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

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Preparing for my first barista competition

I am not exactly sure exactly what pushed my over the edge. I think Stephen had something to do with it. He decided he was going to compete last year, I remember talking about it with him on our way back from the Northeast Regionals in Ithaca, NY. I was on the fence. I wanted to do it, but I felt like it would be too big of a distraction from running the company. Maybe it was Dani's earnestness that pulled me in. She "signed on" a few months ago, probably about when she decided to do the Samurai Barista thing with us. Or Caroline's enthusiasm.... when she heard about the barista competition, she just said, quietly, in her Caroline way, as she was standing next to me at the cash register, "I want to do that." The warmth and conviction of her words gave me the most pleasant of chills. So somewhere between Dani and Caroline, I think that's about when I decided that after all these years of watching these amazing, brave baristas ply their craft in front of a panel of seven (SEVEN!!!) stone-faced judges, that I am going to join them. Now we have four Cleveland baristas (including me), all preparing to journey to Chicago next month to compete in our first barista competition.

Some of you may know that I had become almost exclusively a tea drinker. Yeah, it was true. But oooh, am I back to coffee now... in a big way. Pulling espresso shots every chance I get. On Christmas Eve, we installed a Nuevo Simonelli single group commercial espresso machine in our kitchen. Yeah, it's plumbed in. And of course we have the grinder to go with. So Christmas night, Carl and I were up late, pulling shot after shot, tasting, adjusting the grind, adjusting our grooming technique, steaming milk, pouring lattes, and making all kinds of racket. Espresso grinders and steaming wands aren't quiet, you know. My mom and the kids were at the dining room table doing a puzzle. They were having trouble carrying on a conversation over the screech of the steam jet and the whirr of the grinder. So my mom yells "Would you two just go get a job in a coffee shop already?"

Today I got up early and practiced my routine, stopwatch in hand, sitting in lotus position on the oriental rug in our front entry way. I talk my way through my introduction, then I close my eyes and visualize myself wiping the portafilter, turning on the grinder, dosing, grooming, tamping, cleaning the portafilter ears, flushing the group head, inserting, turning the machine on, and watching the pour...

...there are two drips at first, then a thin stream, like a mouse's tail, that changes color, and stays thin, tight. It runs down the inside of the white porcelain cup, and pools in a thick, brown puddle, growing deeper each moment, the colors of brown, red, hazelnut crema, swirling in the cup, slowly. The stream never gets puffy; it stays tight. Dark flecking sheets around the edges, and gradually forms like netting over the surface, as the stream lightens. I know when to turn off the shot, based on the color of the stream.

I serve these two shots to the first set of judges. Then repeat, second set of shots...

Then I give them a moment to enjoy, while I prep for my cappuccinos.

I spent a full 15 minutes just visualizing what I am planning on doing. I could have run through it one or two more times, but it was time to get kids ready for school, shovel the driveway, and take out the trash... you know, real life is still going on...

I am utterly surprised at how rewarding and delicious I am finding this process to be. How often do we get an opportunity in life to truly, relentlessly, perfect one particular activity? I suppose we could and should be perfecting ourselves and our work with this degree of intensity, even without the threat/promise of a public exhibition to motivate us. But I must say, having the deadline and the knowledge that others will be able to see the fruits of my preparations (hopefully) is definitely a good motivator.

The hours I have spent pulling shots and tasting, and working on my milk texturing, and all the trial and errors that have gone into creating my signature drink (which is centered around the combination of espresso and fresh garlic) have been some of the sweetest I have probably ever experienced. Why? Why is it so much fun? Why is it so satisfying?

During Obama's inauguration speech, there was a line that I particularly appreciated...
"...firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

I know preparing for a barista competition is not even remotely in the same realm of importance as what Obama and his team and we as Americans are facing as "difficult tasks" right now, but I think this statement at least partially explains why I am enjoying this journey so much.

Being actually prepared for a barista competition is a difficult task. And I must admit, I am giving it my all. And I know I will be a better person because of it. And, our coffee at Phoenix will be better because of it also!