It has begun to rain the rain of threatening-to-turn-into-snow in Montreal, and Jay Caragay has started hassling me about blogging. Lots of people are not blogging “enough”. Perhaps because not that much interesting is going on? For instance, what hair styling products are the competitors at the 2008 Canadian National Barista Competition using? I tried to find out. Caragay is using Garnier Fructis. Mike Yung won’t reveal. A lot of people have distinctly erect hair today. The competition should be fierce.

Fourteen Canadians are up. Luke Spicer (Caffe Art Java) and Jordan Mayall (Caffellini) have dropped out at the last minute in favour of volunteering instead or, whatever, staying home and living their lives. It’s too bad, as these are two of the four Quebec competitors. Luckily both Montreal’s Anthony Benda (a twitchy favourite, let’s be honest) and Jean-François LeDuc are still in the ring. And Jean-Francois is wearing a fucking tuxedo. A bit of panache in this somewhat sad-sized trade show with its black curtains and flourescent tubes. Can someone come in and gay these competitions up a bit please? Decor, anyone? Anywhere? As if coffee world weren’t masculine enough, competitions are almost uniformly dreary and nondescript. My eyes glaze over.

First of the day is Chad Moss, Transcend Coffee, Edmonton, Alberta. Chad’s rumoured to be hot stuff. Newfie-born, with time in Australia, where they apparently make espresso sometimes. He starts by reducing some lingonberries, and sets up chocolate-dipped sugar cones at the judges’ stations (whoa). He is also using Terra Keramik cups, who sponsor a lot of Canadian Baristas and make a product that I find both attractive and, yet again, a little overwhelmingly boy. Hm. His routine is tight and compelling, and it seems obvious Chad will move ahead today.

Jean-Francois is floating around in his tuxedo. He’s upstaging everyone just by being in the audience. I overhear one of the judges ask the other if she is planning to smile while judging.

(Caragay is our somewhat more-low-key-Cho-styled emcee today. He stumbles regularly over judge introductions, including introducing Amber Fox as “Mr.” initially. A man next to me looks at Amber and murmurs, “That’s messed up.”)

George Giannakos of Crema (not the one in Portland or Toronto or Seal Beach, California) approaches the contest with a minimal style, which includes decorating the judges’ table with a black tablecloth and a single orange he does not use. His signature drink appears to be substituting orange for lemon in the emulation of a chocolate truffle he likes, and the microphone is way high on the whipping cream he froths using the steam wand. He pours two cappuccinos at once tableside holding them in one hand and does not spill.

Jimmy O(neschuk) of Saskatoon and the internet has returned to competition, bringing with him a new Fu Manchu moustache. His mic is way too close to his mouth and we hear a Darth-Vader like breathing throughout. Jimmy refers to the milk he is using today as “Not a neutral flavour…it’s more of a dairy-forward milk.” His signature drink involves a Saskatoon-berry reduction which he prepared the night before, and is served with instructions the judges cannot hear clearly, causing some degree of dismay. Confused stirring ensues.

Sammy Piccolo (Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC) has been training relentlessly for his return to competition, to no one’s surprise. He seems a tiny bit nervous, but he has two tampers for good luck, and a lot of history and people on his side, and sails through smoothly. His signature drink involves canned peaches, I’m told. He pours a smiley face cappuccino for his only female sensory judge. My mind boggles a little.

Jean-Francois LeTuxedo
is on next, the young owner of mysterious and intriguing Cafe In Gamba here in Montreal. He is formal but charming, refraining from pre-announcing the flavours the judges are meant to experience in his coffees, and letting them make their own evaluations, then describing what it is he intended. He abstains from latte art as well, and even goes so far as to say he will let the “grinder speak for itself”. This and the white tie dress already seemed a little over the top and then he pulls the ballsiest move of the day and tells the judges to put down their scoring pencils, the A/V guy to turn off his music, and proceeds to deliver an impassioned speech about the integrity of the single espresso shot and his disappointment that one can lose points for pulling this, most purest and best form of espresso, in the current competition rule structure. He then proceeds to intentionally go over time by preparing each judge a single shot of espresso using a single-basket portafilter. “I do this in a very humble manner,” insisted Jean-Francois, and indeed his move (grandstanding or no, and it didn’t come off that way) seems to constitute a performance more purely in the service of coffee and the flavour of coffee than maybe any other that day.

