The art of the barista

by Andree Lau, CBCnews.ca

It was a dreary, wet and cool weekend in Calgary – perfect for a nice cup of hot cappuccino. Even better, I went to the Prairies Regional Barista Championships and watched the best in the profession pull shot after shot of espresso.

It's a serious event with bright studio lights, half a dozen cameras (two streaming the event live online), and an audience staring at the baristas' every move. Like a glossy infomercial, the barista is hooked up to a microphone headset to sell themselves and their creations.

Phil Robertson tamps down his coffee grounds at the Prairies Regional Barista Championship produced by Fulcrum Events. (Andree Lau/CBC)

In 15 minutes, each barista has to produce four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks for judges, while being assessed on presentation, technical skills, cleanup and of course, taste.

I find it hard enough to speak in front of strangers, much less talk, schmooze and pull an espresso while a clock ticks down.

But these guys and girls made it look easy. Chad Moss from Edmonton's Transcend Coffee had the judges smiling during his polished presentation, ending with his signature "deconstructed espresso": an espresso shot in one glass and an emulsification of ingredients such as chocolate and cherry in another, strained together into a demitasse.

Regional finalist Chad Moss pours his cappuccino entries. (Andree Lau/CBC).

Karolina Bukowksa from Calgary's Bumpy's Café poured out her drinks into teacups on silver trays, as she explained how she learned to make espresso in Australia.

Unfortunately, only the judges get to sample the competition entries. With so much caffeine that can be consumed, some of them sip and then spit into a cup, much like a wine tasting.

The third wave

By its Italian definition, a barista is someone who makes espresso for a living. The baristas competing in this kind of event are that and more.

No mere sliding across a paper cup full of bitter caffeine, they believe in espresso as art, in revealing the unique tastes of different beans, like sommeliers wielding grinders.

It's even been dubbed the third wave of the coffee movement. The first focused on consumption, the second highlighted enjoyment and specialty (ie, Starbucks), and now, the third emphasizes bringing out each coffee's characteristics (ie, tasting notes).

"It's like a chef. Everyone cooks at home, but what sets a chef apart … a lot of it is technique but a lot of is also a willingness to push the envelope beyond what is the norm, and that's what these baristas do," explained Les Kuan, technical director of the Canadian Barista Academy.

Phil Robertson, co-owner of Calgary's Phil & Sebastian, started to make ME sweat when he consumed his first four minutes chatting to judges about the Aricha beans he uses from Ethiopia without even touching the shiny espresso machine.

Signature drinks are baristas' chance to show their creativity. (Andree Lau/CBC).

But he barely broke a sweat pulling the two mandatory drinks and then creating what he called a "screaming strawberry" using macadamia nut milk (that he spent three hours making that morning), date syrup, espresso and a froth of fresh strawberry juice, ginger and milk.

The Canadian Barista Championship, held annually since 2003, has been dominated by winners from coffee-forward Vancouver. But this is the first year that regional qualifying events are being held to bring representation from across the country – and so not just anyone can walk into it.

The top three from each region go on to the nationals in Montreal in October. The Canadian winner goes to the World Barista Championship in Atlanta in 2009. (It's usually more exciting than that; the 2008 worlds is in Copenhagen.)

Coffee fine dining

The competitions are a showcase, but also a way to show people there's a future and careers in coffee, says Kuan.

Robertson and his partner spent two years researching roasters and cafes in the coffee capitals of Seattle and Portland, as well as visiting Guatemalan coffee farmers before they opened their business at the Calgary Farmer's Market.

Judges give points for presentation, technical skills and taste. (Andree Lau/CBC).

He doesn't turn his nose up at coffee chains: "I think the key is to present an alternative. And to make it clear that it's different…. And everything that you do needs to emphasize that difference… and let people decide whether it's better."

"The chains, they do a good job with their systems and educating the public," says Kuan. "Without Starbucks, no one would know what an espresso is, what a cappuccino is.

"We'd like to think that what these baristas are striving to do is to create the fine dining side of the coffee world."

In the end, Robertson finished fifth out of 13 baristas. The top three – Moss, Jimmy Oneschuk from Saskatoon's Museo Coffee and Brendan Toyne from Cochrane's Java Jamboree – are moving on to the nationals this fall.

Watch for the other regional events in Montreal (June 15, 16), Toronto (July 18, 19) and Vancouver (Aug. 13, 14).