Saturday morning. Chris and M’Lissa Owens are marching towards me across the spacious convention center floor. Do they need to borrow a car? No: they need me and my press pass to slip into the trade show floor before it’s open and find some of the “most fake tasting” cherry syrup I can find. I oblige, eschewing the “New England Black Cherry” blends at the more upscale booths and coming back with a tiny cup of something deep pink, apparently for Gwilym…the secret to his success? We shall see.

Gwilym Davies’ performance begins by explaining “why espresso is disappointing”, and he goes on to explain that espresso is so fleeting and complex that tasting it is often more a composite of taste memories, a hastily compiled experience. His routine attempts to connect the espresso that lives in the mind and the espresso that lives in the cup…and to do this he has brought a stack of Carnac-the-Magnificent-style envelopes that he instructs the judges to open. They contain descriptors, four different words in each, and the judges set them aside and drink Gwilym’s espresso course. They’re asked to select the word that the espresso recalls to them the most, and when it’s signature drink time, these slips of paper are the road map. One judge has selected the descriptor that best interprets the espresso’s sweetness (they select “honey”), the rest choose cards referring to the texture, mouthfeel, the fruit flavor they get from the espresso, etc. (I’m sure I have some of these details wrong, by the way.) These point Gwilym towards the ingredients he’ll use to prepare the signature drink — which he explains is a 1/256 combination. Awesome! We end up with honey, hazelnut, butteriness, cherry (there’s that dot of syrup…) and he explains at the end that everything in the signature drink was variable until the last minute. (Shades of Devin Pedde‘s 2009 routine, but more like a card trick.)

Speaking of dP, I’m not fully awake yet at 12:30 and shove past the crowd of people at the Slayer Espresso booth to get a shot of the Rwanda C.O.E. Mike Phillips is using this weekend. Oh shit! This could work out really really well.

Back on the competition floor, Heather Perry is sorting through a box of flags of many nations. No, I can’t wave the giant American flag during Mike’s routine, I explain, because I’ll be taking pictures…but Heather suggests I could just take off my clothes and you know. Wear the flag. I am flattered but decline. I do take a small American flag for my back pocket. Jeez, I haven’t felt this patriotic about the US since November 4th…Ben Kaminsky kindly gives me a quesadilla about four minutes before Mike goes on, which I start to eat, until I realize that I am far too keyed up to eat.

So yeah, I’ve seen this guy Mike Phillips perform once or twice. He’s alright I guess. Kind of a hack. For those of you whose RSS readers are too slow to keep up with the traffic on Mike’s blog, Mike has changed his coffee from the Bolivian Anjilanaka he used at the GLRBC and USBC to a Rwandan. He tells the judges he is going to be preparing it in five different methods. Not just for fun but “because I feel like it matters”. Awesome.

Mike seems maybe as nervous as I’ve seen him, but I think that’s kind of a good thing: this energy could be directed in just the right way. In describing the what makes up the taste of his coffee, the “articulated” flavor within his cappuccinos, Mike tells the judges: “these aren’t things that happen by accident”. The crowd is bigger right now than it’s been all weekend, the audience hushed and staring at Mike and at the big screens. The roar when he is done fills the airplane hangar with the sound of euphoric nationalistic coffee pride. It is a strange and moving moment, swiftly eclipsed by dehydration and fatigue. Anybody got any limes and Da Vinci syrup backstage?

Raul Rodas from Guatemala is up in a few, and though I don’t see all of his routine, he’s relaxed, professional, and jamming to his music. He’s using Intelligentsia-roasted Huehuetenango? He’s dancing to Kanye? Everyone hearts Raul.

The last few competitors are a little bit of a blur, other than the sudden revelation that the girl from Norway is eighteen providing an awkward bit of post-match conversation for emcees Scott Lucey and Kyle Glanville… only to be topped when they try to figure out through miscommunication whether you really can eat the Polish competitor’s signature drink glasses. Izabela Popiolek seems pretty annoyed, but Scott insists on pressing her: “Are you saying your glasses are made out of sugar and violets? And we can eat them?” Oh yes.

And then there is waiting, and there are Krispy Kremes from Anette, and there is a backstage chat with Irish champ Colin Harmon who I learn left his job as a financier in Ireland to run a coffee cart…in plain view of his old office window. These are the romantic stories that make coffee lovely. Announcement time comes around 700023432 hours later, and a pigeon flies through the quiet room as we watch videos featuring Stephen Morrissey in multiple lab coats, and see a number of polite sponsor representatives tell us they’re ready to “get on with it”…for the better part of an hour. Tote bags are distributed. Hearts install themselves in throats. And here we are with our final list of finalists:

In today’s order of competition:

1. Sammy Piccolo, Canadian Barista Champion
2. Atila Molnar, Hungarian Barista Champion
3. Michael Phillips, United States Barista Champion
4. Lee Jong Hoon, Korean Barista Champion.
5. Gwilym Davies, United Kingdom Barista Champion
6. Colin Harmon, Irish Barista Champion

Sammy walks past me. “Yeah,” he says. “Walking dogs pays off.”

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