Last time I spontaneously decided “I should drive RIGHT NOW to Pittsburgh” ended in a man with a missing arm and a stolen trombone (neither mine), but this time would surely be different. After a couple rounds of chicken over text and IM, and sweetened with promises of Breezewood, Colleen and I decided at the very last minute that if three (three!) Brooklynites were going to make it to the Northeast Regional Barista Competition finals… we should probably show up first thing in the morning to support them.
We flipped for whose Volvo was driving and Colleen pulled up outside while I made two syphons of Barismo’s newest Guatemalan and hastily splashed it into thermoses that would keep it terrifyingly hot for hours en route to Breezewood, home of the densest concentration of gas stations, motels, and individual United-State-themed shot glasses in the nation.
One questionable sleep later, we’re off through coal and rust country. Somewhere in Western Pennsylvania there is an enormous billboard for a rawist, vegan restaurant…but everything else is a Sheetz. We bypass the wonderful city of Pittsburgh for the dimmer shores of Cranberry Township and its Mariott. Bleary-eyed we emerge and Jay Cunningham nearly runs us over in the parking lot. He gives us some breakfast tickets, though, and we eat a pre-comp buffet of enormous heartland-sized English muffins while Ben Kaminsky expresses deep concerns about the township’s water quality.
Into the fire! Competitor number one is Ben Wilkinson of Blue State coffee in New Haven, CT. He watches his digital wristwatch timer with such frequency that it probably adds up to that one second he goes over time. His signature drink involves limes… I’m not awake yet.
Since this is a combined regional (Mid-Atlantic and Northeast) we’re alternating competitors. Ben is NERBC, and the next up, David Nigel Flynn of Peregrine Espresso in Washington, DC is from the MARBC. Follow along. David seems to be a little lost up there himself, but also charming and gradually more and more composed. His capps are single-shots, and his signature drink is based on a Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut bar. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but then again he does get to say “milk-malt foam”. Mmm!
NERBC competitor Jordan Barber is a Brooklynite who works for adorable Abraço Espresso in the East Village here in New York. He’s using a Counter Culture Blend (as are, like, 497 of the 12 finalsts here today) that involves Brazil Fazenda Ipanema Dolce, an El Salvador orange bourbon pulp natural, Sumatra gayo semi-washed, a Sidamo natural, and, didn’t he say there was another? Was it a PNG? Is this a custom competition blend or is everyone actually using Aficionado? I’m still sleepy.
Jordan is a super class act up there, with some of the best music of the entire competition, sharp clothes, Vichy Catalan water for the judges, and an unbelievably relaxed and all-pro demeanor. His signature drink includes a homemade apple butter and is served in two stages with an espresso involving a hazelnut/chocolate ganache. He’s finished his routine at 13:29 and relaxes, pours more Vichy Catalan, and sort of just stands there and hangs out. He’s already done cleaning, and just chillin’. Calls time at 14:30 and I grab some unfinished apple butter and try to drink his sig drink in stages as gracefully as possible while confusing the young girls from Cranberry Township who have volunteered to bus dishes.
Katie Duris from Murky Coffee in Arlington, VA is the predicted Mid-Atlantic champ today. Her routine is extremely calm, almost a little too calm, but her espresso is on and her signature drink— involving steamed almond milk, balsamic reduction, and figs—seems to come off grandly.
Jesse Darrow swings us back to the Northeast. Jesse is a barista at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca…so all his table settings are Gimme!-masculine-black and exclamatory red. All the songs on his soundtrack are about pressure, and he mentions early on that he guesses all those bananas he ate “didn’t help.” Out the side of my eye I see another NE competitor, Sam Penix, spraying something into her mouth with a large spray-bottle. Okay.. Jesse’s signature drink is inspired, he says, by a recent trip to the Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown, and he’s got a bunch of dry malt, barley, and cascade hops in an aeropress, which he turns into a light liquid onto which he pulls shots of espresso. “Sip it as if you were just home from a hard day’s work and enjoying an actual beer,” he tells the judges, but despite this interesting effort, it tastes to me later like I came home from a hard day’s work and was enjoying a hoppy Leftist americano. Jesse goes over time by about 26 seconds.
