Saturday, March 31, 2007

Time To Get Serious?

"You don't take this seriously."

That's what USBC judge and uber-barista Aaron Ultimo told me once when I was hanging out at the Arlington Murky Coffee well over a year ago. It was a comment. It was a critique. It was a criticism.

And he was right.

It's the end of March and we're deep into competition season and rushing towards the United States Barista Championship being held in Long Beach, CA the weekend of May 5th. It's a madhouse time where baristas from across the country are in a practicing frenzy, working hard and long hours practicing and preparing for their fifteen minutes of fame and glory. They want to win. They want to stand there basking in the sunlight. They want to represent our nation in Tokyo at the World Championship.

But do I?

Don't get me wrong, I think I would be giddy winning the national championship. Whisked away by a new hand-carved chariot, it woud be a year of appearances on national television shows, glad-handing with leaders of nations, appearances with Pavarotti, the Metropolitan Opera, on stage with Metallica, Justin Timberlake and the Moody Blues, and bedding down celebutantes like Paris Hilton, Eliza Dushku and Britney Spears. Ok, maybe not Britney (been there, done that).

Imagine the groupies, the constant pawing of my body, the ripping of my clothes... Sheesh, and I have enough troubles with women already.

Ultimo is right, my biggest problem is that I don't take this seriously enough. I'm not doing it to win. My problem is that I don't care about winning, it's not part of my goals. I'm more interested in exploring tertiary aspects of the competition. Areas like attention to detail, ambience, service and delivery. I'm more interested in exploring coffee in a culinary presentation. Seeing if I can push the boundaries of how people think of coffee.

I see the barista craft today as that of the chef twenty years ago. Toiling in obscurity, with little respect and little recognition. It's time for the barista craft to wrestle that perception, push the bounds, demand respect, show respect for themselves and our craft and march towards the standard to today's chef. Competition is only a small component of that march.

The 2nd Annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition has just completed and I captured Third Place. The Champ, Katie Carguilo, and the 2nd place finisher, Belle Batista, are wonderful barista competitors - excellent and tough competition and I'm proud to be ranked amongst them.

But for me, the Third Place finish rings a bit hollow and unsatisfying. True, many obstacles stood in my way to land that spot and it's pretty much miraculous that I made it there, but it's hollow and unsatisfying nonetheless.

And it's because I didn't remain true to my goals.

My first round signature drink was called "PBJ" - a deconstructed drink in three parts. The first part was a hazelnut puree mixed with espresso. You stir the ingredients and then sip. In a separate container is a fresh, handmade Black Grape gelee that you sip with the hazelnut/espresso to your liking (similar to how some like a lot of jelly or a little in their sandwich). And third is a small glass of whole milk to chase the drink. It's presented with straws and in cupware that's reminiscent of the malt shops and, hopefully, brings back memories of youth and childhood.

The presentation for the first round was choppy, staccato - I just couldn't find the groove. Since I never practiced and hadn't done a competition presentation in nearly one year, I had a hard time remembering where everything went and figured out order of service on the fly. A poor first espresso pull and I decided to dump those and pull a third. Inadequate milk in the pitchers and I ran out pouring the cappuccinos and had to steam more. Residue on the sides and I needed to wipe the capp cup after nearly setting it down. Add on top of that service experiments like a separate utensil plate (that needed to be wiped if a judge placed a soiled spoon back on the plate) and the involved prep of PBJ and I nearly disqualified myself with a 16:44 time.

For the uninitiated, regular competition time is 15 minutes. There's a five point penalty per sensory judge (there's four) for every thirty seconds over time and outright disqualification if you exceed 17 minutes. This resulted in an 80 point penalty for going that far overtime - usually death to any competitor's hope to advance to the next round.

Somehow, I scratched my way into the finals in spite of the penalty and poor performance. That's when I got sidetracked and lost my focus.

I had another drink sitting on the sidelines. One that involved roasted corn, but it wasn't quite finalized and I thought that I should play it safe and work the points. Try to win rather than stay true to my goals of exploring and pushing our craft. Blinded by this, I decided to use a variation of "Sweetness" - the drink that Bronwen Serna used to win the 2004 USBC. It's a simple drink that we serve daily as "Honey Macchiato." Just a little honey, shot of espresso and steamed half&half. Simple. Sweet. Elegant. But nothing risky or edgy, like the roasted corn thing.

The Finals performance presented its' own challenges. Faced with a panel featuring three judges from one coffee roaster/retailer, I worried that their tastes would be too similar. That the palate would be too skewed towards one style of espresso - much like presenting an acidic coffee to a panel of Japanese judges. With this in mind, I needed to find a way to allay that potential problem and bring them towards my coffees' way of thinking.

After consulting with friends who knew the coffee of the three judges (and the lone judge from another company), I decided that I would compare their coffees with the Hines. How they might be similar. How they might be different. What we tasted in the morning tasting. Created little bridges that they could easily cross.

This is not to say that the judges were prejudiced against any coffee other than their own. I had no way of knowing if that was true since I really didn't know the judges or their tastes. I had to presume that the extreme would be the case while hoping that it wasn't.

In the end, I took third place with a "safe" drink and not the drink I know I should have used. Had I used the roasted corn I would have remained true to my goals, the third place finish would be satisfying and I would have feedback on the corn drink. Since I allowed the thought of winning cloud my judgment and chose the "safe" drink, I have no feedback on the corn drink and have a trophy that can sit around collecting dust. The only consolation I have is that I was awarded a "6" by a longtime USBC judge - which is an accomplishment in and of itself, especially from a seasoned and tough judge.

But I blew it. I let the thought of winning get in the way of what I wanted to do. I thought I should get serious about winning, instead of being serious about exploring. Failure.

Unsatisfying indeed.