The only reason worth citing for the expense of travelling the world to compete is the friendship and camaraderie. Photos by Alistair Durie.
Last week I was in Charlotte, North Carolina where I competed in the 2006 United States Barista Championship held in conjunction with the Specialty Coffee Association of America Annual Conference & Exhbition, a veritable orgy of all things coffee from the mundane and lame to the hip and happening. Of course, I tried to associate myself as much as possible with the hip and happening.
This year's USBC was a tough one. Absolutely the best baristas in America battling it out and beating each other over the head. It was rough. It was tough. It was the meanest national competition yet.
But, in the end, I lost.
Oh well, no use crying over spilled milk.
I had my literal fifteen minutes of fame during the competition and I'm honored by the tremendous response to the performance and the signature drink. Because of this outpouring of love, I wanted to share with everyone my thoughts behind the performance, the history and the actual recipe for the signature drink.
First of all, a confession: the actual name of the signature drink was supposed to be "Coffee and a Cigarette" but while I was unpacking my gear I realized that I had lost my pack of DuMarier cigarettes and I was without my cigarette prop. Luckily, I had a bundle of JR Limited Edition Torpedo cigars and decided to substitute a cigar for the pack of cigs and hence the new name: "Coffee and a Cigar", which is actually a more accurate name for the drink based on its' ingredients.
The genesis of the drink started from my early days smoking cigars in 1996 during my afternoon smoke sessions at the now defunct Rolling Road Tobacco Warehouse in Lutherville, Maryland. Most afternoons from 3p to 6p you would find myself and a gaggle of regulars puffing away on big cigars. The proprietor of this shop loved coffee and served drip brew coffee from White House Coffee in New York. Back then (and for most of my life) I hated coffee. It was this nasty, bitter drink that was a poor substitute for the coca-laden Coca-Cola. But coffee was the only beverage available and I was usually too lazy to walk next door to the deli and buy a Coke. So, I would take whatever coffee (flavored or regular, it didn't matter), pump it into a 16z cup, add six packs of sugar, a large pour of cream and that would be my smoking companion for the next two hours.
I really don't know if White House was a quality cup, but many years later when another friend opened a shop serving S&D Coffee, I really noticed that the S&D was crap compared to White House.
For at least four years, this is how I drank coffee. As an uneasy and choiceless companion to my tasty cigars. And while it was sugar and cream laden coffee, it set the stage for the appreciation I have for coffee today and the complimentary cigar flavors. In many ways, it was natural that we would come to making a tobacco based coffee drink.
To be quite frank and honest, I think the competitions are incredibly boring and uninspired. I mean really, how interesting is it watching some schmoe quietly and politely serving four other people? I usually find myself turning comatose. My past experience has been so poor that I'm hesitant to watch any barista competition today. As a spectator, I want to be inspired, informed and entertained, with "entertained" being the key word here.
I find it entirely droll to listen to some barista explain why he likes to adjust the grind so that he can pull a better shot. Or that the doser lever needs to be pulled to evacuate grinds from the doser hopper and into the portafilter. Say that one more time and I'm going to bury you in cardamom - which seemed to be the favorite ingredient of the 2005-2006 Competition Season.
Because of this, I want to entertain the audience. I want them to stick around and watch. I don't want them falling asleep or wandering over to the S&D booth for a sample of their hazelnut coffee. During the 2004 NWRBC I tried a very audience-centric approach that focused alot of attention on the audience. It was a hit with the audience. And I got hit with points from the judges. Losing points is not the way to win.
And that's the bottom line, we're here to win. While we may talk about friendship, camaraderie and community, each of us secretly (some not so secretly) wants to win. It's much more fun to talk about community when you've got the big trophy and sitting in Virgin-Atlantic's Upper Class sipping mimosas on your way to the World Barista Championship. The rest of us talk of camaraderie while flying in steerage, or worse yet, staying at home pretending to be hip and On The Scene.
