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

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Barista Competition Season 2010

This year, we have one barista from Phoenix Coffee, Samantha Bako from the Coventry Cafe, preparing to compete in the Great Lakes Barista Competition. This afternoon I spent a couple of hours on our "World Barista Championship Certified" Aurelia espresso machine (from Nuova Simonelli) working with a couple of different espresso blends, getting the coffee and Sam ready for competition. The coffee started off with shots that pulled beautifully (lots of dark flecking, 25-30 sec pours) but tasted astringent and mouth-puckering, and had soupy pucks. Some of them were so bad that I had to force myself to swallow. Best not to torture the judges with a brew like that.

But Dennis Skitzki, Phoenix's own espresso pirate, pointed out that the machine is designed to be used with at least 18 grams of coffee in the extra deep triple baskets. He has recently conferred with Vic Bialis from Nuova Simonelli Canada. So we pulled out the gram scale and started dosing the coffee on the scale rather than by volume. This is an awkward process which involves first dosing the coffee into a paper cup and spooning it in clumps into the portafilter basket, then dosing and tamping. However, this extra step allowed us to document the precise weight of each brew and therefore control one variable. Once we got the basket full enough so that the spent pucks showed the impression of the screen and the screw, the shots started tasting better. This was around 19.5 grams of coffee.

We were using a blend of our Blonde Espresso and our Dark Espresso and the shots had cocoa and nutty overtones, and a rounded dark chocolate aftertaste. The coffee we were using was at least four days off roast, which we have found is key to "dialing in" a coffee. When the coffee is too fresh (less than four days off roast) it is still giving off carbon dioxide at a rapid rate and produces an espresso with fluffy crema with visible bubbles, and usually an inferior flavor. This is an inconvenient delay that requires foresight on the part of the barista. The coffee blended today, using coffee that was roasted today, won't be "available" for use in the espresso machine for four days.

What I learned today is that the biggest and probably most valuable lesson one learns from the competition process is how to "dial in" a coffee. It takes patience and more patience, it's tedious to experiment with all the variables. One has to explore tamping, dosing, grind size, polishing technique, brew volume and coffee amount for each coffee one considers using. It's daunting. I'm sure the mathematicians out there could tell me more specifically how daunting this is, considering there are more than 10 different iterations for each variable, if not more.

I'm sure Sam will learn a lot in the journey to the competition (which is next month!) and I will also get to brush up on my skills in the process.