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Baristas Do Battle in Seattle for the Best Specialty Coffee

  • Sara Lerner

There's more to making coffee than grinding beans and pouring water - especially at the World Barista Championship. The best coffee bartenders from 36 countries descended on Seattle this past weekend to compete in the Olympics of espresso drink making. Among the competitors was Phuong Tran, who captured the title of U.S. Champion Barista last month. As she trained at a Seattle warehouse for the international competition, she focused on what she loves to do. "I try not to let myself get all scared and nervous about it," she explained. "This is what I do all the time anyways. I enjoy doing it, I love being at the cafes, I love making coffee."

Ms. Tran came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee when she was nine years old. Twenty-five years later, she is a true Pacific Northwestern American: laid back but hard working, and passionate about coffee. She owns her own café near Vancouver, Washington, and trains baristas for the Zoka Coffee Company in Seattle. She worked with Zoka for months to come up with the perfect roast to use during her competition.

At the World Barista Championship, competitors are judged on everything from the color of their espresso to the cleanliness of their tablecloths. By late Sunday morning, half the baristas had already competed. The crème de la crème of coffee shop baristas from all over the world filled the room… as did the sounds of espresso making and conversations in Lebanese, Spanish, and Italian.

As the master of ceremonies asked, "Do we need to introduce Competitor 25, Phuong Tran, Zoka Coffee?" the hometown crowd went wild, with cries of "USA! USA!" mixing with cheers and applause. Ms. Tran had fifteen minutes to prepare drinks for the judges: four espresso shots, four cappuccinos, and four of her own signature drink, called Crimson Sage. She introduced herself to the panel and welcomed them to Seattle before starting to make the first cup. She talked to the judges just like any barista would to a customer in a café. Conversational skills and appearance are crucial. But taste is 80% of the game.

Emily Oak of Australia explains that she and her fellow experts judge the barista's performance on several points. "You're looking for a really nice balance between sweetness, acidity, and sometimes bitterness, which is not necessarily a negative. You're (also) looking at it visually, so you're looking for a good-looking coffee, what we call the crema, which is the cream on top. The volume of the drink. Good color in a crema… a sort of reddish to medium brown and a nice, consistent color on top, not too many bubbles." She admits the intense scrutiny does seem a bit ridiculous sometimes, "but it then translates back into the marketplace. Baristas at this level inspire other baristas to do a better quality cup of coffee, which as a whole, benefits the industry." Ms. Oak says a barista's poor skills and lack of knowledge translate into a bad cup of coffee. If consumers get a better cup of coffee, they buy more cups.

By Sunday afternoon, all the baristas had pulled their best espresso shots, and about five hundred people gathered in the competition center to learn who made it to the final round. The crowd wasn't huge. But that's not to say Americans don't care about coffee. On the contrary, they're crazy for the stuff. Fast, big, unlimited, and low-priced. Restaurants serve "bottomless" cups of coffee - regular and decaffeinated. But more and more eateries have added cappuccinos and lattes to their menus. More Americans are buying espresso machines for their homes. Gourmet coffees from around the world fill grocery store aisles. And cafés like Starbucks and Peet's Coffee thrive all across the country.

Seattle barista Phuong Tran says coffee is evolving in the United States. Slowly but surely, it's becoming respected like wine: something consumers are willing to pay more for, sip slowly, and savor. It's a development she welcomes. "I'd like to encourage people to take time and sit down and have a cup of coffee and really enjoy the whole process of waiting to have a coffee specially made for them. In America we tend to move too fast, everything is 'to go,'" she says with a laugh. "America needs to slow down just a little bit, once in a while."

The U.S. champion barista did not get one of the six slots in the final round. When the championship ended on Monday, Danish barista Troels Overdal Poulsen claimed the title. When the judges released the score sheets, though, Ms. Tran discovered she had missed the final round by only half a point. That's an incredible margin for a 12-hundred-point score sheet. But her outstanding performance is an indication of just how far America has come in the world of coffee.