The 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition took place this past weekend in my hometown of Berkeley. Of course, the fact that I’m only just now getting around to posting my summary of events is pretty lame. I hope that my pre-event post somehow mitigates my tardiness.
Just in case you are one of those rare souls who cares about the competition results and hasn’t read about them elsewhere on the web: Chris Baca from Ritual Roasters took the top spot; Kyle Glanville from Intelligentsia LA took second; and Heather Perry of Coffee Klatch came in third. I’m not sure if Heather Perry’s placing third is considered an upset, but it certainly was surprising seeing as how last year she placed second at the World Barista Championship. I guess the consolation is that she did walk away with both the Best Espresso award and the Best Signature Drink award. Drew Catlin of Ritual grabbed the Most Promising New Comer award. Congratulations to everyone for a stellar show.
The competition itself was pretty exciting. You can catch a summary of the finalist round on Twitchy and a detailed play-by-play of all 35 competitors (including live-blogging by yours truly during Friday’s competition) on Pacific Bay’s blog. Whatever you think or have already thought about this past weekend’s events, I think it’s worth stopping to ponder the fact that of the 6 finalists, three were from Intelligentsia and two were from Ritual (and only one was a woman). I’m note entirely sure what this means, but if I had to speculate, it says to me that the café you come from matters as much as anything else. I don’t know if this is because these spots attract quality baristas, are better at grooming them, have better espresso to begin with or perhaps all of the above. But I think the bottom line is that if I were serious about competing, I’d seriously want to think about the café in which I work.
Highlights Besides the Coffee
First, there was attending Kenneth David’s class on coffee tastes and origins. It was an honor to share the room with him. It was less of an honor to share the room with a couple of those folks who manage to show up at nearly every Berkeley event – not the totally crazy ones, but the ones who have no ability to self-edit or to let the speaker speak on what he or she came to speak about. Fortunately, Ken answered every single question with deft skill, providing the audience with answers to the questions that should have been asked and never once showing a ruffled feather.
Second, was hearing John Laird and Mike Perry talk about roasting. Not a super specific, technical discussion, but interesting and inspiring. John discussed how roasting, at least to them, falls into the realm of craft, part science and part art. Mike also gave us a bit of insight into the process of crafting a world champion espresso blend. Apparently it involves finding enough people with the superhuman ability to taste 30 shots of espresso at one sitting in order to analyze the flavors of the different beans and build up a complementary profile. More power to those who can.
As for the venue, itself, I suggest checking out The Shot’s coverage, which has a pretty good recap of the pros and cons of the venue, although, for the record, I think the camera work was actually pretty impressive and the emceeing not that bad.
The absolute standout moment for me, though, had absolutely nothing to do with coffee. At some point last week, my friend Josh sent me the following link to the World Beard Championship. Now, Josh claims to be innocent, but I think he was subtly influenced by all my talk of barista competitions and subconsciously wanted to find a WBC that didn’t have to do with coffee. So I’m sitting there, between events checking my email when I notice these three guys wander through the mezzanine sporting facial hair that makes ZZ Top look like a couple of dowdy dressed men. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I approached the biggest beard, held up my ipod Touch on which I had pulled up the WBC website (not the one related to coffee) and said, “Have you seen this?” He turns to me wide-eyed, a little surprised and says, “Do you know about this?” He then starts tapping the screen of my ipod wildly until the image on the screen matched the man before me. It turns out I was standing in the presence of none other than the 2007-08 World Beard Champion in the Natural Full Beard category. Jack, I am honored.
The most beautiful part of the competition in my eyes is the fourth machine, a La Marzocco GB5, upstairs in the mezzanine, at which the region’s most prominent roasters each take one-hour shifts, pulling shots of espresso or making macchiatos or regulation cappuccinos from whatever beans they thought fit to bring. And this year also included a fifth machine, the Clover, brewing coffee by that same roaster, sometimes whatever they were pulling as espresso and sometimes something different. Oh, and all of this is free, with tips going to either Bikes to Rwanda or Coffee Kids. In short, the fourth machine of any competition is probably the most magnificent collection of coffee to be found under one roof. And you can’t argue with the price.
Now there was simply no way for me to be systematic or comprehensive about my approach to drinking from the fourth machine. As much as I would have liked to have had some of Ritual’s, Coffee Klatch’s, or Intelligentsia’s coffee, I just couldn’t work them into my schedule (I’ve also tried each of them before). I also probably favored coffee from the Clover since the line was shorter (and, secretly, I prefer drip). Finally, I meandered a bit between macchiatos and straight shots of espresso.
