Contestant Devon Pedde is in the spotlight, both literally and figuratively. A slender, rakishly handsome young man with a look equal parts austere, intellectual poet and casually cool indie rocker, Pedde stands in the bright lights as he is playfully grilled by a host.
Live video of the proceedings is projected onto two perpendicular walls, and an audience numbering close to 100 sits and stands around the edges of the large room. A jazzy-techno sound track — designed to maintain tension during breaks in the action — plays in the background.
"Tell us about the neck beard," the host says, to a round of light chuckling from the crowd.
"I've grown it all myself," Pedde answers.
Four judges appear at room's edge, seemingly from nowhere, and march across the floor toward their official judging counter. They seem as serious as a firing squad.
The scene at Siren Studio, a warehouse-sized space on Sunset Boulevard, resembles any number of modern-day contest-reality-show events. But here, at competition stations dotting the floor, sits a modest slice of a modern food-service work space and counter, crowned with an impressively sleek and serious-looking Nuova Simonelli espresso machine.
This is the Western Regional Barista Competition, held under the auspices of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. In other words, it's a coffee-making contest.
Pedde turns out to be a Minnesota transplant who is a "coffee educator" at Intelligentsia Coffee here in L.A. He tells the crowd during this "initial interview" segment that he was merely a coffee drinker back in the Twin Cities. But now he is a finalist in a highly competitive division — California, Hawaii and Alaska — in this international coffee competition.
Not many years ago, said beverage was confined to a small and limited handful of cultural contexts, none of which were so intense or dramatic.
Whether scooped out of a can or stirred freeze-dried into hot water by Middle America; pulverized at home in the Braun microgrinder by urban gourmets; distilled into inky shots of something resembling heavily sweetened 10-30 motor oil by Arabs and Turks; made with a finicky flourish into cappuccinos by Italians; or processed into an orangey-brown, creamy-bitter powder called Nescafé and consumed, inexplicably, by just about the rest of the known world, coffee once signified a welcome interruption, a moment of rest, an excuse to take it easy. Even the term coffee break is not so much literally about the beverage as it is about a jealously guarded 10 or 15 minutes of downtime at work.
But coffee is no longer the intermission. It is now a main event, a subject of connoisseurship no less passionate and fetishistic than wine, cigars or pizza.
Pedde describes in detail the origins of his carefully chosen beans, including their specific geography, weather and soil acidity, and the name of the farmer who grew them. He describes the beverage's overall "fruit" and "berries," and tells the judges and audience that the first sip has "peaches," the mouth feel is "Creamsicle," and the finish is "clove honey."
It feels like a cross between a Monty Python sketch and a Christopher Guest film.
Next comes his "signature drink," made at the point in the competition when baristas are called upon essentially to freestyle a creative mixed concoction.
Pedde's coffee "cocktail" is inspired by an actual cocktail, the Sazerac, and he carefully explains his use of fennel pollen for flavor, instead of the outlawed absinthe. Pedde provides cards to the judges, imprinted with maps of the coffee farm from whence came his beans, down to the specific planting location of each varietal. When he gives shout-outs, the honorees include his girlfriend and "the guy who roasts my beans."
As Pedde concocts, coffee concessionaires at the perimeter of the event dispense complimentary drip- and espresso-style drinks. A man working the stand belonging to San Francisco–based Ritual Coffee enthusiastically answers questions about Indonesian vs. African vs. South and Central American beans, informing that generalizations are impossible, as even in the same region of the same country of the same continent, slight altitude and soil changes can wildly alter the bean's characteristics.
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A sip of Pedde's deep, rich brew brings nothing to mind — or taste bud — that suggests "nuts," "berries," "acid" or "fruit." Instead, two simple thoughts predominate: The first, "Are these people serious with all of these nitpicky descriptions?"
The second, "Damn, this is really good coffee."
In the end, Pedde finishes a respectable fifth in the Western region, with 633.5 points. The winner is from the scrappy little state of Hawaii. Three of the top six finishers are from Santa Cruz powerhouse Verve Coffee Roasters.
Is it sacrilegious to suggest that all have earned themselves a beer?