But I don't allow winning be the all-consuming thing. It has to be fun and entertaining. And for me, there needs to be a balance between properly attending to your customers (the judges) while entertaining and inspiring the audience.
Otherwise, you're just another stiff in a suit flying across the Atlantic in your Upper Class Suite with mimosa juice dribbling down the bedsheets.
The Semi-Finalists. Note who's on the Big Screen and its' foreshadowing of Champions to come. Photo by Alistair Durie.
For the past couple of years, everyone involved with the barista competitions has heard the term "Five Star Service" branded about. Just what is this elusive "Five Star Service"? As far as I know, "Five Star" is the brand name of a multi-subject notebook sold by the Mead Corporation and not some actual measure of food service. Even the U.S. Military no longer has a Five Star General. And the most respected and worshipped rating in the restaurant business, the Guide Michelin, only issues a maximum of three stars. Four stars are given out, of course, by lesser publications.
Just for the record, my shop holds Three and a Half Stars for Food and Service from The Baltimore Sun. I surmise that I'm the only barista in the specialty coffee industry that actually holds a star rating in the United States. Does this mean I "know" service? No, that would be absurd. I'm just a guy trying to present an experience to our customers. An experience that is what it is, and one that is very different than what you would experience at the top restaurant in the nation.
Even if we moved away from the stars and looked to the top levels of restaurant service in the United States, I'm afraid that we (as a collective barista competition society) fail miserably. Most baristas (and judges) have never eaten at a top-tier restaurant to experience true top level service and probably wouldn't know top level service if it bit them in the butt. How can we create or judge an experience no one understands? It's really beyond me.
Visit The French Laundry, Charlie Trotter's or Citronelle and the level of service is impeccable. Hell, just go to Gary Danko or even Bouchon and the service is incredibly attentive and sharp. None of this "Hey Barry, good to see you" kind of colloquial, "I'm your friend" banter. None of this placing the serving tray on the table nonsense. None of this talking to you while you're looking at my back and I'm too busy making something to address you properly bullshit. I didn't experience my server at Gary Danko telling me some fancy about the menu while he walked back to the wait station to pick up the water pitcher.
But yet, we see it all the time. Competition baristas chatting incessantly about their blend, or how their cappuccino is "keeping it real" because it follows the "Rule of Thirds." I mean really, who cares? I know that if I was your customer, I'd want you to Shut The Fuck Up about that shit. Yes, be friendly. Be welcoming. Serve me with deference. Serve me with respect. But stop your constant yapping because I'm tuning you out like I do to the external noise while I'm trying to go to bed when staying in New York City. Jibber jabber, jibber jabber - please take your tray off my table, and while we may be friends who go out and get trashed during trade shows, I'm judging you today and because of that fact alone, I deserve greater respect and should be given such. Calling me by my first name is just improper and too casual for this professional setting.
Somehow, I finally made it onto the Big Screen. Photo by Alistair Durie.
Many times when I watch a performance, I wonder: "Just what is this barista thinking?" "What kind of experience is she producing?" To me, a competition performance is just that: a performance. It should be thought out. I sit around thinking about the experience I'm trying to create and craft during my fifteen minutes. I want it to be fun. I want it to be informative. I want it to be memorable.
For the 2006 USBC, I took a divergence. The previous two years I focused on the origins of my company: Hawaii, by crafting drinks and experience that focused on the islands. Of course, I also lost those two competitions but it did result in one of the more popular coffee drinks on the Jay's Shave Ice menu: the Haupia Macchiato. For this year, I wanted something different. Moving away from the Hawaiian focus, I toyed with the idea of focusing on my ancestral homeland: The Philippines. Thoughts of flying there to seek out the best of the Barako Coffee (Coffea Liberica) and using that as part of the espresso blend danced in my mind, but the trip never materialized and I decided to pursue another route.
