Java Enabled: Fifteen Shots Later, Part 1

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When I received an e-mail a few weeks ago inviting me to sit as one of the sensory judges at the 2009-2010 Midwest Regional Barista Competition, I jumped at the opportunity. At my most delusional, it sounded like "celebrity judge" -- at the very least, it sounded like a great time. Last weekend, I trained for my judging certification and then sat as a sensory judge for the first round of the competition on Saturday. Fifteen shots later, I attended the final on Sunday. Over the next three weeks, I'll relate my experiences.

For readers who didn't catch last week's preview, the MWRBC is designed to identify an ambassador for the Midwest region to go to the Specialty Coffee Association of America's national competition, held this year in Anaheim, California -- and from there, maybe, to the international competition in London. This year, twenty-one competitors from Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska converged on Soulard Preservation Hall for the event.

Each competitor had to prepare four espresso shots, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks. Espressos and cappuccinos are relatively well-known beverages. The "signature drink" can be anything with at least one shot of espresso and a predominantly coffee taste. Also, it can't contain alcohol, including alcohol-based flavor extracts. This third part of the presentation is the most eye-catching and, in a good presentation, serves as the culmination of the barista's theme.

Each competitor uses an espresso roast of his or her own choosing. Why didn't all the competitors use the same espresso? Shouldn't as many variables as possible be neutralized? "It's not really a competition about the barista," one of the more seasoned judges explains. "It's judging the whole package. In that sense, baristas that aren't from a roaster are at a disadvantage from the start."

St. Louis' own Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company and PT's Coffee Roasting Co. from Topeka, Kansas, were the big winners Saturday, evenly splitting the six final spots between them. The finals showed that not only was the espresso different between the roasters, but that there were two different paradigms of coffee on display.

PT's baristas worked to accentuate the flavors present in the coffee and, in one case, take coffee where it's never been before: soda.

SCREENSHOT: WWW.PTSCOFFEE.COM
  • Screenshot: www.ptscoffee.com
Morgan Smith's signature drink was a Venezuelan-spiced mocha cortado. "I tried this drinking chocolate in Kansas City, and I thought it was a perfected combination" with the espresso, she says.

Smith served her cortado in wide-mouth shot glass with the rim coated in chocolate. With Brazilian, Ehtiopian and Sumatra coffees in her espresso, she tried to highlight the vanilla and cacao notes while adding chile. Cortados are served with hot (not foamed) milk. She instructed the judges to stir the espresso drink with a small skewer on which there was an orange peel.

Kasey Klines from PT's prepared one of the most original -- and delicious, I'm told -- signature drinks. He describes its origins: "I spent a summer backpacking through the Northwest after graduating high school. The trip became a coffee tour of sorts and really showed me coffee's potential. The trip also introduced me to Indian food. ...I would be drinking espresso on my trip, and as I opened my bag, I would get this whiff of curry powder. That was the inspiration for this drink."

Klines combined his Yirgacheffe/Sumatra espresso with garam masala curry powder, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla bean and brown sugar infused into coconut milk. Ideally, the heavy spices of the drink would match the body of the Sumatra, while the natural sweetness of the Yirgacheffe would contrast those same spices. The drink was served with mango and yogurt.

The Midwest Regional defending champion was PT's Robin Seitz. In his fourth competition, Seitz set out to make an espresso soda. Coffee and soda? "Creepy is the only word that comes to mind," Seitz acknowledges. "It's a disaster. Allowing [the espresso] to rest and chill ahead of time was the answer."

Seitz pulled his shots in silver gravy boats and let the shots rest. Letting the shots "chill" like this runs counter to the conventional wisdom that cream and flavor start to dissipate as soon as the shot is pulled. While his espresso cooled, Robin prepared a simple syrup with figs, dates, brown sugar, blood-orange zest and water over a hot plate. He shook the syrup and espresso in a small shaker and poured it over ice and then hit it with soda water before the judges tasted it.

Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee every Wednesday.

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