield, as he narrowly beat out Austin of Olso coffee in Brooklyn, and myself in the second and final round of the robust and friendly competition which raised over $300 for Bikes to Rwanda.  Not present was the whoopin’ and hollerin’ typically characteristic of these events.  Instead there was a respectful atmosphere nurtured with polite “golf” applause.

Annual Evaluation

So the original intent of my bolg was to chronicle my return to the SERBC, and hopfully take a top three spot.  I live just outside of Philadelphia this year, so I am not in the Southeast area.  Now I am in the Mid Atlantic, which may possibly be in DC come February ’08. 

 The topics of this blog have not really been about my future plans for competition, so I guess I have not really fulfilled my mission.  But in my own defense, I did not want to let the cat out of the bag as far as my sig bev goes.  One of the things I lost points on last year was the unique nature of my drink.  It would seem that it was not original enough.  I made it using an ingredient that I had never hear of untill a couple of months before the competion.  I assumed no one else had heard of it either.  Starbucks came out with a big ass latte using the flavor only about a month or two after the competition.  I can’t help but wonder where they got the idea.  But anyway, one of my judges had apparently hear of the drink before.  It was a shot of espresso with carmalized sweetened condensed milk; dulce de leche.  A Columbian neighbor’s mother told me about how they made it in South American countries and eat it in a variety of ways.  It did not score too well.

  The secrecy with which Baristas plan their signature drinks is instigated by the necessity for originality.  With hundreds of Baristas running through the course of competitions since the beggining of the format, it very difficult to come up with something new.  I thought I had come up with somthing truley original this year, so naturally I did not want to let any info get out there for someone else to beat me to the punch. 

    Anyway, yet another competition is getting ready for the near future.  If you have seen the latest Fresh Cup magazine you may have seen the paper doll Barista ad for the Nothwestern.  I thought it was clever and I cut it out for my daughter to glue on some paper.  But I also scanned it to the computer to have at it myself.  Please enjoy.

To Clear the Air

Your list of life-long achievements will not be complete until you have seen this deliciously short and sweet YouTube video. I do, however, wish to clear the air and firmly establish my view on Decaffeinated Coffee. I do not look down upon decaf or decaf drinkers. There have been many occasions when a well prepared cup of properly decaffeinated coffee has provided me with a much needed boost in my morale and spirits at the end of a long day. I understand that decaf drinkers just want a cup coffee that tastes good.

My only point of contention is when the combination of coffee with no caffeine, milk with no fat, and sweetener with no sugar is poured into a large cup of warm nothingness. Would it not be infinitely more desirable to drink a very small cup of rich whole milk, real cane sugar, and pristine coffee? Just keep it all in sensible quantities. Let us put aside the fact that diabetics will want to use artificial sweeteners and some people with sensitive constitutions will want to stay away from caffeine.

I do remember making similar statements to the “why bother” comment to customers on occasion, but it was not strictly in relation to decaf. I would have been referring only to the aforementioned type of beverage, which I normally call The Hollow Log. I like to make fun banter with customers and I do not wish to be taken out of context.

It is a fun video, and well made too. Thanks to Nick for bringing it to my attention (I think he scours the video sites for this kind of thing). I do wish now that I had posted a nicer picture of myself, so I will leave with this photo. This is how I would like to be remembered.

The Barista as Gymnast

This was prompted by discussions such as this and this and this.

Every couple of months the debate comes up somewhere online concerning the merits of the Barista Competitions as performance vs. microcosm of bar life. On the one side there is the camp of those who say these are silly displays of frilly pansies creating impossible drinks for sternly snobbish coffee aficionado judges. There is, they claim, no parallel between pumping out the well rehearsed one dozen drinks demanded for competition, and preparing an ever-changing flux of tickets in a busy cafe. The argument usually takes the position that because the two arenas are so far removed from each other, the competitions have little to no value as a market driving force (or spectator event, for that matter).

The other school of thought I have seen is something of an apologetic approach, explaining the hidden similarities. A Barista must craft their performance to the taste of the judges, and play to them to score well, just as they must read their customers to serve them well. But I think the best view of this side is to look at it as more of an abstraction of human activity, in exactly the same way that sport is. No one claims that American football is anything like real warfare, but that is what it simulates. Archery is not like hunting because your target can’t get away. Olympic style down hill slalom has absolutely nothing to do with the type of skiing that 95% of most vacationers perform, even on the black diamond hill.

I have to agree that Barista Competitions are nothing like working a bar shift, and I think that they should stay distinctly unique from bar service. One would never expect to see a child on the Jungle Gym performing like Nadia Comaneci, nor would one ever expect to see nothing but somersaults and cartwheels in a championship level gymnastic routine. We easily enough accept this level of abstraction in sports, so why is it so hard to take in competitive food preparation? It is as absurd as proclaiming Picasso to be a poor artist because faces just don’t really look like that.

The Gymnast is an exaltation of the capabilities of the human body. Skills that are basic to all humanity, balance, speed, strength, are taken to a height of development far exceeding the simple necessities of day to day life. That is why it takes an exceptional Barista with a somewhat different skill set to win at these things. The complaint that the winner’s circle is out of reach for the average Barshift Barista is a bucket that won’t carry water. Of course it is out of reach, it is reserved for the freakin’ champion! Besides, the average Barshift Barista can barely draw off a half decent espresso or steam milk without making it smell like baby throw-up. So only those Baristas that have been trained to very high standards can even make the finals. Of those finalists, the winner will be someone who understands the nuances of the rules, knows a lot about the judging (or the judges themselves), and has the presence of mind to keep it together as the focal point of attention.

These distinctly unique skills have brought the occasional accusation of champions having corporate backing, inappropriately close relationships with judges, or the inside track with sponsors. But these are just the people who have made coffee their work and their life. Those who have sought out knowledge of the rules are armed with knowledge, and that is not an unfair advantage. Those who have done roasting know about bean processing and espresso blending; still not unfair. Having made time for rehearsals and practice is also not unfair because finding the time to do it comes at a tremendous sacrifice to other areas of one’s life. These are not unfair advantages because they represent the activities of committed individuals who have busted their asses to figure out how to win. If you just show up with the standard house blend and no creative thoughts for your sig bev, you can not claim any disadvantage. The same coffee world is out there to be raked over and scrutinized, and if you are not saturated in it you just won’t be as well equipped. But that is no disadvantage, it is simply not being as well prepared.

These two things I see come up again and again; competitions are not like real life, and winning is only for the privileged. Both of these ideas are a bit hogwashy. Of course competition are not like real life, and they shouldn’t be. There is no cast system in place for Baristas, you just have to want it enough to arrange your life around it. As for myself, I had become complacent in my attitude about coffee and espresso preparation after working behind the bar for a dozen years. It was not till I decided to compete, and realized how much preparation it would take, that I really developed all areas of my game. The more I saw I needed to know, the more research I did. I have learned more about coffee in the last year than in the previous 10. My skill has come up to what I would call “Competition level”, and that simply makes it impossible to drink espresso at other shops. (edit: shops in my area, you may have good ones where you live)

What does this do for the market and the industry in general? I will be taking a full time job with a roasting company, installing and maintaining equipment, and training as many other owners, managers, and Baristas how to get the most out of their coffee as I can. This I will be spreading around my entire region, and I hope to make as much impact on the front lines as possible. This goes far beyond training the Baristas of just one shop. This is my drop in the bucket, and that has to count for something in elevating the entire industry.