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Reports From the Road
Barista Jam, Day Two
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: March 9, 2003
Article rating: 9.1
feedback: (1) comments | read | write
Steaming Pitcher

Day Two at the NorthWest Barista Jam started off a bit fuzzy for me, mainly because I couldn't get rid of the weird vibe of Dismas Smith's frisky advances the night before (for the full details, make sure you check out my Day One report from the Barista Jam). Plus I have to learn that sometimes, I just can't "hang" with 22 year old Baristi any longer, at least in the evenings.

While I did make it to the ESI headquarters on time to catch most of the morning's festivities; I missed the breakfast goodies grab (which had lots of sweets and tasties that were supplied by the folks from Fresh Cup Magazine (www.freshcup.com); I also missed the blends' judging from the previous days' blending and cupping session.

Day two was pretty much all about competiting in regional, national, and world Barista championships, and at around 9am, Sherri Johns (co-organizer of the event) stepped up and set the course for the day. She then introduced two reigning champions who stepped up to the front to chat for a bit.

I liked the pep talks given by Dismas Smith (reigning N. American Barista Champ) and Bronwen Serna, PNW Barista Champ to the assembled Baristi. Smith had some sage advice about "the Europeans" (which actually means the Scandinavians, who, according to all who know, are the best Baristi on the planet - surprised? I was (hey, ain't it 'possed to be the Italians?) when I first heard of the Scandinavian prowess, but I'm not surprised any longer - they are the crowd to beat). Smith warned that judges are looking for skills and above all else, a quality crafted and quality tasting drink - panache and fancy movements may win the American crowd over, but it won't mean squat to the World judges.

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Bronwen Serna peps up the crowd (video still capture)

Serna's pep talk was much more upbeat about how just plain cool it is to be a Baristi, and to treat the "job" like something much more than that - it's a passion, and Serna genuinely feels it is a practicing art form of sorts, along the lines of a fine sous-chef who is whipping up unique and delectable creations.

Next up was some prep work for the Barista competition. A "Baristi as Champions" mock competition to give the crowd a look see at what judges look for and expect from real competitions. I sat through some of it myself, to refresh myself on what it takes to be a judge, and the entire session was very worthwhile. I think there was some surprise from the assembled Baristi on just how, uhm, "anal" for lack of a better word the judging really is in competitions, but it was all good - they learned or realized this ain't no mickey mouse thing - it's serious business, and overall, the judging criteria are weighted towards excellence in drink quality, skills, and work acumen.

One thing I managed to squeeze in before the competition stuff started was some note taking for another article I'm working on: my Second Annual Tamper Shootout. I brought 9 different tampers with me to the Jam, and solicited the opinions of some of the best Baristi in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. It was very beneficial and I got lots of good commentary, which you will read more about in my next article.

Preliminary Competitions

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Then it was down to the real serious nitty gritty - the actual competition. All five La Marzocco 4 group Linea machines (with matching Rio/Mazzer Super Jolly grinders) were set up, fired up, and under heavy use.

The competitors got 15 minutes of prep and test time on the machines, and they dearly needed it - some of these competitors came from work environments where automatic Swift grinders are used (the Swift, another La Marzocco machine, is the world's only dual dosing and tamping grinder - you literally lock in a portafilter into a "grouphead" and the machine can grind, dose, and tamp a shot in around 5 to 8 seconds). Others came from work environments with machines that are, to be politically correct, "not like" La Marzocco machines (hey, no judgments - no judgments - every machine has its good points and bad points... yeah... that's the ticket... yeah. La Marzocco RULES!! Oops).

There was some strong debate before the competitions began about the coffee to be used by the Baristi - some were content to use some of the many pounds of coffee provided by Zoka, Hines Public Market, and Batdorf and Bronson. Others felt they would have their best chance at success if they used the coffee they brought with them to the competition. I kind of stayed away from the debates, but in the end, I think the assembled Baristi were given the choice of using their own coffee or the sponsor supplied stuff.

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Barista gets warmed up before her competition.

The 15 minute warmup is crucial to a skilled Barista - they got in tune with the grinder, ran shots through all four groups on their machine to see which groups were pouring best, and they got their competition area set up and ready to go.

Then crunch time came. Nerves were displayed, but over the next few hours, I had the true joy and pleasure to see (and in one case, judge) some of the most talented and enthusiastic Baristi in the Pacific Northwest and beyond do their thang. Being a true coffeegeek, this was as close to heaven as I can get - not only was I in a room full of people who were as passionate (if not more so) about coffee than I was, but I was seeing row after row of highly skilled folks show their stuff. How freaking cool is that?

