A barista championship in Petaluma?

Yesterday (Saturday, March 4) I attended my first SCAA barista competition. Held at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma, the Western Regionals are a competitive prelude to next month’s U.S. Barista Championship. (Petaluma: it’s not just world arm wrestling championships anymore.)

The annual Western Regionals covers competitive baristas across California and Hawai’i, but the emphasis is clearly on Northern California. Last year they were held at Roshambo Winery in Healdsburg, California, with 15 competitors. Thus year there were 22 competitors (most first-timers), with the top six from the Saturday preliminaries advancing to today’s finals.

Timers running, the emcee plays for time between judging sessions Rob Daly of Taylor Maid Farms ready to take your order at the 4th Machine

To the uniniated, the barista competitions modelled for the U.S., and World, Barista Championships are a bit like Iron Chef for espresso — just without the improv. Is it for coffee geeks? You bet. What else would get a couple hundred people to drive up to Petaluma on a Saturday morning to watch people make coffee? But it’s a great crowd of baristas, roasters, café owners, and coffee enthusiasts who all share a love of great coffee. What makes it a sort of family is that everyone there pretty much wants to see better standards so they can drink more of the good stuff. And oh, is there good stuff to be had around the competition…

Competition format

Walking into the hotel conference room, I was first greeted by a many people standing around (with quite a few familiar faces), talking with each other, and drinking a lot of the great coffee that was available in spades. In the back was The 4th Machine — where various sponsors and coffee vendors took hourly shifts pulling their best competitive shots while the competition proceeded in the main conference area next door. More on that later…as I spent a lot of time getting to know the 4th Machine. But I will say here that this was not the place for anyone with a love of great coffee and a low tolerance for caffeine. (Bring your own defibrillator paddles.)

In the main area of the competition, there are three stations consisting of three-group La Marzocco Linea machines, and the process goes something like this…

First-timer Ryan Patronyk of Carpinteria's Caje warms up at his station before judges arrive Ritual's Gabriel Boscana hits his required elements

Competitors each get 15 minutes of prep time at their stations to become acquainted with their equipment and to tune their shots. Usually during this time, another competitor is finishing up at another station or the emcee (such as Barefoot Roasters‘ legendary Andy Newbom) is passing the inbetween time with trivia questions and commentary.

When the prep time is up, the judges file out … sometimes announced like San Jose Shark hockey players as they take the ice. And there are plenty of judges. There are four sensory judges who are the primary tasters, and they contribute to 2/3 of a barista’s total score. (They also need to pull different shifts to hold up to all the caffeine.) The remainder of a barista’s score comes down to technical judges, who monitor a barista’s every move. The technical judges also serve as something of a team of forensic detectives at a crime scene: after the barista serves a round of shots, they check the consistency of the coffee puck in the portafilter handles, inspect the cleanliness of the barista’s station after a wipe-down, etc.

Coffee Klatch's Heather Perry sees her tamping get all the judge's attention Ritual's Ryan Brown holds up under scrutiny

Each barista must produce a dozen espresso drinks in under 15 minutes: four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four specialty drinks (call them “espresso cocktails”) — the last round of which is akin to a “freestyle” event in Olympic ice skating terms. While the order of the rounds is flexible, most baristas serve their cappuccinos first (starting their judges off with a mellower flavor), followed by their espressos, and finishing off with their specialty drinks.

There are even some “compulsories” in the competition — including the barista serving each judge with water, a spoon, a napkin, and sugar. The sugar is the odd requirement — as the judges never use it, and any good barista would be mortified if they did.

Ryan Brown serves his espresso to the sensory judges Specialty drink and tasting menu from Ritual's Gabriel Boscana

Many competing baristas bring their own equipment: beans, frothing pitchers, espresso and cappuccino cups, sometimes grinders, milk (Clover Stornetta seems to be the milk of choice), and any necessary props and ingredients for their specialty drinks. And like Olympic ice skaters, they even bring their own music as an audio track to their competitive performance. Wearing headsets hooked up to overhead speakers, they either narrate their presentation and answer questions from the emcee. (I was particularly amused by one barista’s fitting selection of Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”.)

And to further complete the Olympic ice skating analogy, there’s a backstage area where baristas get their carts together with their equipment before taking their stations. Some of them were joking about a barista pulling a “Tonya Harding” — easing some of the pressure with humor. If you thought the sensory judges were jittery from all their tastings, the high pressure of the event made both veteran and first-time barista competitors unable to hold a milk-frothing pitcher steady (though unfortunately not in a way that helped their latte art).

Dianelle Joray of Café Organica (and former Murky Coffee barista in DC) 'backstage' with her cart What do the sensory judges think of Nicole Rubio's (Team Flying Goat) espresso?

Specialty drink from Naked Lounge's Sean White for the many customers who really don't like coffee The aftermath of a judging session

The 4th Machine

With three machines in competition, a fourth La Marzocco in the back was reserved for hourly shifts of different baristas and different roasts for complimentary espresso drinks. They included Ecco Caffè, Taylor Maid Farms, Flying Goat Coffee, Pacific Bay Coffee Company, Calistoga Roastery, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, and Petaluma Coffee & Tea Company.

Hourly schedule of great espresso at the 4th Machine A festival of beans and dirty cups at the 4th Machine

Like many other attendees, I did my part to tell the time at the event by the espresso I was currently drinking — as this next series of photos indicates:

10AM: Taylor Maid Farms espresso 11AM: Flying Goat Coffee cappuccino
1PM: Pacific Bay Coffee espresso 3PM: Barefoot Coffee Roasters espresso 5PM: Flying Goat Coffee macchiato

Crowning the winner…

From the trivia questions being asked by the emcees between performances, I learned a few things:

  • Despite the fact that robusta is sold in commodity trades by the ton and arabica is sold by the pound, 70% of the coffee beans sold in the world are of the high-quality arabica variety.
  • When coffee was first introduced to Europe in the 1600s, it was first called “Arabian wine”
  • Finland is #1 in coffee consumption among the world’s nations
  • There are currently some 17,000 coffee houses in the U.S, representing an 80% increase since 1998

In my next installment on this event, I’ll cover some of the people in attendance: the barista competitors, the roasters, and the café owners alike. At the time of writing, the event is now over and the winners have been announced. But before I review the final honors, I’ll leave you with the unique trophies for the event, designed by local artist David Dexter Anderson.

If only the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games offered these beauties to the winning athletes…

The Olympic podium of WRBC 2006 trophies David Dexter Anderson's First Place trophy