and though all things come to an end, it’s hard to believe when i wake up sunday that this is the last day. it’s a mad scramble to get schedules straight and figure out where people can get a good breakfast in this sham of a town. after about three thousand text messages, jordan and i pick the “roaring start” buffet at the red lion inn solely based on the name, and we’re off to the pancake machine, hitting the button over and over and over again to quell our finals day nerves. i arrive at the convention center to find pete licata putting candied bacon pieces into a cut-up jelly donut with ice cream…I guess we all have our ways of dealing with the moment.
first to go is sara peterson, downright thrilled, humbled, and charmed to be serving verve’s own “lomi” espresso — an ethiopian coffee with a made-up name, thanks to the ambiguous ancestries created by the ethiopian coffee exchange. sara talks of “lemon angels”, and she’s such a strong competitor that it’s amazing to think that last year was her first, as an entrant for the abbey, skyrocketing from the semifinals then to the top six in the country now.
her signature drink features a meyer lemon/ginger simple syrup mix, and in an attempt to recreate the sparkling acidity of the lomi coffee, a little bit of sparkling water too, all set on a base of con panna with lemon, caramel and a pinch of sea salt. sara emphasizes that her goal with her signature drink is to excite the novice drinker: something that would inspire them, get them into coffee — while still sophisticated enough for an advanced palate.
second competitor today is intelligentsia’s millennium park coffee educator charles “c-babs” babinski. how much do i love that the nation now knows you as c-babs, c-babs? anyway: we are sticking with the table-is-a-coffee-farm metaphor, and it’s a great way to think about how coffees grown on different parts of a farm can taste so remarkably different yet all so good. what’s the reason for this? “i don’t know,” says babinski, moving through the nuances of lime custard, marshmallow creme, trying to “take the farm off the table and into the cup”.
“i’m a barista!” he insists again, trying to deliver the experience of these finca matalapa el salvadoran coffees as purely as he can. matalapita espreso is prepared, cidra is v60-‘d, we learn about leaf loss, and suddenly the bus bin is MOBBED for the remains of charles’ gorgeous cappuccinos — i’m not sure i’ve ever seen such a line before in my life for used drinks. there’s dancing, and suddenly the coffee farm turns back into a competition table, and charles calls time at 15:03.
third up is st. louis, mo’s mike marquard, competing for kaldi’s coffee in an extended remix of the booya apron he sported last year. marquard is brewing a colombia monserrate today, and has a lot on his mind about variety NOT being the spice of life, and an insistence that we not compromise. this is strong talk from a guy with a golf glove and a coyote apron on, but i’m into it.
like sarah, mike bases his signature drink (and much of his routine’s spiel) on the axis of engaging coffee drinkers who may not be seasoned sophisticates without alienating them. though we’ve seen many competitors with many different aims this weekend, the message of how do i best deliver this message? is one that i wish people would focus on a little more. it goes back to the whole question of who and what these events are for anyway, and marquard takes his stance to the extreme, suggesting that telling your customer a coffee has “notes of bergamot” may make them seek coffee elsewhere. maybe yes, maybe no, maybe in st. louis, maybe in manhattan, it’s hard to say. i wonder if there isn’t a middle ground were we can’t be geeky, esoteric and weird all while engaging people nonetheless? i think it’s possible, myself, though i’d sure love to see people keep trying. marquard whips out an aeropress for his finale and continues to discuss the idea that we can work towards a language of description that isn’t reductive or cute, but that still draws people in. i’m impressed at the opening of a dialogue that tries to bring coffee to people across all levels, rather than preaching to the converted. mike finishes hella early, and we’re cleaned up tidily for competitor number four.
chris baca, verve coffee roasters, is up next with his ladyfriend elida. elida is a panamanian coffee he’s spent more time with in the last several months than with his friends, and her strawberry sweetness is as persuasive as it is seductive. he incorporates flavors that will “serve as a road map to elida’s personality”, and between that and the fire we’re all in. though the rules in effect for this competition stopped baca from yanking two people out of the audience for a tasty-poo like he did in the westerns, he still pulls six shots, tasting his own espresso as he goes along, and sharing with the head judge (for whom preparing a drink is optional). it must be an interesting thing to know how your drinks taste precisely during the moment of competition, and it’s an even more interesting thing for baca that he’s been in contact with his coffee’s producer thoroughout training for competition this year. “life-changing”, in fact, he says. as it should be, again, getting back to the heart of why one does what one does.
a little-known fellow called mike phillips is the penultimate competitor, and he’s got some nonsense with three hoppers full of the same coffee but processed all different ways, and a bunch of hoo-ha about how good it tastes. this guy is alright i guess, but he talks kind of fast.
devin pedde of intelligentsia coffee, silver lake, closes out the day. devin’s using more of those delicious matalapa coffees, and makes the judges choose a little disc to represent whether they’d rather have one flavor profile or the other. they take the richer, more apricotty path, and though devin claims he “may not know everything yet”, his competence in delivering the beauty of his coffee is only matched by his confidence. his cappuccinos are “so delicious,” he says, “you’ll wish they came in a 20 oz size.”
a pinch of muscovado sugar and some mixed-up yogurt later and we’re outta here, so done, the book slammed shut on another coffee olympics with nothing left to do but wait. there’s a little pacing and a little wizard-ogling on the palm-lined pathways outside, and suddenly we’re thanking the shit out of the sponsors and oh god who’s it gonna be and booya has sixth again and oh god is it baca or mike and it’s mike and suddenly the kid has another blender and another let’s talk coffee to attend and a spare extract mojo and a whole nuther world championship to prepare for. well, if ya gotta, ya gotta, right people? see you in london, 2010 united states barista team. mikey, tellya what, if those novelty checks get too heavy for you, charles and i can each hold up an end.