During the Valentines Day / Presidents' Day long weekend in February, an event took place in Seattle that I hope becomes an annual occurrence. It was the First Annual Northwest Barista Jam. And Jammin', it was
The entire event was staged at Espresso Specialists Inc. (www.esi-online.com), in the Freemont / Ballard neighbourhood of Seattle, and I really don't think there could have been better hosts. The ESI folks are some of the most respected people in the world of espresso, and their desire and passion and support for the art that is a Barista is pretty much unsurpassed by any other company in this business. Their first class facilities provided banks of four group La Marzocco Linea espresso machines, heaps of Mazzer / Rio grinders, a show room for cupping and seeing some amazing collector machines. Top it offi with an enthusiastic staff more than willing to give up their weekend to be a part of this event.
So What's a Barista Jam?
A Barista Jam isn't some newfangled bread spread or breakfast choice at Dennys'. Nope - it's a coming together of enthusiastic Baristi, be them seasoned or newbies, and the desire to hone and develop the finer points of their craft. It's a bunch of coffee fanatics spending a weekend together getting intense training, building camaraderie and friendships, and doing a little competing. It's an event where the Barista can learn that they count. They can learn that what they are doing is important, and is an art form. It's a weekend where the PBTC (Person Behind The Counter) can become a Barista with a capital B, if they so choose.
The event was a weekend full of training, tutorials, cupping sessions, competitions, and just plain old fun for some 40 Baristi from all over, including some as far away as Amsterdam, Texas, New York City, Alaska, and even this author's hometown, Vancouver, BC. The Jam came about because of the success and popularity of the Barista Jam Session held last year in Oslo, Norway - that event was such a hit that Jeff Babcock (of Zoka Coffee, www.zokacoffee.com ) and Sherri and Danny Johns (of Whole Cup Consulting) took the steps to do a home grown event that they hope becomes an annual thing, and possibly even a regional thing.
Day One Jammin'
| Assembled Baristi getting a history lesson from John Blackwell. |
After the pre-event welcome dinner the night before, things got off to a good start with a morning welcome and a machine history lesson by ESI's John Blackwell, who happens to be the company's "resident creative thinker in charge" and one of the true innovators and movers in the American espresso scene. John covered some important history milestones for the Baristi, from the Pavoni Ideale of 1906 to the Gaggia Crema of 1946'; from 1961's Faema E61 heat exchanger and volumetric pump machine right up to the modern day independent boiler system found in La Marzocco machines. I liked seeing this kind of background lesson because it gives the Barista a good feel for the technology behind the machines, and how far the world of quality espresso has come.
After Blackwell's lesson in history, the assembled Baristi were divvied into groups around each of the five LM Linea machines set up, and were given a 75 minute lesson in full machine maintenance by various volunteers. Even though this was a crash course, many attending Baristi felt they learned a lot of valuable info; in fact, some expressed confidence that the lesson left them more prepared to handle their in-shop machines than some of their bosses were!
Next up was the major cupping session. Because of space constraints, people like me (and the volunteers, and other press members) couldn't sit in on the active cupping sessions, but Jeff Babcock and Holly House (of Batdorf and Bronson, www.batdorf.com) ran the 2 hour session, and when I spoke to the participants later on, the session was very informative, educational, and fun. Many of the Baristi came away from the cupping session with a newfound appreciation for their roasters, for the green (and roasted) bean, and the true art that blending coffee can be. Most importantly, a new respect for the art of the roaster was discovered by many of the attendees.
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| The cupping session gets some introductory talk. |
| Holly House and Jeff Babcock set up the cupping seminar. |
| Jon Lewis (centre) and other Baristi start the session. |
| Joe Monaghan (standing, far right), listens to the cupping intro before all "volunteers" are chased out. |
Crawling Over Cafes
| The diminutive sign out front doesn't give justice to what's inside... |
| Three people manned the 5 group machine for the crowd. |
After a lunch break, the real fun of the day (from my perspective at least) took place: the cafe crawl! The idea was to spend 3.5 hours visiting five cafes. Some I've been to, some I haven't, and I was looking forward to visiting each of them.