For me, the performance is about manipulation and pressing emotional buttons. I'm trying to find a way to touch on the memories of the judges and the audience and each element is designed to do just that. I want it to be slightly whimsical, but not ironic. That's why The Buddy Christ of "Dogma" and "Jay and Silent Bob" fame sat on top of the espresso machine. It's a small and almost unnoticeable detail that might play in the subconscious if it goes unnoticed, but it might generate positive and happy memories when noticed.
Of course, the signature drink served in a bright red plastic ashtray straight out of your high school pizza shop that has something to do with smoking and drinking coffee is designed to play on your memories, but so too is the music. The soundtrack has musical elements that play on the 20/30 something judge/audience member, bringing them back to their youth and what were, hopefully, happy times.
Choosing the music is no small detail. In my mind, it's an essential element that demands serious thought because it sets the mood for the presentation. My intention was to start off with something peppy and upbeat to kick it off, then transition into something mellow during the middle (mainly because it gets tiring and fatiguing to the audience to keep it continuously uptempo) and then back to something catchy to round it out. Here's the playlist from the performance:
Conga (12" instrumental) - Miami Sound Machine
Lovers Fly North - John Williams - Superman II Soundtrack
Forgiven - Bear McCreary - Battlestar Galactica Soundtrack
January Rain - David Gray - Serendipity Soundtrack
Main Title (UK) - Bear McCreary - Battlestar Galactica
Mortal Kombat - Utah Saints - Mortal Kombat Soundtrack
The Bird - Morris Day & The Time
Again, I'm trying to play on memories with some of the tracks. "Conga" reaches back to the mid-1980s and was really included because I once overheard Marcus Boni remark while another competitor played Miami Sound Machine that if he could dance, he would have (of course, he didn't). "Lovers Fly North" was a quick, 40-sec piece that places Superman and Lois Lane flying through the sky and moved us from the up-tempo to a slower pace for the cappuccino stretch of pieces from Battlestar Galactica and Serendipity. I chose the Battlestar Galactica Main Theme because it started off with a slow and haunting melody that crescendoes with taiko drums and a perfect build-up to the driving Mortal Kombat Theme - and there's almost no one in their 20/30s that isn't familiar with that theme. "The Bird" by The Time rounded out the performance as a fun ending that hopefully reminded people of their experience watching "Purple Rain."
Finishing touches on the sig drink. Photo by Dismas Smith.
But an experience is more than just the music. It's the person behind the counter. It's the barista. And what I try to focus on is the interaction with the customer (the judges). My approach is very relaxed (bordering on casual) and friendly, but I'm still here to serve. Which is why, if you listen closely, I always address the judges formally. Not by "mister" but rather "judge." For example, if I'm speaking directly to Spencer Turer, it's always "Judge Turer". It's not the stiff "Mister Turer" and it certainly isn't the casual "Spence", but it does maintain respect while acknowledging the honorific.
The tray never touches the table - ever. That's just a faux pas that I think should result in immediate disqualification. What reason is there to place your dirty tray bottom on your clean table? None. End of discussion. Need to set the tray down? Bring a tray caddy.
And I've stopped yapping while doing everything else under the sun. If I'm going to speak to the judges about something, I'm going to address them properly. This means I'm going to face them and give them my attention. Sure, I might have to refill their glasses or set the table (another peeve), but I'm not going to turn my back to them and make a drink while still blabbering on and on and on.
I look at it this way- if we were in a real restaurant, I would be in the kitchen preparing something, or at least removed from the dining room. Am I really going to yell across the restaurant to my table to describe how much cardamom I'm putting in their drink? Of course not. That would be dumb.
Another aspect of service I've incorporated follows the "Shut The Fuck Up" theory. After serving the drinks and closing my mouth, I'll stand back, allowing the judges to savor the drinks, compose their thoughts and mark their scores. This quiet time allows me to attend to my mise en place while the Head Judge and Runners do their thing. Once things are tidy and the judges still need more time, I'll quietly wait for them. Yes, time is burning, but that's not a concern I'm willing to transfer to my guests (judges). They're not under a time constraint, I am. Time is not their concern and they should not feel rushed.
