From March 5-8, I was in Portland to cover the 2009 United States Barista Championship. Aside from a first round foray to tour Portland coffeehouses by bike, I witnessed almost every minute of espresso-fueled action, culminating with U.S. Barista Champion Michael Phillips. Read my USBC impressions.
1. LobSpro? Really?
The USBC will likely be remembered for two things: Phillips’ victory and Jay Caragay’s signature drink, which emcee Kyle Glanville dubbed “LobSpro.” To close the first round, the Maryland coffeehouse owner started simply enough, using a blend of Cerro Las Ranas and Sumatra Mandheling beans. For his signature drink, he decided to “push the boundaries of coffee” by incorporating cold-water Maine lobster, white chocolate from Missouri and a vanilla infusion from north Portland, all stirred with espresso in a sauce pan. Caragay then cupped his concoction and shaved on locally-sourced black truffle. In a competition, you might as well take risks, but lobster in coffee? Caragay clearly wasn’t playing to win, but serving that drink did create a forum to deliver his message about expanding the barista craft. Caragay got a standing ovation, and more than one competitor told me they were inspired by Caragay’s words. Still, in the future, keep the shellfish away from the coffee.
2. Why No Food?
The food selection at the Oregon Convention Center was absolutely punishing. Each morning, Crema owner Brent Fortune was kind enough to supply the media room with pastries and fruit, but spectators were completely out of luck. The Western Regional Barista Competition featured quality taco and bakery options. On a bigger stage, the food should have been even better. A great option would have been nearby Bunk Sandwiches. They catered Sunday’s victory celebration, so they were clearly equipped to handle crowds. Why not enlist their help on the other days? A note to the organizers: in the future, spectators need food. Otherwise they’ll leave to find it, and may not return.
3. Increase Audience Participation
The fourth machine is a great tradition that allows spectators, baristas and judges to experience espresso drinks and pour-over coffee from distant roasters. A nice idea, but it’s not good enough. I recently attended a cocktail competition that had a similar format. Hendrick’s Gin assembled regional cocktail champions at The Edison in downtown L.A.. While each competitor presented their entry to judges, The Edison bartenders prepared identical drinks at The Edison bar. At the USBC, there was no way to sample signature drinks, and it was frustrating. The cocktail competition wasn’t quite the same, since signature espresso drinks are usually more time-intensive than cocktails, with some drinks taking 12 minutes to make and often involve fire.
In the Finals, Alterra Coffee’s Scott Lucey broke the fourth wall by pulling shots of Nelson Melo espresso for spectators and baristas until his grinder hit empty. To my surprise, this really bothered some surrounding purists, who thought there was some kind of danger in having attendees evaluate the drinks, somehow undermining the judges’ opinions. I disagree, since spectator opinions don’t count, and the people who did try Lucey’s shots were all smiling.
At the upcoming World Barista Championship, they may have found a good compromise. There’s talk of having multiple stations where spectators can experience espresso, coffee and signature drinks from past national champions. Sounds good to me.
4. Convention Center Starbucks Still Draws a Crowd
Each day at the USBC, espresso flowed freely from the fourth machine, with superior beans pulled by some of the nation’s most skilled baristas, and people still lined up to pay for swill at the Oregon Convention Center Starbucks. That is unacceptable, but it’s also understandable. There should have been a sign at the entrance of the Convention Center announcing FREE COFFEE at the USBC. Better yet, there should have been a USBC volunteer there to point the way. That way, there would have been more converts to specialty coffee, and fewer Starbucks drones.
5. Intelligentsia Is Playing A Different Game
Intelligentsia Coffee dominated proceedings, taking four of the top five slots at the USBC. Crushing the competition at a barista championship doesn’t necessarily mean that Intelligentsia is the specialty coffee industry leader. After all, respected roasters like Ecco Caffe, Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Counter Culture Coffee didn’t even participate. However, compared to companies that did compete, it was no contest, and that accounts for skill, creativity, coffee roasting ability and the ability to source top-flight beans. Near the end of the first round, before Nick Griffith even took the stage, I overheard somebody say, “Intelligentsia is playing a different game.” Some people may consider a barista competition a game, but I believe they reveal larger truths about Intelligentsia’s standing in the coffee industry.