I’ve included my notes below in a very roughly, favorite to least favorite order. But please don’t take this rank ordering too seriously. Everything I tasted really was superb and would probably be worthy of at least a 3+ in my ordinary ranking system, making their way up to the tops of the fours. There was nary a poorly pulled shot or poorly brewed cup in the bunch. The differences to me were between a coffee that was wonderfully made and good to the last drop and one that knocked my socks off.
- An espresso made with Ecco Caffé’s competition blend – I think I heard them right that this is a blend of Ethiopian and Brazilian Cup of Excellence coffees. It was very distinct with lots of honey and brown sugar, lightly acidic. I also noticed some floral notes and hints of black tea.
- A shot of “Lemon Burst” espresso, from Flying Goat Coffee. This Ethiopian and Costa Rican blend comes across just as you might expect from the name – an explosion of lemon, but sweet like a lemon drop without any bitterness. I’m not sure if this is a day-to-day espresso, but a perfect example of Flying Goat’s nailing a true artistic vision.
- A shot of espresso with Barefoot Coffee’s competition blend, also known as the Element 114 blend. This is a beautiful two-toned espresso, with a layer of bright citrus and berry clearly separated on the palate from an under-layer of dark chocolate and caramel. I think this one would have been even more phenomenal with milk.
- A shot of espresso from Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz. This was their standard espresso blend – Brazil, Costa Rica and a few origins I didn’t quite hear. A nice medium bodied espresso, with lots of chocolate and hints of red wine and cherry and a pronounced tobacco aftertaste.
- A shot of Pacific Bay Coffee Company’s Diablo espresso. As good as ever. A solid, deep, rich espresso. Chocolate with hints of citrus and some other fruit notes.
- A Sumatran single-origin decaf espresso from Barefoot Coffee Roasters. It was rich and earthy like a good Sumatran should be, a flavor profile that one doesn’t always expect in espresso, but a really nice foil to the typical bright notes of any espresso. Quite good, especially for a decaf.
- A macchiato from Weaver’s Coffee and Tea made with their blend, “The Blend.” It was very creamy, smooth and well-balanced. Well-pulled and well-constructed, but not particularly distinct.
- Kenya Nyeri Hill Peaberry from Flying Goat. These were some of the tiniest beans I’ve seen (see the picture) and super light in color. A really fantastic, very bright, yet gentle coffee with lots of citrus that was somehow neither too lemony nor off-balance in the cup. Once I got past the citrus, I started to notice lots of delicate tea flavors, very floral, with hints of jasmine with lots of sweet, full tobacco flavor coming out in the end. This is a coffee I’d very much like to repeat – hopefully it comes out this well at home.
- A gorgeous Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from the Konga Cooperative roasted by Ecco Caffe. One of the best Yergacheffes I’ve tasted in a long time. Lots of distinctive jasmine notes. A very clean and subtle cup, reminiscent of some of Gesha variety coffees I’ve tried. This and the Kenya Peaberry from Flying Goat were my two favorite Coffees of the competition.
- I finally had the opportunity to try Blue Bottle Coffee on the Clover and I certainly was not disappointed. This Brazil Chapada Diamantina was syrupy and rich with flavors of buttery brown sugar. There were also some distinct floral notes. Rose, I think.
- The Don Oswaldo Colombian coffee from Taylor Maid Farms. I don’t know if it was the clover, but this coffee was surprisingly good and I’m not normally the biggest fan of Taylor Maid. This certainly inspired me to give them another chance. I had down “cinnamon,” “very clean,” and “tobacco.”
- An Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from Pacific Bay. A darker roasted Yergacheffee with some hints of berries and floral notes poking through a more medium bodied cup.
- Barefoot Coffee’s Guatemala. I know this coffee probably deserves to be higher in the list. I thought I heard COE #10, but I only see a #2 on Barefoot’s website. I remember a very bright, clean coffee with some really nice chocolate notes. However, my taste buds were burnt form the weekend and having just downed two of Barefoot’s espressos. Could I have a re-taste please?
- From Moksha Coffee Roasters in Mountain View, I wrote down the “Oasis” blend, which I can’t find on their website. I do know it was a blend of Indian and Ethiopian coffees and was pleasant, with just a slight burst of acidity. It was a very clean cup with hints of tobacco.