As reported during the Canadian National Barista Championship a few weeks ago....
On Sunday morning in the cavernous Congress Centre just outside Toronto, the annual Coffee and Tea Show is just getting set up for a two-day marathon. But behind hundreds of square feet of auto-dosing grinders and gourmet water treatment brochures is the Canadian National Barista Competition Stage where, at 7:30 am, Colter Jones, 2006 Canadian champion, is standing at a table air-pouring latte art into an invisible cappuccino.
Twenty-one baristas from across Canada will compete this weekend: only nineteen today, the two regional champs (Kimberley Staveley for the east and Derek Lucas for the west) having automatically advanced to the finals, which will happen on Monday. Today's competitors represent four provinces (British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta, and for the first time, Quebec) and are split almost evenly between men and women. And hey - only 20% of them used to work at starmakers Caffe Artigiano in Vancouver. And speaking of Artigiano, our emcee today is Sammy Piccolo, and he'll even let you take a picture of him if you really insist.
Things kick off a little after noon on the Krups-sponsored stage. The gear today, also corporately sponsored, are new two-group Nuova Simonelli Aurelia machines, which most of the competitors seemed to get comfortable with fairly quickly. (One competitor tells me she managed to overflow the drip tray during practise, the drain uncomfortably close to electrical components, but that otherwise she had few design complaints.)
The first competitor Sunday is also a first for the nationals: a Quebecois entrant, Jordan Myall, competing for Caffelini on the south shore of Montreal. Francophone Jordan has brought a better command of English than he expected - and he also brought his mom. The 22-year-old takes to the stage with a desire to "speak through the language of espresso" and also "maybe make laugh". Jordan's signature drink, the 8 1/2, takes its name from the Fellini film, and is a smooth mixture of egg yolk, hazelnut gelato, espresso, and 18% cream.
Representing Dark Horse Espresso Bar in Toronto is competitor number two, Edward Lynds. Ed has some tech problems here - his mic flickers out through much of his routine, never an asset to someone's confidence performing, but he delivers an interesting signature drink in the form of the "#109", a layered avocado / vanilla bean / espresso / ice blender concoction topped with lavender-honey infused whip and shaved Mayan chocolate. He is followed third by first-time competitor Melissa Gratz from new Bradford, Ontario café One Red Chair. Melissa's drink is a "Frappe Rosa," and her mascot is a stuffed monkey.
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| Bean Fashion |
Colter Jones' coffee bean cufflink.
| Here's Sammy |
Emcee Sammy Piccolo and Toronto competitor Nick Brown.
| Dark Horse |
Edward Lynds of Dark Horse Espresso, setting up backstage.
Sprawling Ottawa coffee chain Bridgehead entered competitor number four, Jeremy "JT" Thompson. JT whips up a simple signature drink including Tahitian vanilla, espresso, sugar, and steamed milk.
But what's that smell wafting across from the next competitor's table? Is that...hickory smoke? Enter Vancouver's Cady Wu, compact but deadly, finishing her tight performance with an intriguing jasmine tea / hickory smoke / maple syrup sig beverage. (Why didn't I try this? Guess I'll have to visit Cady at Wicked Café again someday.)
Two more Toronto boys (and former co-workers) are up next: Patrick Newark, of Cherry Bomb, and Samuel James, ex of Cherry Bomb (as well as Adidas and Hugo Boss and a male modelling career!). Sam's competing today for new Toronto buzz cafe Manic Coffee (set to open in only a few days, and site of the post-competition afterparty). Samuel's unflappably friendly personality garners him a full entourage of documenters - or maybe it's his signature drink, a "breakfast inspired" concoction based around bacon fat, no lie. (The judges' faces on being delivered a plate of bacon and tomatoes with their porkfat espresso is easily a weekend highlight.)
Next up: Brette Richard (pronounced like the hockey great Maurice Richard) from 2% Jazz cafe in Victoria, competing with a taut routine and a candied ginger, cornstarch, and sugarcane beverage.
Ivonne Ramirez, who tied for third in the Eastern regionals while representing Dolce Gelato in Toronto's Little Italy, is next, followed by 2006 eastern regional champion Mark Krause of the Espresso Post in Collingwood. Mark and his snappy bow tie give one of the day's best performances, and his orange almandine signature drink, while a touch gritty, isn't too shabby either.