I judged in one of the prelim rounds - in fact, I judged a Barista from my home town: Angie Lof of JJ Bean House of Coffee (www.jjbeancoffee.com), who is also JJ Bean's trainer of espresso skills. Joining me were Jeff Babcock (one of the organizers of this event and owner of Zoka Coffee House and Roasters) and Smith, the aforementioned N.American Barista champ. Poor Angie - we were pretty harsh in our judging.

But you know what? She rocked as a Baristi, and showed skills, acumen and drink builds that would rival 98% of the baristi out there in your average cafe. The fact that Angie placed 8th overall is just a testament to how skilled all the competition Baristi were during this weekend - if you were to pit Lof against a random 30 baristi from the cafes and restaurants along Commercial Drive (Vancouver's Little Italy), she would blow them all away - but on this day, she finished behind seven other competitors.

Lof had a nice costume thing going on (she even had a tiara!) and had her own collection of plates, deserts, cups, saucers, and even my fave: Pellegrino carbonated water for the judges. She built a very solid espresso drink, lost a few minor points on her cappuccino (which was more of a latte - a definite no-no in this judging competition), and her signature drink, while very appealing to me, lost points with Smith and Babcock because the actual "espresso" was hard to discern in the drink.

To let you know just how difficult and serious this competition is, Babcock and myself were measuring various temperatures (espresso temps, served cappuccino temps, frothing pitcher temps, etc), I had a stopwatch going on all of Lof's shots to see if they were between 20 and 30 seconds (judging rules), and Smith was watching things like group flushing, purging the steam wand before and after use, and tamping skills like a hawk. Nothing escapes the eyes of the judges - if one misses something, usually the other two (or three, in the finals) caught a glimpse.

Other Baristi competed in two preliminary rounds, which were conducted between 10:30 am and 1:45 pm (with a lunch break in between. Then it was time for the finals.

Barista Competition Finals

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Mark Pfaff in the heat of competition. (video still capture)

After lots of intense number crunching by Michelle Campbell from the SCAA (www.scaa.org), the three finalists were named (in no particular order): Andy Cronin of Batdorf and Bronson from Olympia, WA (Holly House must have been very happy!); Mark Pfaff of Espresso Express from SeaTac, WA; and my man Jon Lewis from Vancouver's own JJ Bean House of Coffee.

Further pep talks by Johns and others were given, then Pfaff was chosen to go first. In this round, there were four official judges - Sherri Johns, Dismas Smith, Jeff Babcock, John Sanders (who I found out is a fellow Canadian, though he is co-owner of Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle now) - and one, uhm, er... "celebrity judge". Well, his opinion doesn't count for much, so there's no sense in mentioning his name, so let's just move on.

Pfaff got his warmup, then proceeded to his drink builds. He pulled off some amazing espresso shots, which all of the judges found first rate. His cappuccinos were equally good, and then Pfaff started building his signature drink - I didn't catch the name of it, but it was a drink built with strawberry flavoured steamed and frothed milk, served in some funky glasses with a strawberry slice.

Pfaff's signature drink had the crucial element that the judges wanted - something unique, but something that didn't mask the taste of coffee. To me, it was the tastiest signature drink of the finals.

Pfaff also showed his Barista skills were honed like a razor - he finished his competition with several minutes to spare. Ask anyone who's competed in these things - that fifteen minutes flies by, and for most competitors, it seems like by the time they move onto the cappuccino build, time's already almost up. Pfaff was nervous starting first (you could see it in the minor hand shaking he had) but he quickly got into the groove, and pulled off a first rate performance.

Andy Cronin was next up, and after his 15 minutes' warm up, was good to go. Cronin is one slick Barista - he seemed to have a bit more confidence in what he was doing as compared to Pfaff, but he lost a few points doing some things that were against the rules (like not serving all four drinks in each "round" at the same time). There were a couple of other things in this judges' mind (okay - okay I admit it - I was the "celeb judge"... sigh) that marked him down a bit compared to Pfaff. For instance, Cronin used a thermometer while steaming, and his signature drink was fairly basic.

Don't get me wrong - Cronin's a star Barista, and exhibited skill that would shame most of the PBTCs (persons behind the counter) that you see in a typical cafe. Cronin knew his grinder, knew his machine, knew all the little things that turn a barista (lower case "b") into a Barista).

I should mention this since I've outed myself as the celeb judge: after each competitor finished, all of the judges went into a back room to discuss and in some cases, modify our judging sheets. It's difficult to catch everything as a Judge, so you rely on your fellow judges to fill in the blanks.

