Starting today and going through the weekend, over 30 baristas — including a good number from Los Angeles — will be in Santa Cruz to compete in the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Southwest Regional Barista Competition. This would be one of six such regional competitions; the top 6 from each region automatically move on to compete in the U.S. Barista Championship in Boston next month. The winner of this national competition then represents the United States in what generally is considered the Olympics of the coffee world, the World Barista Championship. To date, only one American has won the WBC: Handsome Coffee Roasters's Michael Phillips, in 2010.

As a spectator sport, the barista competition falls somewhere between a spelling bee and a Top Chef Quickfire challenge: Maybe not as stressful as watching a 14-year-old trying to spell guetapens, but not as frenzied as a reality cooking show, either.

In 15 minutes, baristas must prepare four sets of three distinct drinks using a coffee of their choosing: An espresso, a cappuccino and a “signature drink” of their own creation. Two technical judges closely shadow the barista to evaluate cleanliness, workflow and organization. Four sensory judges score the drinks themselves, basing their evaluation on, among other criteria, taste and balance. And a head judge oversees the judging. (Another separate competition, the Brewers Cup, focuses on filtered coffee).

But the competition is not simply about the ability to pull a great shot of espresso. Rather, the drinks almost play a supporting role: While the barista prepares the drinks, she's also presenting an idea to the judges, with the coffee essentially used to illustrate main points. Some of the better routines, Phillips says, take a “supernerdy” idea and simplifies it for the judges; the routine that would eventually earn him the world champion title, for example, explored different methods of processing coffee.

“Most good routines emphasize a specific concept that is distilled down to be interesting and informative,” says G&B Coffee's Charles Babinski, who placed second in last year's national competition and is competing this weekend. Indeed, the most important part of those daunting 15 minutes, 2008 U.S. Barista Champion Kyle Glanville of G&B Coffee says, is to introduce a thesis and “prove it in the cup.” The strength of this thesis — along with the coffee chosen — he adds, often is what separates the top 6 competitors from everyone else.

Most baristas begin to prep their routine in earnest in the months before regionals. Verve Coffee Roasters's Wholesale Account Manager Alexandra Littlejohn began to prepare in the beginning of the year, as did Cognoscenti Coffee's Jonathen Liu, though his concept came to him last April.

Much goes into these few months. Main ideas are solidified; competition coffee is chosen; the signature drink is perfected; the script is written, reworked and memorized; the routine is rehearsed and rehearsed, if only to combat anticipated stage fright. Not to mention ancillary but significant aesthetic considerations like picking cupware and compiling a soundtrack to complement their routine (Liu (proudly) says he's using Katy Perry and a Whitney Houston/Chromeo mashup in his playlist). And Cafe Dulce's Frank La says he spent a good amount of time studying past competition videos like a football coach watching tape of past games, paying attention to “movement, speech, techniques and tableware.”

In total, Littlejohn has spent at least five hours a week preparing for the Brewers Cup. Others, like Liu, estimate they recently put in anywhere between 20 and 30 hours a week. And La took off all of March from work to focus exclusively on the competition.

You can watch La and the other baristas compete in the competition via the Livestream of the event; round one starts today. And while whomever wins will no doubt be an excellent barista, they won't necessarily be the best.

“Ideally,” Babinski says, “The best barista is the one making your coffee in the morning.”

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