(warning – long post and lots of big photos)
So – many of you know I was very kindly invited to Minneapolis to be part of the blog team updating the SCAA Blog. I was in esteemed blogging company – Erin Meister, Travis (quiet but awesome videoist) and Katie and Zachary who happened to change the face of coffee blogging back in Tokyo last year. Our remit was simply to cover the show, and to some extent we were making it up as we went along.
This was my first USBC and my last SCAA show had been Seattle in 2005. I had never attended any SCAA workshops before, so didn’t really know what to expect from that angle. Covering a talk ate up a lot of time, and often resulted in what seemed like not that much text. I think all of us were aware that we were writing for the SCAA, at their expense so we just tried to find the best of the show.
Of course the real draw for most people was the USBC. This has to be the most hardcore of the barista competitions outside of the WBC. The open rounds had 50 spots, and those baristas were whittled down to 16 who joined the 9 regional champions in the semifinals. Some amazing baristas didn’t make it through round one, which was oddly depressing and inspiring.
The highlight of the competition for me was getting to MC the finals with Nick Cho. It wasn’t getting to be onstage, or talk rubbish into a microphone. It was getting all six of the finalists to make us an espresso after their performance was over. I know what you are thinking, it is what everyone has been asking – which was best?
It is a difficult question to answer. Drew certainly had the advantage of making my first shot of the day, and it always tastes better when your body wants caffeine. Nick’s shot was really interesting though I was more focused on looking for the leather/sweet suede he described (which I totally got!). Heather’s shot reminded me of the WBC blend she brought to machine testing – quite heavy and with some prominent naturals. In contrast Chris Baca’s single estate Brazilian natural was not very naturally and super clean and complex. Pete’s blend was, in my humble opinion, more a traditional espresso blend (certainly in contrast to the three other single estate shots I’d taste) – quite heavy bodied and sweet. Kyle’s shot was stolen by Katie and he very kindly remade me a double. At this point I was quite caffeinated but his pull was very different to Nick’s – shorter and more intense, with the acidity a bit louder. Looking back it is tricky to pick a favourite but I told the people right after that it was probably Drew’s – though that isn’t to demean those other shots that were also truly excellent but suffered an increasingly caffeinated taster.
I get to this point and I realise I haven’t really talked about the first round or the semis. I didn’t get to see all of either though it was kind of fun to be allowed onstage (to photograph) whilst a few awesome people performed. I enjoyed Ben Helfen go job hunting in Finland, and Lem Butler… what can I say – Lem was a pure drama, rollercoaster-ride of a performance that brought tears to my eyes when against all odds he came in on time despite luck being against him and scuppering the start of his set. Watch the video…..
Come to think of it that stage was crazy – being up there was not a comfortable experience. The combination of the lights, the sound and the stadium seating meant you felt very distant from the audience and I think the overall experience threw a good number of the competitors. Perhaps those who had to go through round one had an advantage over those in the semis in that they knew a little more of what to expect from that. It looked great as a stage though!
For onstage photographing I was often accompanied by Meister who was far better at being out of the way than I was, and also by Liz “Twitchy” Clayton. Talking to Liz we would often joke and aim to get the best possible intense judging pictures. This is one of my favourites, in my mind the portafilter is glowing like gold…..
Jay’s libation (I know Jon isn’t a God technically, but I couldn’t think of a better word – “toast” just doesn’t seem to do it) was a lot of fun – people always have high expectations of Jay’s performance and this was more touching than shocking.
One thing was clear this year – lots more talking about the coffee. Lots more, which I something I thoroughly approve of. Baristas were there representing their coffee in a different way, seemingly more aware of a barista’s position in the coffee chain. It seemed to be the first competition I’d seen where the espresso upstages the sig drink and that is something no one can complain about.
I didn’t taste as much as I would have liked to – in terms of all the drinks, but I did manage to snaffle a few glasses out of the bussers trays. I’d like to apologise to the busser who tried to stop me tasting a drink, telling me I wasn’t allowed but unable to stop me because she was stuck holding the tray with both hands. (And no – I didn’t give it the “don’t you know who I am?!” crap, despite several people suggesting that this is the way to go in such situations…)
No doubt Kyle’s individual sig drink preparations were a great little concept, in line with espresso being a drink prepared to order, for an individual opposed to other bulk brewing methods. Scott Lucey’s sig drink was also great – simple, yet very tasty and totally ticking the texture box for me with its custard component. I would have killed to taste Baca’s drink but the judges drank it all every time (as asked) so we (me, hopefully bussers, audience members, friends and bloggers) were left salivating but unsatisfied. I have to just add that the whole Ritual crew were very inspiring to me, as were the Intelli crew. People like that get me excited about coffee and I don’t think it is out of place to say that if there were a barista’s barista award at the show (as there have been at some regionals) then Baca may well have picked that up.
One more note on the competition – the live feed. I can’t believe how well it worked out, how much fun it was to interact with people watching and on occaison to pick up the laptop and do a little backstage cam stuff. Sorry for my silliness. The quality of the feed will only improve and I hope to online as well as live at the WBC, interacting again with all those online watching things unfold.
There is lots of other discussion circling around online – from the SCAA blog coverage to the grinders baristas were using onstage and the techniques that went along with them. The doserless Roburs are terrifyingly fast (2.5s for around 19-20g by the look of things) but I suspect the Anfim’s scored higher. It was great to talk to John Ermacoff about the mods he has done on the ones Ritual are using. I suspect that if you put John Ermacoff, Greg Scace and Andy Schecter into a workshop for a month, gave them unlimited budget, then they would come up with something that would totally change the way we brew espresso.
I spent virtually no time on the show floor, which was quite frustrating as there were lots of people I wanted to see, but I had a few good drinks – the Chemex of Ethiopian Konga from Lindsay at 49th was delightful as was my espresso from Jeremy on the Synesso booth. Getting into lectures and workshops at the show was a privilege but I don’t really have anything to add to the stuff on the SCAA blog.
So congratulations to Kyle. I am a big fan of his, it was a pleasure to watch him perform three times and to see that performance evolve onstage. He is not only technically outstanding as a barista but a great ambassador for specialty coffee in the United States. That and he makes me laugh quite a lot. Hopefully I’ll catch up with him before WBC, but if not I can’t wait to see him again there and see what he brings to the stage.
I know I’ve missed out people, coffee and things and I apologise – I always forget stuff and my head still isn’t on the right way around. I am sure people reading this will have questions and I will try and answer them – and if I have forgotten obvious stuff (not unlikely) I will add to it asap.