When it comes to great coffee, the Triangle definitely holds its own. If you need evidence beyond your hand-crafted cafe drink or the freshly-roasted beans you’re bringing home, look no further than this year’s South East Regional Barista Competition and Brewers Cup. Dedicated baristas and coffee professionals from the Southeast and beyond converged on Atlanta to exchange ideas and celebrate coffee craft; but also to compete for recognition, prizes, and the chance to represent the Southeast at the United States Barista Championship. For three days, we brewed, presented, and partied. When the dust settled, North Carolinians won two of the three top spots in each competition, signaling our region’s continued ascendance towards caffeinated bliss.
But what is a barista competition and why do they matter? Overseen by a head judge, the barista has fifteen minutes to prepare and serve four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four espresso-based signature beverages to four sensory judges. Producing twelve competition-worthy drinks in a time-warp is not always a simple task. Two technical judges assess every movement and skill to ensure best practices. Following those highest standards during your performance takes practicing the skills and movements over and over until they are second nature. This work informs what we do on bar at the cafes. Baristas are further expected to narrate the judges’ experience by describing each drink’s profile in detail. It’s like calling the pocket on your final shot in a game of billiards. If I say my coffee tastes like orange and caramel, it should taste like orange and caramel to score well. Extracting the expected flavors and aromas requires attention to the entire brewing process from grind to dose to tamp to extract and it is this level of focus and consistency that produces great drinks, not just at competition, but on bar every day.
To have success at this level, the barista must choose an exceptional coffee. I was honored to compete with Carrboro Coffee Roaster’s Cup of Excellence-winning Colombia Diamante. Working with head roaster Mark Leatherwood, we found a profile to bring out the coffee’s balanced range of flavors. This coffee exemplifies how an exceptional green bean roasted for sweetness and balance can have a pleasant bitterness that enhances the overall experience and doesn’t need to be masked. I focused on bitterness during my presentation, so for my signature beverage, I created a Centennial hopped coffee beverage. I approached the drink wanting to enhance the Diamante’s citrus and floral character while taking the coffee’s pleasant bitterness up a step. I extracted four long shots (for a higher slightly more bitter extraction) of Diamante espresso, brewed a small filtered pour-over of the Diamante, then combined both coffee preparations in a whip cream canister and added nine Centennial hops. I charged the canister with nitrous oxide for 20 seconds. Upon depressurization, the hop oils are extracted into the coffee. This extraction yields citrus and floral aromatics, while amplifying a stimulating bitterness you might recognize from an IPA. After straining out the hops and pouring four small drinks’ worth, I topped each glass off with a splash of tonic water, which added a quinic bitterness and created a Guinness-like head. It looks and tastes like a tiny coffee IPA, just without the alcohol. We’re not allowed to boost our scores by getting the judges tipsy!
This year marked my fourth barista competition, but it was my first-ever Brewers Cup. This competition tests the barista’s ability to hand brew exceptional drip-strength coffee. The competitor may use any craft brewing device (pour-over, press pot, siphon, etc) they would like and must serve three distinct preparations of their coffee to three sensory judges. In the first round, a presentation wasn’t required, but each barista had just seven minutes to brew the mystery coffee they received that morning. The mystery coffee leveled the playing field and encouraged the baristas to utilize their adaptive brewing skills in hopes of producing a superior cup. In the finals, we provided our own coffee to prepare those three distinct cups. We had ten minutes in the finals, but also had to present to the judges.
After receiving my bag of mystery coffee Saturday morning, I gave it a good once over, noticed roast level and possible variety of the seeds. I set about tasting different brews of it and testing various parameters, like recipe, grind, and temperature. I also hand-sorted my bag to sort out any broken or damaged beans, which might contribute to a dull or off-taste. This step was tedious, but may have nudged me into finals, which were held the following day. For Brewers Cup finals, I again used the Colombia Diamante, this time with a different roast profile. I chose this coffee for both competitions because I wanted to expand my understanding of how roasting affects flavor in various brewing methods and it is an exceptionally balanced, versatile coffee.
In the end, I placed second overall in Brewers Cup and third overall in the Barista Competition. I was proud of the results (and the grinders that came with placing), but it was the process of getting there and the camaraderie of the competitors that made the experience worth it. Team Carrboro Coffee/Open Eye Cafe/Caffe Driade also made me proud with its biggest SERBC turnout yet. Scott, Elizabeth, Kate, Amelia, Courtney, and Miles all did an amazing job judging and volunteering! I’ll take a little break from practicing, but I can’t wait to start getting ready for the 2013 United States Barista Championship! Until then, see you on bar!
Michael Harwood Director of Quality & Education www.carrborocoffee.com
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