Another reason to stop and wait is Power. During these fifteen minutes, this is my space and I own it. You are my guests and are under my control and environment. I control the situation and determine the order and pace of drinks. Control is confidence. And confidence instills trust in my guests. Trust that they will be served in an appropriate manner. Trust that they will receive tasty beverages. And trust that they are in the hands of a capable professional.
It is what service is all about.
The Man Behind The Curtain. Paul Garmirian.
For the past couple of years, only one cigar has sufficed: the Paul Garmirian Belicoso Maduro. It's sweet. It's lush. It's been 98% perfect over the past three years. If there's one cigar that I could smoke until the End of Days, this is the one. Problem is that it costs $12.55 each! Dammit.
Paul Garmirian, or "PG" as he's known, is a very interesting cigar manufacturer based in McLean, Virginia. He's interesting, educated and well-travelled. He's got some great stories about his life - from rubbing with politicos to serenading his wife in a rowboat on the Potomac. Sometimes you think he's just bullshitting you but you don't care because the story is just too enjoyable to worry about fact-checking.
But the man, along with Hendrick Kelner and the Davidoff factory in the Dominican Republic, makes some of the best damn cigars on Mother Earth.
I stop into the PG Boutique every other month or so just to see what's going on and grab a couple of Belicoso Maduro cigars to savor until the next visit. On my most recent trip a couple weeks ago, PG asks me if I knew about the event that day - the day they were releasing the 15th Anniversary Cigar and that it was great timing. I don't know if it really was the release day, but I didn't care. When you're visiting PG "It's all good".
When it comes to PG, there's always a ton of hyperbole: "It's like a mid-1990s Cuban" or "It hasn't been this good since the Cubans of the 1950s". Well, I wasn't around before the fall of Batista so I can't comment on the latter, but I did smoke a mid-90s Sancho Panza Corona Gigante in 1995 that absolutely floored me (after a large steak dinner no less), so those were large promises indeed.
I grabbed a couple of my fave belicoso maduros, three 15th Anniv Corona Extras and a 15th Anniv BomBon - a very small and short cigar. I decided to smoke the BomBon on the journey from McLean down to Murky Coffee in Arlington to record another Portafilter.net Podcast.
That tiny cigar hit me like a ton of bricks. Power, strength, heavy spice and an abundance of flavor. Just pure energy. And this was the teeny-tiny version. I like a strong cigar, but I have to admit, this one was borderline for me.
During the Mid-Atlantic Regionals, some of the judges commented that they had difficulty discerning the tobacco flavor in the drink. For that round, I used an el-cheapo Savoy cigar. But after reading the judges comments, I knew I needed a cigar with stronger flavor to punch through the cream. I toyed around with the idea of using a La Gloria Cubana Serie R Maduro, but I never liked the ashy character of that cigar.
However, one taste of the PG 15th Anniversary and I knew this was the cigar for the job. I'm told by P.G. that the wrapper is eight-year old Nicaraguan wrapper that came from the Placensia factory and has been in storage with Davidoff for six years. It's an exquisite wrapper encasing a wonderful blend of Dominican filler and binder leaves that makes for a strong and spicy cigar. Tobacco that I now knew would stand up to the sweet cream and pair wonderfully with the sweet and chocolate notes of the Hines Espresso.
Colonel Sanders sports a Texan hat at the original Hines Public Market Coffee. Photo by Alistair Durie.
