Java Enabled: Fifteen Shots Later, Part 1

When I received an e-mail a few weeks ago inviting me to sit as one of the sensory judges at the 2009-2010 Midwest Regional Barista Competition, I jumped at the opportunity. At my most delusional, it sounded like "celebrity judge" -- at the very least, it sounded like a great time. Last weekend, I trained for my judging certification and then sat as a sensory judge for the first round of the competition on Saturday. Fifteen shots later, I attended the final on Sunday. Over the next three weeks, I'll relate my experiences.

For readers who didn't catch last week's preview, the MWRBC is designed to identify an ambassador for the Midwest region to go to the Specialty Coffee Association of America's national competition, held this year in Anaheim, California -- and from there, maybe, to the international competition in London. This year, twenty-one competitors from Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska converged on Soulard Preservation Hall for the event.

Each competitor had to prepare four espresso shots, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks. Espressos and cappuccinos are relatively well-known beverages. The "signature drink" can be anything with at least one shot of espresso and a predominantly coffee taste. Also, it can't contain alcohol, including alcohol-based flavor extracts. This third part of the presentation is the most eye-catching and, in a good presentation, serves as the culmination of the barista's theme.

Each competitor uses an espresso roast of his or her own choosing. Why didn't all the competitors use the same espresso? Shouldn't as many variables as possible be neutralized? "It's not really a competition about the barista," one of the more seasoned judges explains. "It's judging the whole package. In that sense, baristas that aren't from a roaster are at a disadvantage from the start."

St. Louis' own Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company and PT's Coffee Roasting Co. from Topeka, Kansas, were the big winners Saturday, evenly splitting the six final spots between them. The finals showed that not only was the espresso different between the roasters, but that there were two different paradigms of coffee on display.

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