Great Lakes Regional Barista Competition

Yesterday morning, I got to experience firsthand the United States Barista Championships. My own obsession, Alterra Coffee, was hosting the Great Lakes Regional Barista Event at Discovery World Museum, and going into the bright, long corridor where the competition machines were set up, I really had no idea what to expect.

I knew that this was going to be some hardcore competition, however...

Each contestant has 15 minutes to make 12 drinks, 3 each for a 4 person judging panel. You can find the official rules and regulation here, but the gist is that the contestant has to complete 3 rounds of drinks (espresso, cappuccino and a signature drink containing espresso), while educating the tasting panel on the tasting notes and injecting a fair amount of his/her own personality into the theatrical aspect of the performance. This was done in a number of ways, my favorite being by Alterra's own Colin Whitcomb when he coordinated his music so well that after he described the peach cream he concocted for his signature drink, Prince's song Cream came over the loud speakers. Pretty impressive. The regional contest winners will advance to the National and ultimately the World Barista Championships held this year in London.

It was difficult to see, and I had to channel my inner Superman to hear, but I was fascinated by the creativity of these Baristas. Day one of the 3 day run began yesterday at 11, and the first contestant was a very poised and confident Chris Deferio from The Coffee Institute in Muncie, Indiana. He explained right away that he was new to the Midwest, and was using a reduction of sorghum syrup, which is a regional favorite in Indiana. We could actually smell the caramelizing syrup as he prepared the drinks, something that had to give high marks to Mr. Deferio.

I was also impressed at the array of flavors employed for the signature drinks. Expertly pulling the notes from their coffees, each contestant I watched gleaned fruits and herb flavors from coffee beans that I'd liken to the skills of the best mixologists. I watched as a blackberry pulp was strained into a cocktail shaker, homemade bitters accented by oranges were dropped into the bottoms of espresso cups, and in which the flavors of gin were extracted into their base notes and added to a drink that could contain no alcohol.

My favorite live moments, as I only stayed for the first 5 contestants, were as Tinuade Oyelowo from Metropolis Coffee in Chicago rocked out to A-Ha and Cindy Lauper as she sang her way around her performance, and as Colin kept the judges alert by snapping his fingers and clapping his hands for emphasis. Of course, I was more than impressed by his attention to musical detail with the final application of the peach cream set to music.

I wished I had unlimited time to hang out (and remember a notebook to record the interesting flavor compositions I saw), but I didn't. I met in person and got to chat with Cody Kinart, another local Alterra contestant (and Flickr contact) that was performing later in the afternoon. He told me about the live streaming, which can be found here, and I tuned in from home to catch him later in the day. Before we left, I had to go get caffeinated, first by this awesome macchiato:

and then by this method, called Areopress. Related somewhat to a French Press, the coffee is placed in a tube and steeped, then forced by air into the cup. I was glad the Barista at hand insisted that we try it, though I was more impressed with it after it "aged" for a few minutes on the walk to the car. He used the Kenya AA coffee that I have been loving at home via plain old drip method lately, and I was totally amazed at the "juice" flavors that he claimed (and correctly so!) would come through.

A short tutorial:

After I got home, I got to see a few more contestants on the live stream. One who stood out due to her use of coconut was first time competitor Allie VanHeyfte of Greyhouse Coffee and Supply in West Lafayette, Indiana. She mentioned her surprise at the melding of coconut and coffee flavors, and used both coconut milk and coconut cream in her signature drink.

I was most excited to see Cody and his drink, since I knew his signature drink was going to use strawberry. This flavor was a complete surprise to me, since I have never before considered strawberry in coffee. He made a mock "custard" out of sweetened condensed milk and yogurt, and layered it with the coffee in martini glasses... all to the tune of Louis Prima, mind you. Brilliant! I was also pleasantly surprised at how much more I could see of the performances via live streaming, since the camera was closer to the action than I could get, and the volume control was in my hands...

Way to go, Cody!

The competition continues today, and runs through tomorrow. You can find the complete competitor schedule here, and can see other (Alterra) local sons Scott Lucey and Nathan Hoida around 12:15 and 2:45 respectively, and local Stone Creek Coffee competitor Cody Taylor around 3:45. The times may run a bit off due to variables, so check your streaming if you are interested in catching these worthwhile performances.

Today's competition starts in about 10 minutes, so you can follow in person or via streaming if you are becoming curious about this amazing event. I think I'll keep tabs throughout the day as I'm able. Good luck to all the Milwaukeeans today, and thank you to Alterra for hosting a really educational event! I know that I am renewed in my appreciation for coffee, and it's many flavors. I will soon be posting many more photos at my flickr site, hopefully accompanied by some more accurate descriptions as I remember them.