Bean-worthy baristas prepare for battle
Like elite athletes, the competitors aiming to become Canada’s barista champion know that it takes practice to make perfect espresso-based drinks, THULASI SRIKANTHAN learns.
In a little loft tucked away in the Glebe, eight baristas are dreaming of the big leagues of coffee.
On countertops dusted with coffee grinds, they practise endlessly — grinding, tamping and pouring cup after cup in the hope of one day becoming Canada’s barista champion. Amid the coffee fumes and the mechanical humming of espresso machines, they work with a stopwatch on hand, hoping to end up at the summer regionals or the nationals in October.
“It’s as much a science as an art form,” says Laura Perry, a coffee aficionado from Ottawa who has been training to compete at the eastern regional championship in Montreal on Sunday and Monday. “I am nervous and I am really excited.”
Practising is essential in this craft. Competitors must master the art of making four sets of identical espressos and cappuccinos, along with four signature espresso-based drinks in a span of 15 minutes. Thirty more minutes are allotted for carting supplies to the competition area and cleaning up after the performance. “It’s like
Iron Chef,” says Perry, referring to the Food Network TV show, in which competing chefs are given an hour to make five dishes with a secret ingredient.
Precision is ingrained in every facet of the competition. Baristas measure everything from the pressure at which the water mixes with the coffee (8.5 to 9.5 atmosphere of pressure) to brewing times (20 to 30 seconds for espresso).
Ottawa resident Ian Clark says it’s about practising until the movements become automatic. “It’s muscle memory,” says Clark, a coffee manager for Bridgehead who volunteered at the Canadians last year. The competitors perfect their craft when they are not busy working in coffee houses.
With espresso, competitors need to pay attention to everything from the size of a coffee grind particle to the technique they use to distribute the coffee in a filtering basket. With cappuccino, the texture of milk has to be turned into almost white cream and baristas have to ensure it doesn’t get too hot.
“It’s a process of making sure you have the right balance of different flavours and chemicals in the cups to give you the right sweetness, the right body and the right acidity,” says Clark. “You don’t have to really have be a chemist to know that, but it’s all chemistry. There is a lot of experimental science that happens with the preparation of coffee.”
Competitors who make slight mistakes can end up with espresso that tastes harsh, bitter or muddy. For cappuccino, poorly heated milk could become excessively bubbly or scalded. With all cups prepared, a lot of spitting goes on in a nearby sink. But technicalities aside, competition is also a seemingly mystical, primal experience.
Klaus Thomsen, who hails from the barista powerhouse of Denmark and won the 2006 World Barista Championship, reportedly described, on the competition’s website, a “symphony” in which all players in a coffee chain work together to create the perfect cup.
“We are trying to treat coffee as a culinary art instead of a fast-food thing,” says Perry, a manager for Bridgehead.
Clark, a self-described coffee geek, agrees, and drinks his espresso as if it were fine wine. He sips slowly, letting the liquid slide over his tongue as he contemplates the weight, sweetness and sourness, and creaminess of the drink.
“Coffee is something that is deep, interesting and complex,” he says, explaining that at least than 900 chemical molecules are estimated to be within coffee beans that contribute to aroma.
The craft is in the experimentation, he says, and in “exploring the potential of each coffee to its fullest.”
“When you are sitting down and enjoying a coffee, you find all these unexpected flavours and experiences in the cup. It does lead you to start reflecting on just the sheer fact that you can take in this liquid and, all of a sudden, all these wild experiences start happening on your palate.”
The potential for different sensory experiences is huge, he says.
Clark, like many other baristas in the budding coffee community in Ottawa, learns a lot about the latest trends from the Internet and by attending nationwide barista jams (where groups of coffee-lovers converge). “People tend to follow it like any other sport. They know all the key players and they see what happens at the regional levels.”
Ottawa, experts say, has a long way to go before it becomes a mature, competitive coffee community.
“I don’t think barista competitions are widely known about in the general public,” says Perry. “Hopefully, these competitions will be more popular to compete in and watch, so that more people can experience coffee as a sensory experience.”