Iron Barista

Photo by Matt CokerAbout 7,500 conventioneers trudged by booths hawking coffee, powders, cups, thermoses, signage, roasting machines, packaging materials, and those little cardboard rings that wrap around paper cups to keep your fingers from burning. It was the Specialty Coffee Association of America's 14th-annual Conference and Exhibition at the Anaheim Convention Center, which took place May 3 through 6.

The Cafe Music Network offered its piped-in service, while Third World farming cooperatives sought support for fair trade, sustainable harvests and farm workers' rights.

Orange County's king of specialty coffee, Diedrich Coffee's Martin Diedrich, couldn't make it because he was on the East Coast, but his brother Stephan Diedrich was there, talking up his Idaho-based Diedrich Manufaturing Co.'s roasting machines. "The biggest difference is being able to manipulate the chemistry," he was overheard telling a potential customer examining a machine.

But this wasn't just a gathering for coffee's fat cats. Hundreds of espresso makers from throughout the country competed at the first official North American Barista Championship. By the morning of May 6, only eight remained.

Approximately 60 people sat in the grandstands and another 50 or so milled about as the finalists took turns behind machines that faced the audience. Strategically placed mirrors displayed the action behind the counter.

Taking particular interest were some stone-faced Asian men in designer suits. Mike Ferguson, spokesman for the Long Beach-based Specialty Coffee Association of America, explained that Asian and Latin American investors are hip to the fact that America's coffee culture has flourished despite economic problems. While overseas operators understand the business side, they're now trying to catch up when it comes to product quality. (It was no coincidence that the Anaheim competition was sponsored by Japanese and Brazilian coffee companies.)

Each barista had time limits to prepare their work stations (which included grinding beans; most used house blends), make three espressos, three cappuccinos and three specialty drinks for three taste testers, and then clean up after themselves. Many had that patented barista look—goatees, shaved heads, earth muffiness for the chicks—but by OC standards, they were lacking in body ink and piercings.

The competition itself was good-natured, with the baristas, who were miked, chatting with a host as they toiled. But they were quite serious when it came to describing their concoctions.

"It brings out good notes," Jim Smith of PT's Coffee Co. in Topeka, Kansas, said of his specialty drink, Jim's Hairy Balls (milk, coconut, ice and coffee, shaken like a martini).

"I like to see the dance," said Lisa Dutra of the Coffee Klatch in San Dimas as her nose barely cleared the cappuccino she was inspecting.

"In my shop, I do all freehand artwork," she later explained. She's not talking about paintings on the wall; she's referring to the drawings she makes with chocolate syrup atop her cappuccinos. "A woman came up to the counter one day and said, 'I heard you've been putting hearts on my husband's lattes.'"

Many appreciated the brief break from the Starbucks-swilling masses.

"It's interesting to walk into a room full of people who know what a caramel macchiato really is," remarked Andrew Napoli, representing Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Co. of Los Gatos, California.

Audra Marx of Muddy Waters Coffee House in North Carolina explained she was more or less forced to invent her signature drink—Muddy's Magical Elixir, a chilled caramel double macchiato—as sort of a coffeehouse kamikaze to appease a clientele used to downing alcohol shooters.

Others saw more romance in their life's work. Don Holly of Green Mountain Coffee in Vermont said he loves sipping coffee at sidewalk cafs in Italy and the Italian approach to coffee, which is something of a religion. He quoted an Italian sage who believed the success—or blame—for what's in your cup is 50 percent the responsibility of the roaster and 50 percent the responsibility of the barista.

Holly, who grew up in Orange County, began in the coffee business with Martin Diedrich and just moved back east to become Green Mountain's quality manager. He presented judges with a blend incorporating fair trade and organic beans "to create a symphony of flavors. I make double shots because I love coffee, and I want my customers to love it, too."

But in the end, the judges best loved the coffee poured by a barista from, naturally, Seattle. Dismis Smith of Zoka Coffee Roaster won taste testers over with his Latin Love (ice-cold coffee, Mexican chocolate, condensed sweetened milk, whipped cream containing more Mexican chocolate and white chocolate flecks), which honored Cinco de Mayo and the Latin heritage on his mother's side. "I like to say once you've had Latin Love, no other love will do," said Smith, who'll get to try that line on judges at the 2002 World Barista Championship in Oslo, Norway, in June.


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