Peregrine Espresso is well represented at the competition for such a relatively new cafe, and Jeremy Sterner is the next Mid-Atlantic competitor. He’s using the same blend as Jordan, I think (yes?) and bases his signature drink around the idea of an espresso pomander. If only you could poke cloves into an espresso shot and dangle them from your tree! A girl can dream.
Nik Krankl of Taste Coffee House in Newton, Mass. apparently decided very late in the game that he wanted to enter the NERBC, and pulled together the kids from Barismo to help him train. He’s using a Kenyan and has a very strange selection of ceramics (high-design espresso demis, Intelli capp cups, and faux-crumpled paper ceramic cups for the judges’ water…hm…) His signature beverage is called a “Cold Shower Con Panna”, which is an affogado-inspired creme fraiche and espresso granita and rimmed and cloved kind of deal. The steps take a lot of time and I think he forgets one…but for a first-timer, he’s rocking it. I tasted this drink and it was immensely balanced and light, really nice.
Watching Allie Carran‘s performance over ustream from Brooklyn the day before was one of the motivating factors to hop in the car at the last minute. Her really, really insane signature drink involved homemade cascara edible candy wrappers, cascara foam, espresso and neutral pop rocks. When she gets to this point in her routine, the soundtrack is cut so you can hear the pop rocks going—which was audible even over the internet feed. Her performance was similar to yesterday’s, both including a moment of lost composure and graceful regaining thereof. I taste the pop-rocks drink: very sweet, not that coffee-ish. But incredibly loud.
(At this point, I notice that the room is really pretty full, with a big crowd in the lobby of the hotel as well, milling about and sampling desserts. I am holding out hopes that the Crazy Mocha goat will appear in mascot form, but no dice so far.)
Another Brooklynian, Sam Penix is up now. She slings at Everyman Espresso on 13th Street in Manhattan. There are a LOT OF PATTERNS going on on Sam and her table, and her drink is another Counter Culture espresso, signaturized in root beer float form (tastes more sarsparilla-y to me.) She risks 11 seconds overtime for cleaning—a points gamble that will work out for her later.
(Inventorying the crowd: two people knitting in the front row, Nik Krankl drinking a beer out of a lycra beer cozy, and Gail Silverton doing the Sunday Crossword. I’m not sure if she’s gotten all the way through and into the Cryptic yet.)
Murky Coffee’s Allie Turner begins the ending of these finals: this quiet Mid-Atlantian has a glass of…is that lemon chiffon?…no, it’s TURMERIC foam. Whoa. Her signature drink is a spicy gingery espresso made with this foam, and I am frightened to taste it.
Amber Sather won the NERBC last year after a long history competing for Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea. She’s entered on her own this year (or more cryptically, under the business name AMS, which I can only assume stands for Amber Motherfuckin’ Sather) and is using coffee from 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters in Vancouver. Amber’s routine is unsurprisingly polished and tight, and she closes it with a signature drink of berry-infused cream and a two-bean espresso blend, served on a drop of chocolate and chased with a berry granita spoonful.
The last competitor is the Mid-Atlantic’s Dana Waelde, the only finalist actually from Pittsburgh, the nominal (at least, it’s 24 miles down the road) host of the competition, and the only competitor to use the sponsor’s grinder and the free milk. Her routine is awesome for a first-timer’s and even more awesome for striking out of a more mainstream chain of shops. She also uses Gang of Four in her soundtrack. Hot!
After some fun times tearing down equipment and being smartaleks in the online chats, the announcements are made:
3rd: David Flynn, Peregrine Espresso, Washington, DC
2nd: Allie Turner, Murky Coffee, Washington, DC
1st: Katie Duris, Murky Coffee, Washington, DC
3rd: Sam Penix, Everyman Espresso, New York, NY
2nd: Nik Krenkl, Taste, Newton, MA
1st: Amber Sather, Brooklyn, New York
Colleen and I grab the car keys and make a beeline for Breezewood and Brooklyn, with Ben Kaminsky and a stomach full of fries-covered sandwiches in tow. Total miles: 780, total hours away: 28. Too short to send postcards, but I’m sure you knew the thought was there.