First up was Hines Public Market Coffee, where one of my all time favourite Barista works - Bronwen Serna (the ranking PNW Barista Champion). Her cafe features the only five group La Marzocco machine known to exist (and the largest in-operation espresso machine in North America). Serna, along with owners John Sanders and John Hornall, worked their magic for about 40+ instant visitors, and were so professional and so fast that within 10 minutes, they were holding up espresso shots asking if anyone wanted seconds.
Serna made me one of the house specialties: the honey machiatto. It is a double ristretto shot built in a teaspoon of honey, then topped with a slightly honey'd milk froth. Absolute heaven in a cup. It's nearly impossible for Serna to pull a bad shot, and I highly recommend a visit to Hines Public Market Coffee if you're looking for good espresso in Seattle (and who isn't :))
Our next stop was the defacto funky mojo place, Coffee Messiah. Blake was the name of the Barista behind the counter there, and if anything, he adds to the style of the place - which really has to be seen to be believed. The bathroom is one of the most unique pit stops you'll ever make (I won't tell you why - just check it out), and the espresso shots they pull for you in the front of the cafe ain't shabby. The decor inside is, well, strange and unusual, but I can never get enough of these kinds of cafes. For ambiance alone, it's a must visit; then you stay for the espresso.
| Vivace is at the corner of Broadway and Denny Way, on the side. |
| David Schomer works the mid-1990s vintage Mistral 3 grouper for the crowd. |
What Seattle cafe crawl would be complete without a trip to Espresso Vivace? Not ours, so we went. David Schomer was behind the bar, waiting for us all, and I even had a codeword to use when I was in there. Schomer asked to the crowd of 40 or so people, "okay folks, what would you like?" and from the back I said, in a muffled, disguised voice 'how 'bout a god shot, Dave?" to which he replied "Mark? Mark Prince, are you here?" I have to admit that made my day, or at least my afternoon :)
Schomer did pull me a shot on his beautiful, customized and mid 1990s vintage Mistral 3 group machine, and the shot was great - I am a fan of the Monsooned Malabar, after all. But I do have to say I still prefer Espresso Vivace's Dolce blend over the Vita, which is the blend Schomer had his grinder loaded with. My only real complaint is that the shots are never long enough - I want the same taste but three times the volume. Maybe a quad or quintuplet sized portafilter will do it some day.
Schomer served those who wanted shots, then moved onto giving a short tour and talked about their in house roasting facilities and the large painting on the back wall of the shop.
I went outside for some fresh air at one point, and overheard one of the Baristi on his cell phone with someone back at his shop in the Midwest (I presume). Say what you will about the guy who runs Vivace, but what I heard is a testament to Schomer's influence and role in quality coffee and espresso in the US: the Barista told his caller that "yes, I just got a shot by the guy himself! Yes, David Schomer actually poured me an espresso shot! How cool is that!? Yes, it was top quality!" I got a chuckle out of what I heard, and I thought, hey kudos David Schomer for inspiring that kind of response in a dedicated Barista who worked some 2,000 miles away from Seattle.
The last two stops for the Baristi were Victrola Coffee and Art and Cafe Vita Roasting and Cafe. Victrola was very nice and I really liked the setup in there, and my shot of espresso was first rate, and right in the middle in terms of the best vs. worst on this cafe trip. The manager (who's name I failed to catch) gave a nice talk to the gathered Baristi, talking about the history of the cafe and how they see their role in the Seattle coffee scene, and how important it was to keep their coffee "local" (they buy their beans from Espresso Vivace). Victrola is brand new (opened in 2000), but already has an established "feel".
Vita is one of the larger "micro roasters" in the Seattle area, and talk about slick - the giant roaster works are visible from the beautiful cafe through a large plate glass wall. Vita is very professionally run, though I was a tad disappointed with the espresso shot I ordered - don't get me wrong, it was a good shot - but someone's espresso had to finish last on this trip.
