Over the weekend, baristas from all parts of the western part of the country made their way to a warehouse in the Arts District of Downtown to compete in the Big Western Regional Barista Competition. And after all the shots were pulled, the coffee brewed and the scores tallied, Los Angeles-area baristas – competing against their counterparts from, among other cities, San Francisco – swept the podium in the the South West division of the competition: Charles Babinski of G&B Coffee finished in first place, Eden Marie-Abramowicz of Intelligentsia finished second and Frank La of Copa Vida finished third.
“It feels surreal,” La said a few minutes after the winners were announced. “I'm still shaking.”
And how did the champion feel after winning?
“Good,” Babinski said. “Really good.”
If you're not as familiar with these annual barista competitions as you now are with, say, ice dancing, the event is part sport and part academic conference. Competing baristas have 15 minutes to make four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks for a panel of judges who then evaluate the drinks on various technical and sensory details. While the baristas prepare the drinks, a playlist of their creation blares in the background, somewhat similar to baseball players and their walk-up songs.
But while taste is certainly a big component of the competition, it's not just about whose espresso knocks it out of the park. Rather, the barista's routine ultimately is an educational presentation in which the coffee drinks are the Powerpoint slides to an overarching idea. La, for example, focused on the significance of time in the processing, roasting and extraction of coffee, and presented his drinks as illustrations of this theme. You can imagine, then, that preparing for the competition can take months of research, practice and refinement; getting through it all in tact is pretty much itself an accomplishment, much less placing in the top three.
In 2012 and 2013, the event was held in Santa Cruz, so moving the location to L.A. was a treat for those of us who really, really like coffee and/or watching people make coffee in highly stressful environments. That, and as Babinski said, it went a long way to “showcase L.A.'s baristas and culture. We have a vibe here that you won't find anywhere else.”
In a separate competition called the Brewers Cup, baristas made coffee using manual brewing methods like pourover cones and Chemex pots. Klatch Coffee's Todd Goldsworthy finished first, quite a comeback for someone who finished “dead last,” as he put it, in last year's competition. Patrick Domres and Ryan Peterson, both from Bellano Coffee in San Jose, finished second and third, respectively.
The top six winners in the Barista Competition and the top three in the Brewers Cup now will go to Seattle in April to compete against other regional winners at the national competition.