Saturday, September 06, 2008

Mexico City: Pandemonium

Brent and Sonja toast with french pressed Ecco Caffe.

Imagine yourself standing on the stage of Bright Lights, Big City, facing an audience of thousands both in front of you and across the Internet. The tension is palpable. You've spent months and months developing your skills, figuring out a signature drink and rehearsing your performance over and over.

You've experienced the joy and exhilaration of making it into the finals, past thirty of your peers. It's now down to the final six in a winner takes all battle to the death. The action is fast. It's furious. Half point assessments separates you from the losers. This is your time to shine. And then you pass out because you're so overcome with joy the moment the 2nd place finisher is announced.


The finals audience at the CMB. It was always this packed.

By now, I've been involved with quite a few barista competitions around the world and I've never experienced anything quite like the CMB - the Competencia Mexicana de Baristas.

As a Finals Technical Judge, I knew the score. Based solely on technicals, I knew who would be named winner. The difference between first and second was razor thin, but I knew. First and Second were trained by the two time Campeon de Mexico and they were tough.

Monster, I thought as I watched her technique. There was nothing out of place. Near perfection in dosing and distribution. Her tamping routine rattled off like a Marine drill sergeant. It never changed. While some baristas wasted up to one gram per dose, she lost nothing. Flawless.

Alvaro and Aleli as they announce the third place finisher.

How does one score flawless? With a perfect score of six? I couldn't give her a six. What if someone came up later with even better technique? I'd have nowhere to go. Five point five it would have to be.

The second place finisher was equally as impressive. Smooth, calm, comfortable. He managed not only to produce the usual three flights of espresso drinks, but whipped up some fresh pancakes to go along with his signature drink. Impressive.

He was good. Damn good. Really Damn Good. But he wasn't her equal. There were twelve coffee grounds on the table next to his grinder at the start. He hadn't stuck his polishing cloth in the crevice where the handle is welded to the steam pitcher. He lost maybe .5 gram of coffee more. Lots of five point five scores, but a few five point zeros. And that was the difference that made the difference.

Add up a few half points and suddenly the winner is walking away with five thousand pesos, a two-group Bezzera espresso machine, a Compak K-10 grinder, a Reg Barber Tamper, a large trophy and a trip to Atlanta in April 2009 to compete in the World Barista Championship.

I knew the score.

Salvador springing into action.

As I stood on stage as Cleofas was announcing the order of the finalists, I pulled out my camera and trained in on Salvador Benitez, who was sitting in the front row hoping for the best. What he was about to receive was something none of us could have expected.

The CMB is the first barista competition to be held under the new August 15, 2008 WBC Rules. A number of changes, large and small have been made. Competitors no longer have to serve all four drinks at the same time. Archaic scores for "Understands Grinder" have been eliminated for the comprehensive "Station Management" score. On the sensory side, the "Judge's Total Impression" is an overview of the barista's skills, taste of beverages and presentation. With a score multiplier, its' potential 24 96 cumulative points can make or break a champion.

The CMB is also the first national competition outside of the United States to offer the event live on the Internet. With a direct feed from the official website, people all across Mexico, North America and the world followed the events as they unfolded. None of them could have predicted what was to come next and I wonder what the stream of conversation was as the events played out.

Standings (as they were announced):

6th - Carlos Delgado Delgado (488.5 points), Independent - Distrito Federal

5th - Arturo Cuevas Ortiz (489 points), Cafe Europa - Morelia, Michoacan

4th - Lancelot Macias Ferreyra (507 points), Cafe Europa - Morelia, Michoacan

3rd - Aquiles Gonzales Pereyra (545 points), Cafe Etrusca - Distrito Federal

As the final two remained, I trained my camera on Salvador, who had trained both of the remaining competitors. Either way, his legacy as champion and now champion trainer was secure. The only question remaining was: which one?

Reg Barber showed me his string of photos that he shot as the 2nd place finisher was announced:

2nd - Alvaro Carrasco Lopez (560 points), Mecafex - Distrito Federal

In Reg's images, an exuberant Alvaro raises his arms in celebration as a wave of joy and happiness washes over Aleli's face. As the three frames progress, you see her smile and joy grow, her head tilting back and by the end of the series, Aleli is falling out of frame.

From my camera's point of view, as Alvaro's name is announced, Salvador is jumping up and out of his seat to cheer, and then is suddenly leaping over the rope separating the audience from the stage.

It is at this point that pandemonium erupts.

Like the moment President Reagan was shot in 1981, it's a mass confusion. People are jumping up and over each other, scrambling towards the new champion. The audience is on their feet. Some are rushing the stage. Members of the press, cameras and cell phones are in a shooting frenzy. The video camera is flailing wildly about. Even the typically well-composed emcee Cleofas is at a loss for words. The champion is down.

Moments drag on like hours. What's going on? No one seems to know. People are yelling. They need help. Some are crying. A nurse and medical team rush into the middle of the fracas and work to restore the peace. In the middle of this, I notice that the on-screen video has switched to a logo and I wonder what the Internet feed looks like and the reaction of the viewers in the chat room.

It's a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration that caused the new champion to faint. After a few minutes, the medical team has done enough to move her from the stage. In about twenty minutes, she'll be back and on her feet looking exhausted, but happy.

Aleli Moreno Labastida (604 points), Cafe Passmar - Distrito Federal

Anette and I with Aleli and Salvador - three years of Mexican Barista Champions.

The 2009 World Barista Championship Season has begun and Mexico has a new champion and perhaps the emergence of a barista dynasty. We'll have to wait until Atlanta in April to find out.

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