Specialty Coffee Culture Hits the Rockies
So I’ve made it very clear in the past that I grew up for the most part in the Northwest, home of the specialty coffee industry. I’ve been to the original Starbucks, even though I find Starbucks rather distasteful. I’ve made the claim that I can out-do any coffee snob I meet with my own brand of polite but insistent snobbery. Last weekend, I spent time with a group of people whose knowledge and passion for the magical bean far exceeds mine… and I loved it.
I love living in Denver, and it would take quite a circumstance to pull me away, but I do lament the lack of a good shot of espresso. Thanks to the ‘buck, most espresso around here is either too smokey, too bitter, or just plain yucky. Most espresso drinks are done at the push of a superautomatic button, with no attention paid to the art of steaming the milk just right to bring out the velvety smooth sweetness of a cappuccino… yikes. I’m making myself jittery just thinking about it.
Many people don’t know that the Specialty Coffee Association of America holds regional barista competitions, leading to a national competition, which ultimately leads to a world competition. For the first time ever, the Mountain Region held a barista competition, hosted by Allegro Coffee in Thornton.
Twenty-seven of the region’s best barista descended upon Thornton to demonstrate their skills. Now keep in mind that a skilled barista doesn’t just sling coffee and pastries. These are men and women who are driven to provide the very best. They understand that a large percentage of the population hasn’t developed the palette or discernment to know that when you’re talking best coffees in the world, Starbucks isn’t even a part of the conversation. It’s a specialty industry, and they hope to bring that new experience to you. The first time I tasted a straight shot of espresso that came from some of the best coffee in the world, and was served by a top-quality barista, my life was changed, as coffee goes. It sounds kindof geeky, and it is. And I’m ok with that.
Doug Naiman, the owner of Aviano Coffee in downtown Denver, competed this year for the first time. I’ve grown to enjoy Doug’s shop very much. Most of the competitors this year were first timers… which lends a distinct disadvantage, because the format is very performance-oriented.
Each competitor has 15 minutes to prepare for the judge’s panel 4 shots of espresso (one for each judge), pour 4 traditional cappuccinos, and then prepare 4 servings of a specialty drink, something each of the competitors devise themselves. The signature drinks vary from hop-infused beer-like coffee, to chocolate based creations. The sky is the limit, with the only restrictions being no alcohol, and each drink must have espresso as its base ingredient. All these things must be done within the time constraint, all the while keeping the station and equipment clean, and narrating the process as well. The best competitors have their 15-minute performance scripted to the second, and can perform the preparation of the coffee while simultaneously chatting up the judges as part of the show.
This year’s winners were:
3rd place- Heidi Bickelhaudt – Trident Cafe, Boulder (right)
2nd place- Nolan Dutton – Conscious Coffees, Boulder (left)
1st place- Jon Lewis – Long Story Short, Coeur d’Alene Idaho (center)
(The winners’ home cafe and location are by memory, please forgive me if they are incorrect)
Jon comes from northern Idaho, and his signature drink involved home-cultured yogurt, honey, and espresso. For the win, Jon gets an expenses-paid trip to the US Barista Championship this spring in Minneapolis.
As regional competitions go, this one was small. But for the first time out for our region, it went off particularly well, with everyone excited to see how it develops for next year. The specialty coffee culture is slowly making its way into the Rockies, and I for one couldn’t be more happy. And a tad jittery.
Next year, I plan on taking a Metroblogging podcast/videocast/live blogging team into the competition. Who’s with me?
(Photo of the winners courtesy of Ray Welsh, competition judge and owner of Allegretti’s Coffee Products.)