It can only be by some cruel and slightly twisted scheme that an event such as The 2011 Northwest Regional Barista Competition would be scheduled to begin in the morning. Most people in the coffee industry, contrary to what you might expect, are not morning people. Yes, they get up and open the coffee shop for the rest of the population, downing their shots of espresso and shrugging off surliness until about noon, but it isn't until after then that most of them join the actual ranks of humanity. It seems counter-intuitive, since being a barista is closely associated with working early mornings. But, arriving at the Tacoma Convention Center around 9 on Saturday morning, day two of the three-day coffee event, I was reminded. Filling a room full of baristas before lunch time (especially on a weekend) results in a very quiet room.
Tyler Stevens of Barista in Portland pours his signature coffee beverage, while technical judge Alex Negranza looks on.
If you're not a barista, you may be thinking to yourself, "Wait, wait. There's a barista competition??" The answer is, yes--in fact, it's a veritable Olympics, a thoroughly timed, meticulously judged, surprisingly well-attended contest, with pages upon pages of rules and scoring details, for which individuals train months at a time to jump through regional and national hoops in hopes of reaching the World Barista Championships, this year in Bogota, Colombia. It's a stage on which that kid making your morning coffee may achieve a type of stardom normally associated only with athletes.
By 9:30 on Saturday, countless hours of work and dedication had already been represented on the rehearsal stages, as competitors dialed in their routines, double-checking equipment, espresso quality, and individual espresso machine quirks. As a volunteer at the event, I was able to snag a couple of samples from the practice areas, and can confidently say that Saturday morning afforded me several of the best espresso experiences I have ever had.
Here's the way an event like the Northwest Regional Barista Competition works, at least from an external perspective: From Friday morning through Saturday afternoon, 33 competitors serve a panel of judges four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature beverages, in a rehearsed presentation that exhibits exceptional skill, professionalism, stylistic finesse, service, innovation, and coffee knowledge, within a strict 15 minute time-limit (yes, set to music). At the end of Saturday, six finalists are named to advance, and on Sunday, the process is essentially repeated.
Coava Coffee's Samuel Purvis prepares espresso for judges during the NWRBC finals.
Shots of espresso and cappuccinos are both familiar to the average cafe-goer, but a "signature beverage" may be anything from coffee brewed in an unusual manner to a complex creation involving exotic ingredients better associated with gourmet chefs or expert mixologists. One of the ones I found most fascinating over the weekend, for example, was served by Portland's Tyler Stevens, from Barista, and began with: muddled fennel.
All of us can all relate, in one way or another, to a desire to be truly excellent at something--maybe even to be the best at something. Many of us, I suspect, get bogged down in the belief that in order to be great, we have to be great at something that achieves historic levels of fame, or cures cancer, or is in some other way "epic." Most of us probably don't wake up on an average day and think to ourselves, simply, "I want to be excellent at what I do." Most of us probably even forget, nine out of every 10 days, to think "I want to be excellent at what I love doing." For myself, personally, it is far too common to frame a day with the question "What do I have to get done?", and forget to frame it with the more productive question "What do I want to accomplish?"
For this reason, I find an event like the Northwest Regional Barista Championship to be utterly inspiring. Not because I love coffee, though I do. And not because it is an opportunity to watch and learn from some of the best in the industry, though it is. Rather, it is inspiring to see individuals who are (for the most part) not morning people tackling really early mornings because they are driven by a pursuit of excellence. It is inspiring when a nerve-wracked, pre-noon, non-conversational and completely churlish barista hands you something as simple as a sample espresso, but an espresso that sings and sparkles and tells an entire story via less than an ounce of coffee. It is inspiring to watch a competitor pour his or her whole heart into one 15-minute block of time--the result of innumerable hours of study, dedication, frustration, and uninhibited passion for an overlooked art form. And it is, in the wake of that, profound to see a room full of people who should by all rights be rivals erupt in one collective cheer for the success of that competitor.
Devin Chapman of Coava Coffee competes in the first annual Brewer's Cup addition to the NWRBC.
It speaks volumes that the final score difference separating first from second place was 0.5 point. Every single barista came to do their best, to learn from the best, and to become the best at what they do. Not because it is culturally considered work of great renown, but because it is work that they love.
After two days of competition, Saturday evening brought the announcement of the six finalists for Northwest Regional Barista Champion to a packed out room:
1. Ryan Wilbur, representing Stumptown (Portland).
2. Laila Ghambari, also representing Stumptown (Seattle).
3. Sarah Dooley from Espresso Parts (Olympia).
4. Robbie Britt from Espresso Parts (Olympia).
5. Samuel Purvis of Coava Coffee (Portland).
6. Tyler Stevens of Barista (Portland).
In addition, six finalists for the first ever Northwest Regional Brewers' Cup Competition were announced--recognizing the recent spotlight shift to single-cup brewing methods:
1. Matt Miletto of Water Avenue Coffee (Portland).
2. Nate Jones of Kaffeologie (Seattle).
3. Devin Chapman of Coava Coffee (Portland).
4. Will Frith of Batdorf & Bronson (Olympia).
5. Mark Pfaff from Victrola Coffee Roasters (Seattle).
6. Neil Oney with Zoka Coffee (Seattle).
I could go on indefinitely, delving into the details of the competition. I could talk about the countries represented through their coffee, or the cafes represented by their baristas. It wouldn't be difficult to come up with an extra 500-word (if cursory) overview of the different brewing methods used in the Brewers' Cup, or to jot down another two pages discussing competition rules or competitor biographies. In fact, it is entirely possible it will be several days before we coffee blogging sorts stop blogging about this.
But the truth of the matter is that, while the weekend was fascinating and educational, it's probably not great to read about abstractly with your Monday-morning coffee. What is great to read about is the fact that there are people who are absolutely dedicated to making that Monday-morning coffee the best it can possibly be, because they know the joy of encouraging something to its full potential, and because they understand that there is an entire history in a cup of coffee that has until recent years gone overlooked. These are the people devoting their time to training so that they can spend a Saturday morning in Tacoma, telling a room full of onlookers about the family that owned the farm a coffee's trees grew on, and the age-old methods by which the coffee was processed, and the individual whose years of experience finally took the coffee from green bean to perfectly roasted espresso. They recognize themselves to be the last link in the long chain of people between your coffee, and you. Ultimately, I think that's what the whole event is supposed to be about.
It's a rather beautiful thing, when you think about it.
Northwest Regional Barista Champions:
3rd place: Laila Ghambari (Stumptown)
2nd place: Ryan Wilbur (Stumptown)
1st place: Samuel Purvis (Coava)
Northwest Regional Brewers' Cup Champions:
3rd place: Will Frith (Batdorf & Bronson)
2nd place: Mark Pfaff (Victrola)
1st place: Devin Chapman (Coava)