The country's top baristas and roasters are converging on the Long Beach Convention Center starting today for the U.S. Coffee Championships, four days of intense competition, which will determine who roasts the best beans, has the best palate, pulls the best espresso shot, brews the best cup of manual coffee and makes the best art in their latte foam.
For the first time, all of these competitions are being held in L.A. — Long Beach, to be specific — and there are tons of spectator passes still available, so you can watch all the action up close. Of the six titles that will be awarded come Sunday, though, the longest-running also happens to be one of the specialty coffee world's most important: U.S. Barista Champion.
Though the winner of this national barista competition still needs to show at the World Barista Championships (held in Seattle in April) in order to claim total industry dominance, the domestic title is considered the most difficult of any country's to earn, mainly because of the large number of U.S. shops that are training competition-ready baristas.
"It's hard to keep track of all the good coffee shops opening in the U.S. right now," says Stephen Morrissey, director of communications at Intelligentsia and 2008's World Barista Champion. "U.S. is definitely a leader in progressive, quality-focused coffee shops."
Culling its pool of 37 competitors (including the manager of Intelligentsia's Silver Lake store) from regional competitions held over the last six months, the U.S. Barista Championships are more than just a chance to show off well-layered espresso shots. On the competition floor, each barista has 15 minutes to make four cappuccinos, four espressos and four signature drinks, all while talking judges through a well-rehearsed narrative that explains why they're doing what they're doing.
The winner isn't determined exclusively by the quality of the latte (though of course that's important), but instead by whether the performance was polished enough to establish him or her in the judges' eyes as a worthy ambassador for coffee.
"The four judges are four perfect customers, because the experience is not merely transactional," says Morrissey, who also heads up competition training for Intelligentsia. "They want to hear about their coffee and they're taking notes on how it tastes. In coffee, that is not an experience you get in many commercial settings."
Chicago-based Intelligentsia is well known for its award-winning baristas. Between its L.A., New York and Chicago locations, it's won more regional and national barista competitions than any other company. And while this year it has three competing baristas across six competitions, the list of homegrown companies on the roster is also impressive.
L.A.'s entries to the 2015 U.S. Coffee Championships include Intelligentsia alumni (Jaymie Lao competing for Go Get 'Em Tiger), newer specialty roasters (Timmy Kim competing for Andante Coffee Roasters) and this year's Southwest Regional Barista Champion, Charles Babinski of Grand Central Market's G&B Coffee. Verve's new L.A. outpost — which opened downtown just a few weeks ago — also has a representative in the lineup, Devin Chapman, a formidable barista who returns to the U.S. Coffee Championships after taking last year off.
Why do coffee shops and roasters put so much emphasis on barista competitions? Morrissey says it's about validating training and knowledge for customers.
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"We're all using quality, we're all sourcing fresh, and it's all becoming noise," he says. "Everyone does latte art and everyone has fancy build-outs. Competition stands out as a nice platform to tell your story and set yourself apart."
The U.S. Coffee Championships take place Thursday, Feb. 19, through Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Long Beach Convention Center. Spectator tickets are $10 for one day, $15 for weekend pass, and can be purchased from the USCC website. You can also watch the competition live stream on the USCC website.