I wake up in a motel just on the edge of town. I am sleepily denying the rain despite the sound of trucks and SUVs barrelling down the wet road. There are spent eggshells in the trash can. I am staying with the America’s Dairyland crew and they have been making custard in the night. 27 people are competing in Ithaca’s State Theater today. It’s gonna be a long day.

Jenny G. and I get to the State and it’s gorgeous — hard to believe Gimme! tricked them into letting them have a barista competition here. I grab some Brooklyn people for breakfast and we rush back in time to see the first two competitors, both out-of-region and scuttled to the deaddest spots of the comp. Chris Deferio intercepts me on my way backstage and hands me a package of smoked dates from last night’s coffee/food tasting dinner at the Carriage House. I love this man.

Competitor #1: Scott Lucey (Alterra Coffee, Milwaukee, Wisc.)

Scott’s here to practice for the USBC and despite the custard-impairment of upstate New York is incredibly laid back. Actually he might be a bit too laid back. This room is dead. It’s 10am. Emcee Nick Cho can only do so much. Scott’s rocking Queen today. It helps a bit.

Scott introduces his signature drink, Colonel Custard, and explains that the name is funny. Which is funny. He talks a lot — kinda reservedly earnestly — about his love for coffee and the world of it. And specifically about how people will travel so far to geek out. (Oh, hi.) Lucey pours his capps tableside — on purpose this time — but his performance is a little I-don’t-have-anything-on-the-line-ish. Capps look good but despite an announcement that the Colonel is “on his way!”, he does not arrive until 15:06. More Jay Z next time when we’re back in the custard belt! Rock!

Competitor #2: Belle Battista (Aldo Coffee, Pittsburgh, Penna.)


Belle is the MARBC champeen and, like Lucey, is here to brush up for next month’s nationals. Her coffee background is incluenced by time spent in Spain, and she’ll be preparing a cafe con leche in the clever disguise of a cappuccino.

Belle’s capps look great and are set to flamenco music — but there’s still no energy in this room yet. There are maybe 25 people in the cavernous, red-velvety house. Still, it isn’t even 11am.

Belle’s signature beverage is a 38% cacao with cream and…a breadstick? Her performance is great and unpretentious, but a little loose. She’s already got her free ticket to Minneapolis. Like Lucey I look forward to seeing her thrive under way more pressure in a few weeks.

I sneak out to the bathroom at 11am. Volunteers are filling up water jugs in the ladies room upstairs on the balcony level. Zachary Evans from 1369 Coffeehouse sets up — but competitor #4 is still nowhere to be seen.

Competitor #3: Zachary Evans (1369 Coffeehouse, Malden, Mass.)

Zachary makes espresso at — a jazz club? His signature drink is called No Americano for Old Men. It’s got Mexican cocoa and chipotle and no dairy — I later steal some of this backstage and it’s phenomenal. Zachary is using Barrington Coffee and by 14:34 his espresso shots aren’t out yet.

I look into the audience and see Supercompetitor(tm) Amber Sather sitting mid-back o the house, by herself. This ain’t like Milwaukee when the Intelli kids were rolling 700-deep in matching track suits. It’s all Amber’s mental game here and you can see her psyching up from all the way across the room.

Zachary finishes at 16:29.

Up in the balcony I sit with the Brooklynites and Milwaukeeans. Colleen from Ritual hands me two handsome red bags of coffee. Rock!

There’s a bit of a delay in the competition right now, and Cho kills time that would otherwise have been occupied by the fourth competitor’s slot — but Dan Griffin is nowhere to be seen. (Apparently he is too dangerous to even make it to a barista competition?) We take a little time to discuss rules and physics. Would a child be
allowed to compete? And if so, can someone who weighs less than 30 lbs be able to exert 30 lbs of pressure? Hopefully Scott Rao will be covering this later in the afternoon.

Cho attempts to pass yet more time by soliciting questions of any variety. I imagine a lot of people in this audience have questions for Nick Cho — but no one’s going to be asking ’em. Eventually, from the balcony, Mike White asks him about his pants. Finally we’re ready for the next competitor.

Competitor #4: Lance Nichols (Gimme! Coffee, Ithaca, New York)

Lance is a first-time competitor. He opens by turning to the judges and saying, “Sorry! I didn’t see you there!” This joke and another kind of flops, but I sorta love him for it anyway.

Lance has roasted “unreleased” Rwandan/Brazilian/Ethiopians for his blend. Dude is nervous, but loosens up when his soundtrack turns to jangly pop. He begins to babble a bit, and can speak well to his flavor profiles — but I’m not sure he needs to explain the Anfim grinder to the judges.

Lance’s signature drink involves hazelnut milk, aerated cream, anda  sage-infused honey. Apple is served as a palate cleanser. I notice his placemats are photograph collages! Sadly, he calls time at 15:06. Later he’ll admit to Cho that his “tongue was in his shoes”. Ha!

Competitor #5: Chris Ganger (Ithaca Coffee Company, Ithaca, New York)

Chris is totally polished and is so far the strongest competitor of the day — except he keeps using the word “wholistic”. I’m not sure how cappucinos or signature espresso drinks are wholistoc or holistic, but sure, whatever.

Chris’ sig drink involves cream, butter, salt, raspberry honey, and espresso. His timing is good, and he goes out to a kazoo version of “The Final Countdown”. Nice.

Competitor #6: Lucia Bush (Coffeemania, Cortland, New York)

Lucia works at a drive-thru only cafe somewhere upstate and has a very lucid and prosaic verbal routine. “Coffee is my mentor and confessor,” she says. “It is the bridge that we cross.”

She’s got a kind of midwestern mom personality, and makes a lot of connections with the social and personal role of coffee in people’s daily lives. We cross her bridge with a signature drink that is poured in some kind of soup bowl.

Nick Cho reminds us that  one of the sponsors today is the Finger Lakes School of Massage. Anne Boatner finds me and proffers a box of Wheat Thins, and offers me to dip them in applesauce. Vegans! Time for a break before the Supercompetitor steps up.

5 Responses to “NERBC Day One Part One: “Like a blast from a cannon.””

  1. sarah allen

    liz, you’re the greatest! thanks for all your live bloggin!!! i wish i could be there chillin with you. hey, did the new issue of barista mag arrive at the competition? we sent 100…

    talk soon!
    sarah (bob loblaw)

  2. dan griffin

    where is dan griffin anyway?

  3. scott rao

    i think a <30 lb. child could tamp with more than 30lbs. of pressure if he/she stabliized the tamper on the ground and jumped in the air, landing squarely on the tamper, thus imposing perhaps up to 100lbs. of force upon impact.
    however, current scientific thought says this child would have a hard time achieving a level tamp under such circumstances.
    i will see if i can convince andy schecter to do a proper experiment and post the results.

  4. Andrey

    Liz, it’s like being there. Perhaps even better 🙂 Thanks!

  5. liz

    there are baristamags lying about. i have not had time to read one.
    been too busy using small children to exert level pressure on things. just for science.

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