For a change there is no competition until later in the day — noon! — and it’s a sleeper-in for the first time in days. Or it would be, if there weren’t a plan afoot to go bowling and brunching in the morning with my friends from America’s Dairyland. We arrive at Bryant Lake Bowl (via a cabbie who lets us pile seven in, and offers us bottled water (!?!?!?)) with (sleepy, SCAA-burned-out) bells on: only to hear they are waxing the lanes at 10am. WAXING THE LANES? I am the first to hear this and it’s such bad news I can’t even look Teisl and Lucey in the eye and I make Jenny tell them. The brunch is alright, though, and I think a couple of kids order a drink called Booze Salad to make them thoroughly enthusiastic for the USBC finals. Go Midwest! (“Oh, it’s a drink? I actually would prefer booze poured all over my salad.” — Eileen Hassi.)

Back to the dehydrating and sleepymaking convention floor! Quick macchiato at the 49th Parallel booth (thank you for existing) and time to watch.

The crack SCAA2008 blogging and videoing and generally being awesome crew have compiled highlights from their “Barista Confessionals” video segments and are using them as intro bumpers for each competitor. Totally awesome.

Drew Cattlin is first. He does a fine job on this routine that I’m now watching for the third iteration in days. Almost serves the judges their drinks out of order — and corrects. How is this serving order determined, anyway?

Drew is done early and has time for cleanup and more water-refililng. Nick Cho and James Hoffmann are emceeing today; as part of their banter and judge-score-time-killing routine, they are asking each competitor to pull them a shot while they make awkward post-competition small talk. Radical! Jealous!

Nick Griffith is second. He’s again really really calm. It’s just as if he’s making a drink for you in a cafe on a slow afternoon. He lets the tech judges know “you can dance if you want to”.

Nick finishes his signature drink in the 13 minute zone, does lots of cleaning and the lyrics to whatever song is playing say “the clock is ticking / but I can’t stop time”. Nick comes across just like a really good host would. He talks more about his coffee’s origins. And calls time.

Reigning USBC champion Heather Perry (who I’m told has admirably been into Kopplin’s Coffee daily during the conference) is up now. We are mighty far from San Dimas. Heather opens with another exceedingly long and vaguely informative schpiel about, oh, her first coffee passions, farms, trips to origin, the first cafe experience that made her love coffee, and so on. This takes a full 2:30, but some water does get poured for the judges in the meantime. She’s from some other dimension, but her routine is solid.

The photographers have slightly stricter rules (like no passing behind the judges) today which we are trying hard to follow. As such, Meister has carpet burn on her knees. Dedication to the craft, yes yes it is.

More Californians! Chris Baca is competitor four. He’s the crowd favorite today, no question. He had the highest score in any regional competition and just seems like such the perfect gentleman, showman and potential coffee ambassador. Plus he wears those tearaway pants (not in competition.)

Baca tells Nick Cho he’s from Modesto. “That’s where it goes down,” he explains.

He hits the start button and grins.

Baca shouts out to everyone down the line who led him to being able to prepare the coffee he has today: Gabe, Ryan and Devorah who roasted it at Ritual, to the farmers to “anyone who works on this coffee while I’m sitting at home and watching TV.”

Signature drinks are cherry lime cheesecake and I manage to steal just one or two drops later on — Gabe tells me I probably only got the syrupy end, but it ain’t anything but pure goodness. A taut routine and we are all crossing our fingers with nerves.

Pete Licata from PT’s in Kansas City is rolling fifth: he’s the only non-West coaster and represents the Midwest as best possible here in Minneapolis, with little chef coat outfit to boot. Pete says serving his customers their favorite drinks daily is “the best thing in the world”.

His cappuccino pours look good: but he’s shaking like mad! The third one nearly goes projectile into the judge. It works out okay. He pulls three sets of shots for his signature drink, which mimics an “espresso wine”. He serves it with a musky cheese I tried the other day, and ends his routine sweetly:

“Thank you. It has been an absolute honor to serve you. This is the most proud moment of my life.”