Much better was the short seminar that the head roaster, Dan Donahue, gave to the crowd of Baristi. He explained a lot about the vintage 1930s area Probat 40kg roaster that is the main go-to machine for the cafe / roaster, and talked in depth about the mechanics behind roasting, the art of blending, and Vita's role in bringing better coffee to Seattle and beyond. The gathered Baristi left with a much better appreciation for the business and artistry of roasting.
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| Schomer was serving up heart latte art for the Baristi crowd. |
| The two person crew at Victrola, dishing out the drinks. |
| Coffee Messiah's funky purple and starry interior. |
| Dan Donahue at Caffe Vita talks about the roasters. |
With our last cafe stop out of the way, the Jam Day One was over, but the socializing wasn't. There was an excellent catered dinner provided at Zoka Coffee by the very excellent staff and owner of said Zoka Coffee. The Baristi, along with the trainers, volunteers, sponsors, and representatives from a variety of trade magazines, organizations, and companies got together for an informal evening of fun and discussion about coffee and espresso. Fresh Cup magazine was fully represented, as was the SCAA.
I had a nice conversation with Leanna Mix from Davinci Syrups (www.davincisyrups.com). She gave me a brand new appreciation for the syrup companies in general, and DaVinci in particular. Say what you want about syrups (yes - they're sugared water), but recognize this: syrup companies like DaVinci are some of the biggest boosters and sponsors of events like the Barista Jam session, Barista competitions, magazines, publications and events that help promote and encourage better coffee and espresso. Kudos to those folks for their active participation in the coffee community.
Back to the evening dinner, everyone on hand was treated to some of the best espresso around: The Zoka staff were behind the beautiful 4 group La Marzocco FB70 machine pulling some of the best shots of the day. What a way to end the "official" first day.
The evening ended with this author and his significant (and much better) other going out with a bunch of Zoka Baristi and Roasters to one of Seattle's better known imbibing locales. I simply cannot get into what took place until past one in the morning, but I will say this - if Dismas Smith (North American Barista King, uhm, Champion) sticks his tongue in my ear once more in my lifetime, all bets are off. I'll either ask him to back it up with more substance, or punch him in the eye :)
Barista Jam Day One Wrapup
If the first day of the Jam was an amazing experience for this author, it was even more so for the participants.
They got to learn about the history and mechanics of espresso brewing. They learned that espresso isn't just a science, but also an art form. They learned the value of cupping and blending, and the high skill set one needs to really pull off the perfect espresso blend. They even learned that one person's perfect blend is another person's so so blend. The Baristi learned a lot about the business (and sometimes harsh economics) of the coffee and espresso market.
Most importantly, the gathered Baristi learned that they do matter, and that they are the most valued and important resource in the cafe owner's success or failure. They learned that this isn't just a McJob - it can be an upwardly mobile career, and a job one can have great passion and dedication for.
And the best part is this - they learned that there are other people with just as much passion about the art of being a Barista as they have - if not more so.
Next up will be a Day Two report of the First Annual Northwest Barista Jam, which will be coming in a week or so. Before I sign off, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the organizers, sponsors and cadre of volunteers who helped with this event.
Of course Jeff Babcock (Zoka Coffee, www.zokacoffee.com), and Sherri and Danny Johns (Whole Cup Consulting) worked like crazy to promote and pull the event off, but they wouldn't have been able to do so without the support of Espresso Specialists, Inc. (www.esi-online.com), DaVinci Syrups (www.davincisyrups.com), Fresh Cup Magazine (www.freshcup.com), the SCAA (www.scaa.org), Espresso Supply (www.espressosupply.com) and La Marzocco (www.lamarzocco.com).
And without the aid and support of excellent volunteers, including many of the world's top Baristi from Zoka Coffee, Holly from Batdorf and Bronson coffee roasters, Anastasia Choven from ESI, Traci Luthi from La Mazocco, and many others I'm totally remiss in mentioning by name, this event would have been impossible to manage. The sponsors and volunteers were the true gems behind this event, and they deserve as much praise and recognition as one can heap on them. Because of them, the art of the Barista is growing strong in the US (and Canada), and in many ways, the Pacific Northwest is leading the world in terms of evolutionizing (and even revolutionizing) everything that makes up what it is to be a Barista.