Adventures in Cup Tasting...

Yesterday, I tried my best when I competed in the inaugural City Wide Cup Taster's event held by Alterra. The object of the contest was simple: of each trio of brewed coffee, the contestant chooses the cup that is not like the others. The face off was made a bit more challenging by competing head to head with another taster, tasting 4 sets (of 3 cups each), and doing it accurately while being timed. Though a 5 minute cap was given, most tasters were able to nail down their choices within 2 to 3, with some snappy tongues nailing them all spot on in under a minute.

Alterra Prospect's new patio

The coffees were also brewed meticulously to the same strength, and the same coffees were used in all of the brackets. Then, all 24 tasting cups per set of contestants were wheeled to the tasting area, given time to cool a bit and sucked up (noisily, or not) by the competitors.

I didn't really know what to expect when trying to identify the odd cup, but I don't think I was expecting them to be as similar as they were. And, I didn't anticipate myself feeling quite as nervous as I was... like I knew I was about to fail a test that I had studied weeks for. I didn't actually do any preliminary studying so to speak, I just tried not to eat any wicked hot peppers on anything for a few days. (That's actually kinda hard to do.)

The staging area.

As I watched the left hand side of the brackets, the mostly Alterra employees seemed professional to me in their slurping styles: bent at the waist and hovering closely over the cups, tasting spoons in hand. I did expect them all to pretty much nail every set, but some did and some did not. It was explained that the differences in coffee are easier to taste as the liquid reaches body temperature - which I did find to be true personally. I won my first bracket, but perhaps because the coffee was easier to taste due to a cooler temperature on my next round, I felt like I tasted them faster and more confidently, and then was promptly eliminated.

I didn't feel too bad, since I did have a great time and was finally able to put a name on so many familiar Alterran faces that I've seen over the years. And, just before I took off, I got a stack of lightly used green coffee cups - since I was feeling kind of crafty. Occasionally, I have too much time on my hands and make recycled scenes out of coffee cups. Yep. Pretty labor intensive. Especially since I tend to be a perfectionist with this sort of thing. If you fancy having a recycled box of Alterra art for your very own, keep an eye on my flickr photostream, and when I complete my next one, I will be giving it away to a flickr commenter!

It was a Wonka-like Christmas, looking under the cups to see if that little red dot was under my choices, funny also that I could remember which cups I knew full well were frustrated guesses and which ones I believed heart and soul to be correct. That's the luck of the draw in cup tasting, especially under duress of the ticking clock. I sure hope I'll be able to do it again sometime.

Cup Taster's Championship Milwaukee!

As a solid devotee of Alterra coffee for some 10 years, I am more than excited that I will be able to participate in the first ever Cup Taster's event on Thursday! As I understand it, this is the first time that this event has been open to the public, a contest to identify the odd cup of coffee in each series of 3 cups served. I have never been a "taster" in any event to date, save perhaps wine pairings in my own eating out for pleasure, so I'm curious to see where my palate racks up compared to other novice tasters. Of course, there will be plenty of pressure involved with professional Alterra tasters on hand as well - but I believe that we novices will taste separately from the Alterra professionals.

There are still a few open spots for anyone interested in participating, just send an email to as soon as you are able. It will likely be an afternoon and evening full of entertainment, since the event is coinciding with a Milwaukee Film Festival party -Alterra is one of the sponsors of this year's festival.

So even if you don't feel up to the challenge of tasting, (and you aren't already attending the Banned: Books, Bites & Libations event at the Great Lakes Distillery), head over to the Prospect Avenue location on Thursday and observe the tasting. I stopped in to the newly renovated space last week, and, as always, the design of the new building is stunning. Huge cafe areas with community and private tables, beautiful natural light from huge skylights, and a spacious patio area that I'm assuming is at least 3 season worthy. (A few pics of the new cafe renovation can be found on meanlittleseed's flickr photostream...)

I can't wait to see how well I'm able to taste under pressure... Hope to see you there!

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.