Pete blows a little espresso dust off the competition timer, and calls time.

Back in the barista prep room, Drew Cattlin is really, really methodically washing dishes. He has washed more dishes at this conference than anyone I’ve seen back here. The sink is a good place to direct sudsy tension. Drew manages to be social and Zen all at the same time.

Last but (especially if you know the outcome already) not least is Kyle Glanville. He’s on his game and he’s one of my guesses for top three if not winner. His first two cappuccino pours are really great: but he’s focused and a little scared. Swallows nervously and pours the others.

Kyle’s one of the few competitors who really comfortably mixes up his stage patter day to day despite performing essentially the exact same routine. He’s comfortable enough with what he’s saying to vary it eloquently and with ease, and it’s this kind of tiny nuance that makes you realize he’s fully assured of every step of what he’s doing up there.

Kyle explains the fear of salt but prepares four individually-burnered-and-strained macadamia nut infused espresso drinks despite the salty stigma: there’s a smear on one glass that I see him look at as he’s serving it to a judge — but he decides to play it gracefully. He’s got a minute left to clean, and looks relieved…

…which is a hell of a lot more calm than he looks an hour later when he is announced the 2008 United States Barista Champion (2nd: Pete Licata, 3rd: Heather Perry — in a tie with Pete having a higher amount of sixes.) Whoa! Intelligentsia’s competition machine has produced again, and Glanville is so humbled and freaked out when Licata is named second — making him the remaining winner — that he grabs first his face and then his stomach and then the table. It’s kind of totally awesome.

And then in a mass of scores gone over with judges, luggage collected, carpets hastily rolled up, bags of espresso being pawned off left and right, airport rides brokered, trade show booths torn down by what yesterday were hopeful competitors, it’s all over. Exhausted and bittersweet goodbyes are tendered. If I were actually awake and feeling not-sick, this moment would be so much worse. (You’ll all visit, right?)

I collect two New Yorkers and we head to Kopplin’s for a goodbye coffee. It seems like 2003209329 days ago that I stepped off the bus into this wee cafe and speedily ingratiated myself with the entire staff in order to avail myself of their vehicles, family homes and espresso and coffee beverages. Everyone who works here is great! Which is part of what makes a cafe great, but it’s such a good coffee shop, too, really one of the best I’ve been to in the country. And I wasn’t paid to say that in exchange for a ride to the airport from Milstead. It’s a special place, even if that sassy owner is too cynical for me to say that to his face. (Somebody snap a towel at that kid for me, willya?)

As tiny world happy luck would have it, Ecco Experimental Espresso #2 is in the grinder for our last coffees of the whirlwind weekend. Mike shares a shot with Meister and we’re off to MSP to be whisked away back to supposed reality. Beyond burned out and at the risk of losing my lippy reputation, I gotta say: this was such a good weekend made possible by the presence of amazing and passionate weirdos from all around the world, the abundance of whom made me feel like I was roaming around some kind of crazy friend buffet all conference long, unable to really savor as much of anyone or anything as I wanted, but lucky all the same.

Mike and Amber get BFF props for being my main travel companions, eye-rolling friends and cocktail waitresses; the amazing, amazing SCAA blog and tech crew of Zachary, Katie, James, Meister, Nick and that tall skinny guy for making all this ridiculousness available in uber-geeky form to those who truly love it; everyone from Brooklyn (so amazing), everyone from Canada (oh my god there are so many of you/us), Mark Prince and for the kindness of press access and the impetus to come, everyone who works at Kopplin’s for being suspiciously great and providing a local reality base and a Midwestern inspiration for coffee.

Obviously I am a tired sentimental sap. Coffee conventions and barista competitions are totally ridiculous and I’m not sure where they fit into reality, but when what you like is inspired and delightful crazy people and good coffee: you can sure have one hell of a good time. Mad love, kiddos.

And congratulations, Kyle.

3 Responses to “USBC 2008 Day Four FINALS: You can dance if you want to.”

  1. bz

    exhausted just reading this. scintillating.

  2. Mike White


  3. Meister

    well played, Clayton.

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