However, I'm not so sure I like this concept - because this was probably the most serious competition I've judged in, I think I was probably over-influenced by the comments in the back room by the other judges. I know I raised Pfaff's score a bit because of some things I missed that Sanders and Babcock pointed out to me, but Cronin and Jon Lewis lost points from me for the same reason. Don't get me wrong - when it comes to these things, I completely defer to Jeff Babcock and John Sanders (and Sherri Johns and Dismas Smith for that matter) because they have so much more experience than I do in these competitions. But I'm wondering how the final scoring would have been if judges didn't consult after each competitor finished.

The last competitor was Jon Lewis from JJ Bean, and Lewis easily had the best vibe and set up going, of all the competitors. Lewis brought special cups, saucers, accoutrements and lots of little nibblies and sweets to complement his drink builds. His theme was Zen and had a heavy Asian influence - his espresso cups were thick walled sake cups; he handed out little cards that talked about his Barista philosophy and what drinks he would be building; he had some very tasty side snacks for each drink build; and the air was full of the scent of spices and new age music.

Lewis probably should have won except for one thing - judging is strict and unbending. He didn't build a proper cappuccino for round two (he built a large latte 4x times) so he lost a lot of points in this round. His signature drink didn't have any real coffee flavour - several of the judges said it was more like a tea chai, which lost him more points. Still, Lewis exhibited some first rate Barista skills and behind the bar, he was a master. His timing was spot on as well, delivering the final four signature drinks just as the seconds were counting down. His Barista skills were awarded with very high "overall" scores from all of the judges.

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Some random shots: this one's just before the mock competition.
Dismas Smith, listening to words of wisdom from Jeff Babcock
Mike Ferguson (white shirt) talks to USA Today reporter.
A small debate broke out about the use of beans (supplied by sponsors vs Barista's own beans)

Winner and Wrap Up

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After the final judge consultation, the finalists were assembled (along with the rest of the attendees) and the winner was announced: Mark Pfaff was picked as the best overall Barista of the weekend, with Andy Cronin second, and Jon Lewis third. A small awards ceremony took place, the obligatory photo sessions, and that was that - the Barista Jam weekend was over.

Well, not quite.

Many stayed for a while (including those in the group shot, above). People mingled and little groups of 3 or 4 Baristi broke out. I witnessed what was probably the most beneficial thing from the entire weekend: new connections were made and entrenched, and a new appreciation for the true artistry and skill that being a Barista can be was solidified. I saw the inklings of new friendships and a serious sense of camaraderie forming. It was a very cool thing to see.

Which brings me to my real wrap up - what were my thoughts about this weekend?

It's not secret that I consider the "job" of the professional Barista to be much more than that. It's a shame that for 90% of the people employed in the US as a barista it isn't much more than a McJob with lowe pay and  little respect from management or the customers, but events like this go a long, long way to changing that.

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John Neate of JJ Bean was one of several cafe owners who attended and learned a lot.

It was especially good to see several cafe owners attending this event as well because they got a real sense that their front line people can have as much passion about quality coffee as they do. In some cases, even more. I would even hazard to say that cafe owners would be the primary beneficiaries of this kind of event because the Baristi are supercharged when they return to work, and that energy definitely flows and fills the other staff members. For the cafe owner, it's the equivalent of feeding your business some industrial strength Viagra.

What I liked most about this event was not the competition - it was the camaraderie and sense of community it instilled in all the attendees. Some came purely for the skills building, but I think even the most mechanical, "it's just a business" types (there were several Barista/owners attending) left with something more - a sense that they're part of a wave of a new specialty skill that for the first time may be something totally home grown and distinctly American (and to a lesser extent, Canadian): in Italy, it's a career and part of everyday life and respected that way, just as a good shoemaker or tailor is respected for what they do.

In the US, being a true Barista can be more than that - it can be a showcase job, your own little "Emeril" show with panache and skill (albeit with better food presentation than Emeril has). It can be something where you show off your artistry, your understanding of the elixir that espresso is, and you can have fun doing it.

I heard talk this weekend about some new concept cafes that might be happening: the Barista as a centerpiece. The concept is an elevated central "bar" where the Baristi work polished and well maintained (as well as beautiful) equipment, with special lighting and emphasis on the star behind the bar. Drinks would be served with the style and flair that Tom Cruise did in the movie Cocktail (but with less waste!).

Definitely American, but you know what? That's a good thing.

In case you missed it, be sure to check out my Day One report from the Barista Jam.

Article rating: 9.1
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: March 9, 2003
feedback: (1) comments | read | write
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