Hines Public Market Coffee
It should go without saying that I would be a lost, floundering coffeeshop owner offering six different flavored drip coffees and 12 second espresso shots if it weren't for the influence of John Sanders of Hines Public Market Coffee, now of Vancouver, British Columbia. The man is a coffee powerhouse. Knowledgeable, experienced and more than willing to mentor and share with a shave ice hack like me from the East Coast. I met Sanders, John Hornall and Bronwen Serna during NASCORE 2003 when I was just starting out. Sanders took some time to chat with me about coffee and that's how things got started. A few months later, I started on my USBC Tour travelling to Chapel HIll, NC for the SouthEast Regional Barista Championship, then to the Latte Art Competition in Washington, DC, to the MidWest Regionals in Kansas City, and by the Atlanta USBC, a bond had formed and Hines supplied me with coffee and knowledge helping me to finish 17th that year.
Many operators have a good relationship with their roasters. I'm honored to say that I have a great friendship with mine. I know some operators who merely tolerate their espresso blend. We're 100% enthusiastic about our coffee. Sweetness, chocolate, hints of nut. I think it's the best damn espresso blend in the industry today.
And it's a central element in the barista presentation. One thing I'm always proud about is that the blend we use in competition would be the same blend we use in the shop. Of course, the blend is tweaked on an on-going basis to compensate for a variety of things, but there's nothing inherently different about the shop blend and the competition blend.
And this week's blend was so delicious. I just wish I was a better barista to accurately deliver the flavors 100% of the time. Using the Rodo Munho bean from Brazil this weeks' blend just had tons of body, sweet and chocolate tones that I think complimented the vanilla and tobacco in the signature drink immensely. Other elements to the blend included beans from Papua New Guinea and Nicaragua - an interesting counterpoint to the Nicaraguan wrapper leaf.
An unidentified peasant grovels at Coach Bronwen's feet. Photo by Tonx.
Now that I've written a veritable book, I'll tell you more about the signature drink. Like I said before, this drink is ten years in the making and a culmination of everything I know about food, cigars and coffee - and those of you who know me know I've eaten a lot of food, smoked a ton of cigars and tasted a bit of coffee over the past ten years. A normal person who ate smoke and drank this much would be fat...
Oh wait, I am!
The base of this drink really is about inspiration. Tony Bourdain is right when he says that The French Laundry Cookbook is the closest thing to Food Porn. It really is a wonderful tome that anyone serious about food should own. I refer to it regularly for inspiration or for tomorrow's dinner (suggestion: the poached lobster is so simple to prepare).
Before Coffee and a Cigarette, this was actually The Spro Shake - my 2005 USBC signature drink. A semi-frozen vanilla cream foam with espresso. That drink was inspired by Thomas Keller's "Coffee and a Doughnut" dessert and I used it again this year as the base for Coffee and a Cigarette. The difference was that this time I infused the cream with cigar tobacco.
The Legend: Jon Lewis. Intense concentration at the 2006 USBC. Photo by Mark Prince.
Like I said, this drink is about inspiration. And while I've been wanting to explore further avenues of coffee for the past couple of years, the person who really paved the way is Jon Lewis, that rascally barista from Idaho with his custom-built hops grinder, water fountain and window panes as serving trays. I've gushed and blogged about him before so I'll spare you, gentle reader, from another gush. But suffice to say that the man operates on a different level than the rest of us and I'm a hack compared to Mr. Lewis.
While I'd love to tell you that this drink came solely from my mind based on my world travels and years of experience, I must be honest. I stole the idea from Thomas Keller (again). Over a year ago, I was reading Anthony Bourdain's accounting of his visit to The French Laundry in his book "A Cook's Tour". It's a great read but the highlight was... Oh hell, I'll let Tony tell you:
"There is no smoking at The French Laundry - maybe the only place on earth I don't mind refraining. But to be honest, by course number five I was feeling a slight need. To my embarassment and delight, they had anticipated this in the kitchen. When the next courses arrived, mine was called 'coffee and a cigarette': Marlboro-infused coffee custard (with foie gras)."
So there it is. I stole the idea. From Thomas Keller. My cappuccinos are better than his but I'm stealing his ideas. Oh well.
