The Competition Season
Considering the glut of televised culinary competition shows (Iron Chef, Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, etc.), the idea of a barista championship must sound like a bit of a parody. After all, anyone can make a cup of coffee, right? Watch 35 people, over two days, making coffee drinks for a bunch of stone-faced judges? Admittedly, it is somewhat like watching paint dry. But making great espresso is a black art: you are working with select culinary ingredients that react differently over time, and seemingly trivial changes in technique have tremendous impact on the outcome. Barista work is a combination of skill, craft, and art. To push the art of the barista to the limit, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) have worked together for ten years to host the World Barista Championship. National barista champions are selected from fifty countries; those national champions then compete at the WBC in the late spring. Although no US barista has ever won the world championship, the competition has become very intense to represent the US through a series of regional barista championship.
It takes considerable effort to compete. The work usually starts several months out, as the barista/competitor refines technique to meet competition standards. Next, they work with a roaster to find a specific espresso blend/roast/single origin coffee that they want to use. Finally, they spend weeks drilling on the details of their presentation. The routine involves serving four judges three different rounds of drinks. Straight shots of espresso are judged for color and consistency of crema and the balance of acidity, bitter, and sweet in the shot. 6 ounce cappuccinos are judged on the visual appearance of the foam, consistency of the foam, and balance of espresso flavor against the sweetness of the milk. The barista must then have developed a "signature drink" that brings out a culinary understanding of the coffee. Signature drinks are the curve-ball of the competition. It's not something that is usually served at a bar; it's more of an exercise to push the barista's understanding of how flavors are built around the foundation of an espresso shot. In addition to the sensory scores for the quality of the drinks, competitors are judged on a range of technical criteria, from how efficiently they work to how much milk and coffee waste they produce.
All of this is to say that I was floored when Sarah told me in January that she wanted to represent Volta at the Southeast Regional Barista Championship in February. Sarah had been with us for most of our first year, but late last spring she moved down to Naples. She moved back to Gainesville in January, and resumed work both behind the bar and as our primary baker only four weeks ago. Sarah is, without a doubt, one of the most culinarily gifted people I've ever met. She approaches ingredients as if they word words waiting to be formed into poems. She certainly had the skills to compete when she left, but how would she do after so much time away? Turns out, I needn't have worried. She threw herself into training with abandon. With Aly working with her as her coach, she's tried almost a dozen blends and single origin espressos from Intelligentsia and Ecco, keeping detailed logs of technical specs and tasting notes for each shot as each coffee aged. Two weeks ago, they flew up to Chicago to train with current US barista champion Michael Philips and previous world barista champion Stephen Morrissey, from Ireland. Back at Volta, they turned to the writing of chef Thomas Keller to use as a touchstone for developing a signature drink. Meanwhile, Natalie decided to study to attempt to qualify as a sensory judge for the competition. She's spent hours pouring over the rules and helping Sarah with mock competition runs and drink scoring.
It's amazing how much work has been done in the last few weeks-- and how galvanizing it has been around the shop. Everyone's understanding of espresso has been boosted. Technique at the bar has tightened up. We all have a better understanding of how to analyze the complexity of espresso as we all tried coffees roasted at different levels and temperatures, as the coffees age from days out of roast to two weeks. Even if Sarah decides at the last minute not to compete, every bit of the preparation will have been worth it for everyone at the shop.
Of course, though, I also believe that she has every chance of making the finals as a first time competitor. She and Aly will be joining Anthony and Natalie in Atlanta today. Everyone can watch live streaming video of Sarah's presentation on Friday (Feb. 19), sometime after 3:25 (her scheduled start time, but these things can run over schedule...), via the US Barista Championship website. If she does make it to the finals, she competes again on Sunday.
With so many staff in Atlanta, Volta will be closing early (8pm) on Thursday and Saturday evenings; we have also changed our normal week-day opening hours from 7am to 8am.