Pro baristas hit me with their best shot at the Canadian Central Barista Competition

Originally published on FoodTV blog - Judging

‘B-a-r-i-s-t-a...?’, the customer standing in front of me at my coffee shop is mouthing the word with a perplexed look on her face.  I explained that a barista is someone like me, a person who can whip out beautiful cappuccinos, lattes, and espresso shots for a crowd of die-hard coffee connoisseurs while making it look easy.  Customers often seem surprised that a barista competition actually exists, as they generally never think about the effort that is put into the perfect cup.  In other parts of the world, baristas are respected for their skill, and are proud to have chosen this career.

Recently, I attended the 2009 Canadian Central Regional Barista Championships at the trendy Gladstone Hotel on Queen West in downtown Toronto. Sixteen baristas from all over Ontario signed up to compete and I would be judging six of them.  Each barista was responsible for preparing each of the four judges with an espresso, a cappuccino and an espresso based signature drink of their own creation – all in 15 minutes.  The winner of the competition as well as the top two competitors will go on to the Canadian National Barista Championship in Vancouver in October.

There are several reasons for holding barista competitions: competition is healthy, and ultimately it helps baristas perfect and improve their skills.  The competition also increases public awareness of the profession, promotes better choices in the coffees we drink, and supports local, independent espresso bars.

Most competitors were keen and passionate, but were clearly battling their nerves.  For many, it was their first competition. Can you imagine trying to make the perfect cappuccino for four stone-faced judges while an audience looks on?  There were also many seasoned veterans including Sam James and Momiji Kishi.  As a result, the drinks I tasted were all over the board with taste balance and visuals; some were too sweet, some too milky, or way too bitter and burnt, while many were obviously prepared by the creme de la creme and were outstanding.

After two or three sets, the caffeine high really started to kick in. The intensity peaked when the judges gathered to tally the competitors’ scores and I imagine anyone observing might have thought we were all “on something”.

For many of the new competitors, the experience was an eye-opener.  As judges, it is our job to be critical, but fair. Our comments are severe and precise so the baristas can take the information and use it in their own shops and practice until next time they come back.  It feels awful being so negative; in my own shop I try to be encouraging and nurturing with my staff. I know the effort, the hours of practice, the thought that went into picking the perfect coffee, the drills of getting the perfect grind, dose and tamp for the sweet, honey-like espresso extraction, and the days spent trying to practice the perfect micro-foam to pour that rosetta, tulip or heart design atop the cappuccinos. I know that in their own shops, these baristas are the gregarious hipsters, the passionate technicians in their craft, and when it comes down to competing against like-minded people, they can rise to the occasion, or crumble under pressure.

When I was finished judging my last set, I settled in to watch the final three baristas.  The winner of the competition, Chris Tellez of Espresso Post in Collingwood, Ontario, was one of these. Unfortunately, because I wasn’t on his judging panel, I did not have a chance to sample his coffee, but noticed his relaxed and professional approach to his set.

After the results of the scorekeeping were announced, we said our goodbyes to those who had travelled from across Ontario, and in some cases, Canada.  

Winners of this years Central Barista Championship are:

1st Place - Chris Tellez, Espresso Post, Collingwood, Ontario

2nd Place - Sam James, Sam James Espresso Bar, Toronto, Ontario

3rd Place - Momiji Kishi, Dark Horse Espresso Bar, Toronto, Ontario

To learn more the barista championships please visit the Canadian Barista Academy or the World Barista Championships.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

< Previous                                                                                                                  Next >