That said, here's the actual recipe I used so that you can make it at home. If you decide to use this in your shops and add it to your menu, I would appreciate it if you would call it the proper name and treat me out to a nice meal the next time you see me. And if it makes you alot of money, I prefer ribeye steaks, medium-rare. If it makes you a TON of money, a meal at The French Laundry is always appreciated.
Thanks to Tonx for sharing this image.
Coffee and a Cigarette - Approximate Yield: 20 servings
2 large eggs, separated
3 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 2 vanilla beans, scraped)
1/2 cup tobacco infused heavy cream
To make the infusion, take one cigar, slice open and soak in heavy cream overnight.
Place egg yolks and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar into mixer bowl with whisk attachment. Add vanilla extract. Whip for 12 minutes medium speed or until mixture has lightened and tripled in volume.
Transfer mixture to a bowl placed in a larger bowl of ice water to maintain consistency.
In separate bowl, whip infused heavy cream with 2 tablespoons of sugar until it holds its' shape when the whisk is lifted.
Fold whipped cream into yolk mixture and return to bowl with ice water.
Whip egg whites in mixer bowl until frothy. During whipping, add remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and while egg whites until they hold soft peaks - do not over whip.
Fold beaten egg whites into egg yolk & cream mixture until completely combined.
Spoon 1z of foam into 3z cups, tap to settle, cover with plastic wrap and freeze no less than six hours or overnight.
Remove from freezer several minutes prior to serving to thaw.
Pull single shot of espresso on top of semi-frozen foam.
Serve with spoon and stir before drinking.
One of the sig drinks prepared backstage for interested parties. Photo by Tonx.
The Bottom Line
So, what's the Bottom Line here? I lost. I suck. I'm a hack. I didn't even make it into the Finals. I don't think I'll ever win. Why? Because I don't take this seriously enough. Here's the truth: after the Mid-Atlantic Regionals in February, I never practiced once. Zero. Zilch. Nada. No practice. And it's not because I'm just "Bad Like That". It's because I've got more pressing things to do than sit in my shop after hours practicing how to pour the perfect cappuccino foam. I've got a business to run. Marketing to plan. Payroll to meet. Bills to pay. People to manage. Orders to fulfill and customers to satisfy. Not to mention a podcast to host, curse on and infuriate people with.
And when I'm not working, I'd much rather be out with friends eating great food, smoking big cigars, driving recklessly, watching concerts or chasing women.
Don't get me wrong, I love what we do and I'm inspired by all my friends and other competitors. There are so many great ideas flowing out there but in many ways, I'm disappointed. All this time and energy to create a unique coffee beverage but the only people who will ever get to taste that beverage are the four judges? That's a crime against humanity.
Take Ellie Matuszak's grappa-style drink. She's taking frozen grapes and pressing the juices with an antique hand press. Gosh that drink looks interesting! But is that something Intelligentsia will incorporate into their menu? Probably not. And what a disappointment for us all.
To me, one of the greatest aspects of competition is creating a drink that you can generate buzz about. Something to bring back to the shop and offer to customers. A drink that stood on the national stage against the best of the best. It's my own personal theory, but I strongly believe that the USBC Signature Drink should be a drink that can be recreated behind the bar on a daily basis - by any barista. Come into Jay's Shave Ice and you'll find a complete menu of all our signature drinks. In fact, our most popular signature drink, the Haupia Macchiatto, was my 2004 USBC drink. Starting in June, you'll even find Coffee and a Cigarette on our menu.
I know I've put down a lot of thoughts about competition in this blog entry because I want to share with everyone my thoughts. Perhaps some people will be enraged by what I've written. Hopefully, these words will offer some small insight into the complex world of national competitions. Bear in mind that these are only my thoughts on ths subject and are not USBC Canon. I could very well be completely wrong on some of the topics. Consider that I didn't win.
The Portafilter.net Team calling you out for USBC 2007. Photo by Mark Prince.