In this age of the declining importance of the human, there remains an impassioned glint of hope—one replete with cute boys who can make a proper shot of espresso: The Northwest Regional Barista Competition. This weekend's competition, owned and operated by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, is just another notch in the "Portland is the center of the much-ballyhooed 'third wave of coffee culture' universe" bedpost (see "Bean Town," WW, Oct. 11, 2006). Also, it's fun to watch.
"It's very much like any of the cooking shows that you see on TV. Just as much goes into it as a state pageant leading toward Miss America—just on a completely different level," says Michelle Campbell, who oversees the event's logistics as Director of Community and Events for the SCAA.
Picking the most badass barista is no slipshod production. These caffeine-loving hybrids of Vanessa Williams and Bobby Flay will have 15 minutes to work their way into the hearts of certified judges, two of whom will cover technical specifications (for the love of God, please tell me you cleaned that portafilter!), with four covering sensory specs (but how did that espresso shot make your mouth feel?). After making a round of espressos and a round of cappuccinos, they'll make a Signature Beverage—an espresso-based drink of their own concoction, showcasing their creativity through ingredients and flavors, historically ranging from tobacco and anise to blueberry-flavored honey. The winner, to look at this year's roster, may very well be a dude. It's an unusually male-based year for the NWRBC, as the upper echelon of baristas boasts plenty of women, including the USBC champs in '03, '04, and '05.
Will it be big? That's a no-brainer of a "yes" for coffee nerds involved. "These are just good events, because it's just going to be people geeking out, pulling shots—a good community-building deal," says Stephen Vick, espresso specialist and trainer for Stumptown Coffee, of the many parties for competitors and members of the Barista Guild of America. And the growth of that community is showing: "Last year, I don't even think we filled all the slots for competition. This year, there's already a waiting list—and that's full," adds Vick.
So it'll be busy—but will any A-list baristas take note? "We're flying in the 2006 World Barista Champion, Klaus Thomsen of Denmark, to emcee," says Sarah Allen, editor and co-owner of Barista magazine.
Clearly, Mr. Fancypants Klaus' presence means you're not welcome if you hear "macchiato" and think of something that looks like a whipped-cream-covered milkshake, right?
"This won't be some fussy, elitist event. The whole point is to welcome as many curious folks from the general public to share in the celebration of coffee and our rockin' barista culture," notes Allen, of the inviting atmosphere of the Wonder Ballroom.
Ladies and gentlemen, start those grinders! Here are four of the 20-plus contenders mature enough to use words like "steam wand" excessively without giggling. The winner will represent the Northwest at the United States Barista Championship in Long Beach, Calif., in May 2007, with the chance to be dubbed the "Klaus Thomsen of 2007" at the WBC in Tokyo, Japan.
Steam Dream Team
Get a handle on the Northwest's top coffee cup contenders.
Kyle Larson, 25 Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Pours & steams: Right-handed.
Barista since: 2002.
Claim to fame: 2004 NWRBC champ, espresso trainer.
Why/how he started competing: A learning tool, and it is kind of fun.
Secret weapon: Guatemala Finca el Injerto.
Complete the metaphor: "A good shot of espresso is like...." Fine wine.
Most memorable moment behind the machine: Making a double espresso for the Crown Prince of Norway while visiting Oslo.
Message to other competitors: Just have some fun.
Philip Search, 26 Paradise Cafe & Espresso Bar (owner), Seattle Barista Academy, Mutiny! Coffee Roasters
Pours & steams: Both (left/right).
Barista since: Adam and Eve.
Claim to fame: Teaching people how to have more a meaningful relationship with their grinders.
Why he started competing: To learn and push myself, annoy my wife and become FAMOUS!
Secret weapon: Sshhh! It's the coffee.
Complete the metaphor: "A good shot of espresso is like...." Waking into a brilliant sunrise after a peaceful sunset.
Most memorable moment behind the machine: The day of the disappearing shot, spilled by my bar back, which I found later as a yellow stain in my southern region just as I took off my apron for an important meeting.
Message to other competitors: You'd best prepare yourself—you don't even know what's about to happen!
Billy Wilson, 26, The Albina Press (co-owner)
Pours & steams: Left-handed.
Barista since: January of 2002.
Claim to fame: I've been in eight barista competitions—the Northwest Regional and U.S. Championships for the last four years.
Why he started competing: Just for the hell of it. I knew nothing about coffee, but thought I would be good at it. I got my ass kicked but learned a lot from other baristas there and made some great friendships. It was just kind of assumed that I would compete again, if only to see these folks again that had the same passion about coffee.
Secret weapon: Winston, my Staffordshire bull terrier. When I get super-stressed about the competition, all I need is a little tug-o'-war action to make me feel at ease again.
Complete the metaphor: "A good shot of espresso is like...." To be literal, a good shot is like a good shot. Espresso will be the most intricate and complex thing you will ever taste. It has more than three times the amount of flavor molecules than wine. When you nail a good shot, it straightens the path of your day.
Most memorable moment behind the machine: Probably making coffee for Kent Bakke (founder of Espresso Specialists Inc. and owner of La Marzocco espresso machines) and having him at the shop late at night to work on our machine. It was like having Henry Ford come over to work on your Mustang.
Message to other competitors: What happens during that 15 minutes onstage doesn't really matter. What matters is loving your job as a barista and kicking ass.
Ryan Dixon, 32, Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Pours & Steams: Right-handed.
Barista since: 2001.
Claim to fame: My friends know me best for performing in a band, Dr. Theopolis—I dance disco, James Brown-style, and wear an afro in the shows.
Why he started competing: Out of curiosity. I never really aspired to be a competitor before, but it was being hosted in Portland this year, and I figured somebody from Stumptown should step forward. I'd heard that Kyle was, and I just thought, "Well, maybe one's not enough. Maybe I should do it."
Secret weapon: X-ray vision. Personal skills. My Los Delirios gun.
Complete the metaphor: "A good shot of espresso is like...." The Fourth of July in your mouth.
Most memorable moment behind the machine: The minute I got to work on a five-group-head La Marzocco with a steam pedal.
Message to other competitors: Do it for you.
The NWRBC will be held 9 am-6 pm Friday, Oct. 20; semifinals 9 am-2 pm Saturday, Oct. 21, finals 11 am-2 pm Sunday, Oct. 22. The NWRBC Champ will be crowned at 3 pm. All events will be held at the Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., 284-8686, and are free and open to the public. For a complete list of events, visit nwbarista.com.