Winner of Regional Competition in Petaluma Heads to Nationals
Press Democrat – March 5, 2006
By John Beck
Welcome to the age of culinary reinvention: The cook is a chef, the bartender is a mixologist and the guy making your coffee? That’s a barista. (Except in Italy, where the word technically means bartender.)
When it comes to the best barista in the world, it gets a little trickier.
On Saturday, 23 baristas from Hawaii and California, including five from Sonoma County, steamed up a trio of $7,000 espresso machines and went head to head in a battle of the bean known as the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Western Regional Barista Competition.
The rules? Each competitor had 15 minutes to make 12 drinks — four espressos, four cappuccinos and four “signature” drinks. With all the salesmanship of an infomercial food demonstration, contestants talked their way through each step as a patient, often quiet audience looked on at the Sheraton Hotel in Petaluma.
Four judges, who scurried about for the proper angle, graded them on taste, presentation, technical skills and cleanliness. The winner, who will be decided today, moves on to Charlotte, N.C., next month for the U.S. competition. The rest return to the daily grind.
What’s at stake? Ego. Respect. And quite a bit of money if you play it right. Two years ago, Australian world champ Paul Bassett parlayed his success into a TV show, BMW ads and tons of coffee product endorsements. A U.S. barista has never won the world title — a surprise considering we consume around 400 million cups of coffee a day in this country.
On Saturday, the ringer was clearly Heather Perry, a child prodigy of sorts who grew up tamping espressos in her parents’ Coffee Klatch Roastery in San Dimas. Last year, she won the Western Regionals.
But midway through her performance, she had to call “a technical” due to a steaming malfunction.
The judges conferred and let her reset the clock and remake her signature drink, starting with an orange rind and honey in a fondue pot, which she raced through with confident, almost Stepford-like grace while chatting up the crowd.
After practicing two days a week for two months, four Flying Goat Coffee baristas — Pele Aveau, Danielle Lantta, Amber McInnis and Nicole Rubio — took their shots at the title. Relieved she clocked in under the time limit, first-timer Rubio, 22, couldn’t help but reflect on the surreal scene, a convention-style setting perfect for a mockumentary.
“I feel kind of like I’m in a reality show,” she said. “I’ve been saying it all day: This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.”
For the audience of about 100 mostly young java geeks, the obvious disconnect was an inability to really see what was happening onstage — the tamping techniques, the timed pours, the crema artwork, the spillage of grounds — without cameras or mirrors or a front-row vantage point.
“It’s kind of like watching someone do their taxes,” said Mark Inman, president of Taylor Maid Farms in Sebastopol. Earlier in the week, he and a few employees helped Santa Rosa competitor Isaac Gonzalez, 29, individually handpick 60 pounds worth of Brazilian Santa Terezinha beans.
But at some point it was about much more than beans or baristas. In a region that prides itself on outrageous rivalries — from vineyard pruning and Rock, Paper, Scissors pro-ams to the annual Kenwood pillow fights — it was yet another reason to celebrate a curious subculture.
At the end of the day, quite possibly the best job in the house was held by Jamie Voss, a Taylor Maid employee who filled in as a runner, busing the stages and casually finishing off the remains of each contestant’s specialty drinks.
“I call them ‘spaldings,”’ he said with a grin, after polishing off one of Heather Perry’s signature espressos. “It’s just like the half-empty beers left over from a party.”