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| Got milk! |
Jeremy Thompson's competition setup.
| Sig drink under construction |
Mark Krause preparing his signature drink, the orange almandine.
| Art in a cup |
Mark Krause's cappuccinos.
Flooding the competition with not just one but two entrants from la Belle Province is Montrealer (and okay, ex-British Columbian) Anthony Benda. Anthony is this year's sneak-attack, I think: an all-black-clad unassuming barista whose presentations were simple and competitive stance nervously casual, but who would ultimately pull some of the best shots of the weekend. Anthony's signature drink, a "re-imagined s'more," is a graham-sludge heavy drink beverage served in conical glasses suspended above a little orb of marshmallows. He forgets to decoratively rim the glasses with graham crumbs - but I think there were enough in the drink!
Twelfth up is Toronto's Amber Roga-Fox, representing her coffee consulting company Alchemy Coffee (but you can find Amber behind the bar at Toronto's Dark Horse or Mercury Espresso bars a few days a week as well). Freshly back from a coffee research trip to Peru, Amber deploys a signature drink inspired by Peruvian algarrobo syrup, with egg, ice, cinnamon, and espresso.
Amber's followed by fellow Torontonian (and outspoken internet presence) Nick Brown, offering us a "nostalgic take on the breve macchiato" in the form of the Cookies & Crema - a tasty milk and cookie concoction using the Eva Solo, possibly for the first time in history, as a cookie filtration device. Nick spends a heck of a lot of time cleaning up his workstation before delivering the desserty drinks which are surprisingly good.
Andrew Legg from Edmonton's Transcend follows with an odd melange of props, including syringes to add flavour to his signature drink and a precarious cigar box used to deliver his long-stemmed drinks to the judges table. I'm terrified he is going to spill everything. He doesn't.
Ryan Crawford from Vancouver's Blenz steps up next.
"I just wanted to let you know I'm using the sponsor's milk today," says Ryan, pausing.
"At home I have a cow I usually milk two days in advance."
No one seems to get that this is a joke except me and judge Bill Hearn.
Finally, with much ado - Colter Jones has arrived at his table. He's a favourite today among many and everyone's curious to see him compete. Especially because he shipped his Clover clear across Canada just for the competition. Not that you would use a Clover technically in competition but Colter has decided to prepare the judges an amuse-bouche of Esmeralda. This is a ballsy move one that doesn't take off so well once the Clover starts to immediately malfunction. ("Did anybody remember to plug the pump in?" someone shouts, while others wonder if he ought to have air-practiced the Clover.) Sammy Piccolo, not currently on judge duty, jumps up from his seat in the audience and shouts to Colter to call a technical time-out. A few minutes later we are back on track, Colter smoothly working through his performance which includes the startling application of Esmeralda infused into whipped cream. Now that's high livin'...
Ashleigh MacInnes from Bellefontaine, Ontario's The Shed chases up Clover's high-overhead performance. Talking through her routine, she frighteningly says: "I've actually convinced most of my customers to drink their lattes breve." I don't ask if everyone in Bellefontaine weighs 300 lbs.
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| Bacon, espresso and tomato |
Samuel James' signature drink tray with bacon and tomato wedges.
| Hold the mayo |
The judges sample Samuel's bacon-fat espresso drink.
| Anthony Benda |
A technical judge, Arthur Wynne, evaluates Anthony's tamp.
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| Four espressos, please |
One of Anthony Benda's espresso pours.
| No campfire needed |
Anthony's signature drink: a "re-imagined s'more."
| Judges at work |
James Hoffmann and Jay Caragay sampling the s'mores.
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| Three baristas |
Friends and competitors Nick Brown of Toronto, Colter Jones of Vancouver, and Anthony Benda of Montreal.
| Colter Jones |
Colter squeegeeing Esmeralda off the Clover.
| Ashleigh MacInnes |
Ashleigh leveling her dose under the judges' watchful eyes.