Speeding through the middle, Laura Perry won the Eastern Regional and works at a Bridgehead in the outlying Ottawa area, and delivered a skilled but fast-talked-through routine with enormous charm. Spencer Veighweger of JJ Bean in Vancouver was so well-rehearsed and meticulous I caught him polishing all the knobs on his grinder to ultimate perfect cleanliness. He did well, I was zoning out. Tiffany I missed almost completely. Joel May made a “minty mud pie” signature drink, and sailed through with professionalism and, I was told, fewer beaming smiles than his regional or real life.

Anthony Benda hits the stage with a three-weeks-ago roasted espresso (same as Sammy used, I believe—good ol’ 49th bagging technology) that performs nicely. Anth states early in his routine that Anfim grinders can be “a little bit tricky” and I’m surprised his phone doesn’t go off immediately with a phone call from Vince Piccolo…. Anthony dedicates his Oreo-themed signature drink to Stephen Morrissey who “looks like a man who enjoys his cookies.” Stephen is off in the back somewhere providing the event hosts with esoteric information about his favourite kind of footwear, but the other judges laugh.

(Meanwhile in the pseudo-reality of the audience, Alice Berg from Toronto has surprise-appeared, and has begun making inappropriate-for-public but loving and awesome gestures left and right. Between her and my excellent traveling companion Michel LeBlanc and my favourite south shore Montreal barista Jordan, I am having a gay old time during the intermission, despite dehydration, generalized competition malaise, etcetera. Well maybe not a gay old time. Well maybe a little. Also meanwhile, every time I turn around, Phil Robertson is prepping some additional ingredient for his signature drink, to the point that I wonder what he is going to do next. It turns out he’s going to hand-blend…moving on…)

Phil’s routine goes awesomely, again making a distinct and fearsome stab at excellence for the prairie provinces. Last but not least is my friend Alex Tran, who has made me more coffees than nearly anyone I’ve ever watched compete, back at Mercury Espresso Bar in Toronto. Alex is nervous but real, and makes the only signature drink with soymilk of the day — and like all the soy drinks Alex has ever made me in the past, it is actually not disgusting, but tasty. (Really, I’m more positive than I look.) He’s a bit shaky but solid, and we’re out for a long scoring-kerfuffle break and a quick pass at the appetizer trays in the foyer.

Results! I guessed five of the six: Phil Robertson (Phil and Sebastian, Calgary, AB), Sammy Piccolo (past champion, Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC), Joel May (Fratello Coffee, Calgary, AB), Chad Moss (Transcend Coffee, Edmonton, AB), Spencer Veighweger (JJ Bean, Vancouver, BC) and Anthony Benda (Cafe Myriade, opening next week in Montreal with business partner Scott Rad.)

Magnifique. It’s supposed to snow tomorrow, so help us all.

5 Responses to “CNBC2008 Day One: Going forwards by going backwards”

  1. t o n x

    “dairy forward”?

    you made that part up, right?

  2. James Hoffmann

    This is better than the live feed, because I have some clue of what is happening now! (Damned crappy internet connection at work).

    Great writeup – look forward to the next one.

  3. rich w

    nice coverage. missed all but the announcements on ustream, but now I feel I was there. with a new yorker 😉

    enjoy the snow. and the poutine.

  4. Round one — Canadian National Barista Championships « daily YHZ espresso

    […] […]

  5. Franco

    5 of six finalists from the west, three from ALBERTA, two from CALGARY.

    You can just hear the Toronto/Montreal/fake New Yorker assholes twisting in the wind. Love it.

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