blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Report from Day 1 of Judges' Certification

First, for the folks I met.
I had dinner with Sandro and Spiro from Caffe ArtJava in Montreal. They just opened 8 months ago and are already selling more than a bag of coffee per week. Wow. They have a four group La Marzocco espresso machine and lines out the door. Sounds like a road trip to Montreal is in the offing... who's coming with me?

I sat next to S. Lee Walter, North Central Regional Sales Manager for Espresso Specialists, Inc, distributor for Franke and La Marzocco. He has been a judge at a Regional Barista Competition before. He and I both think we aced our written exams today.

Some of the most interesting things that I learned today had to do with the technical aspects of the competition and how the baristas are actually scored. There are so many aspects of espresso preparation that are a matter of opinion, all the way from shot time to dosing method to crema color to foam consistency for a cappuccino. On one hand, I was amazed at how technical the discussion was... like for example, we discussed how much milk should be left in the steaming pitchers after cappuccino preparation. We agreed that if a barista left less than one finger's width of milk in the bottom, that would qualify as "good" (score 3 out of 6). Previous judges noted that it's important to be observant, because baristas often try to discard the milk quickly so as to minimize the perception of waste. We talked about how much to dock a barista if they leave pucks in the portafilters after their set up time. We talked about how baristas should use only one dedicated cloth to wipe the steam wand, reserving other cloths for wiping the counter.

On the other hand, I was amazed by how much of the judging is left up to the judge's discretion. For example, judging the signature beverage is very subjective. Although, the guidelines try to make it clear what we are looking for: well explained and presented, appealing look (elegant, clean, good use of cup/glass) and creativity, as well as taste balance. One of the most important characteristics is that the signature drink is supposed to be ABOUT COFFEE rather than about other fru fru ingredients. Phuong Tran, last year's USBC champion, is in my class of judges. She spoke a little today about her signature drink, the crimson sage, and how long it took her to perfect it. She said she had to try many many ingredients before she found something interesting and harmonious. I don't doubt it. Her drink consisted of espresso, white pepper, sugar cane juice and milk infused with sage, topped with paprika for color, served in a red glass.

Finally, another nitty gritty issue we got into today is the long debated difference between a latte and a cappuccino. We finally put the old definition of a cappuccino (1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 frothed milk) to rest. This definition just doesn't work. The new cappuccino definition is much more subjective and relative. Contrary to the "traditional" cappuccino served in Italian restaurants and most coffee shops, cappuccinos are not supposed to be all white on the top, some crema should show around the edges. From the judges' handbook: "the taste balance should be a harmonious blend of the sweetness of the milk and the espresso as a building block. The drink should not be too milky; a distinct taste of espresso should be present." This definition does not strike me as being very scientific or technical. It seems that a cappuccino should have more persistent and voluminous foam than a latte, but still look like a latte, a la latte art. So Latte Art could also be called Cappuccino Art. I have had other astute baristas point this out. Properly made latte art is often not very latte-like in consistency because that High Definition Foam also is tenacious. It sticks around, making the drink more like a cappuccino than a latte.

The most frustrating thing about Day 1 is that we didn't drink any coffee. We studied the score sheets, filled out worksheets, looked at slides of espresso shots and cappuccinos and signature drinks, and took the exam, but at the break, I ran across the street to the local coffee shop to get a latte! While I was there, I warned them about the conglomeration of coffee geeks across the street. They seemed glad to know we're in town.

Tomorrow the other Phoenixers arrive... Kiley the Renaissance Barista, Steve the Espresso Evangelist, and Will, Espresso Tech Extraordinaire.


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