Michael Yung of Caffe Artigiano in Vancouver closes the day's competition. Like his colleague Colter, he's brought a little extra equipment - in this case the much easier to travel with vac pot. Mike sweats even more than Jordan Myall did, but gives an otherwise totally polished talk through his routine. He clearly impresses the judges, as not much later he and the five other finalists from today are asked back: Cady Wu, Brette Richard, Mark Krause, Anthony Benda, and Colter Jones will join Mike again tomorrow, along with the regional finalists. There's a wee cocktail in the convention hall and then the finalists head home to clean their cups and get some sleep for tomorrow.
Here to photograph and assigned at the crack of dawn, I wander the hall balefully looking for someone to make me an espresso. Finally around 11, I stumble onto Arthur Wynne at the Nuova Simonelli booth and groggily ask for something but he's, uh, busy calibrating the judges. Right. Eventually Anthony Benda hooks me up with an espresso. Only eight more competitions to watch. I can do this! Anthony leaves to go buy more marshmallows, and I go watch Mark Krause set up for take two of his routine.
Today's performances are, not surprisingly, largely the same as Sunday's, though despite having had recent practise, four of the eight competitors manage to go over time.
Mike Yung gives another confident and passionate presentation - I'm pretty sure he's got a lock on this, and I haven't even tasted his drinks. The only thing that confuses me about his presentation is the elevator-music-y background. There's some debate about how much personality (and therefore potential intrusiveness) one's competition music should have - Anthony Benda has the most indie soundtrack, with Spoon and Final Fantasy gently revving him up, while Mark Krause sticks to Coltrane. A good example of this being one competitor's use of the Vince Guaraldi Trio's "Linus and Lucy" - something with that strong an external association can definitely pull you out of the moment.
But anyway. Cady Wu follows up Mike, and hits all marks again - this is going to be a tough call. The competitors breeze along with more success: Anthony Benda remembers to trim his rims today, and Colter's Clover works flawlessly though foregoing the Esmeralda presentation might've saved him the five seconds he ultimately goes over.
Mark Krause is next to go and next to go over: the decisive moment being clear to all when he announces with one minute left that he is "just going to chop some almonds". Mark finishes 11 seconds over time while remaining cool and collected.
For the first time we get to see Western regional champ Derek Lucas, competing for Buon Amici's Coffee in YVR, lay out his truly beyond-Martha-Stewart table setting. He explains that at his cafe, latte art is poured for the customer right at their table and proceeds to pour art in two of his cappuccinos (but... only two?!) right at the judge's table. Nothing spills. But it's still nervy, especially when he's serving his tasty pistachio-date layered signature drinks past the 15:00 mark and he clocks in 24 seconds over.
2% Jazz's Brette Richard gives another good go, and the round is closed out by Eastern regional champ Kimberly Staveley, competing for A Matter of Taste cafe in Kitchener, Ontario. Kim's changed her performance from the regionals: she's freshly grinding her spices this time rather than using pre-prepared - but this time-enhancing measure ultimately costs her 28 seconds. But she does use fire.
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| Michael Yung |
Finalist Mike Yung explaining his vac pot again on day two.
| Four capps, coming up |
Mike Yung's cappuccinos, ready to go.
| Intense observation |
WBC champion James Hoffmann and Anette Moldvaer evaluating Colter Jones' performance.
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| Derek Lucas |
Western regional champion Derek Lucas' signature drink.
| Swag time |
Both days' worth of competitors lined up to receive free Krups gear.
| The winner... |
Mike Yung, Canadian National Barista Champion 2007.
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| Third place... |
Anthony Benda, accepting the third place award.
| Second place... |
Cady Wu of Wicked Cafe, accepting second place.
| Sharing the news |
Mike on the phone to Vince Piccolo, seconds after accepting first place.
The judges head off to confer, and speculation mounts. Who went over and by how much? Does bringing your Clover help or hurt? Who thought their shots were off? In only a little time we know. The results come back - after all the competitors receive piles of home-barista Krups swag, prime for family re-gifting - and it's Anthony Benda in third, Cady Wu second (and only 3.5 points behind Mike), and Mike Yung first.
All three are ex-Artigiano and all are beaming with accomplishment - or is that the soft, sweaty sheen of complete exhaustion? Pack up your Clovers and get in the car, kids - it's rush hour on the 401 and we've all got an all-night celebration at Manic Coffee to hit. If we're doing this in Montreal next year, I think we may just to have to practise our partying skills...