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Espress yourself

Welcome to the 2005 World Barista Championship, where dreams are as potent as French roast espresso, where steaming-hot competition reveals the world’s best, where sports clichés (should you choose to dabble) flow as freely as vanilla syrup.

The pressure is on — 9.5 atmospheres of pressure, to be precise — for Salvatore “Sammy” Piccolo.

The Vancouver, B.C., native paces nervously, awaiting his turn at a gleaming new La Marzocco espresso machine with nearly 10 bars of pressure in its boiler.

Piccolo, whose family owns Vancouver’s well-known Caffè Artigiano, was already crowned top barista in Canada. He’s engineered his own espresso blend using beans from three continents. He spent months perfecting a unique signature drink. Now it’s time to serve.

Welcome to the 2005 World Barista Championship, where dreams are as potent as French roast espresso, where steaming-hot competition reveals the world’s best, where sports clichés (should you choose to dabble) flow as freely as vanilla syrup.

From an original field of 36, Piccolo is among six finalists — only the second North American to achieve that feat. He’s ready to take home the gold, or at least the golden-brown.

“You have to be bold,” said Piccolo, who was crowned No. 2 in the world last year in Trieste, Italy.

The U.N. of espressoThe top prize here brings global renown — among coffee geeks — plus professional espresso toys and free travel (to visit a German roasting-equipment manufacturer).

SalvatoreJon Bonne

Competitors have journeyed from Thailand and Lebanon and the Ukraine to the coffee mecca of Seattle; hometown fave Phuong Tran, who swept the U.S. championships last month, has appeared with loyal fans in tow.

This room full of caffeine freaks is astoundingly mellow. The obvious comparison is to the Olympics, but the WBC really is more like a United Nations of espresso lovers. Competitors are quick to praise each other; friendships are brewed out of mutual admiration.

At the same time, the contenders — all having won top honors in their respective countries — hope to hone the intricacies of a perfect shot, and filter their know-how down to the average corner coffee shop.

“Everybody has his own technique, and it should stay like that,” says Dutch champ Donar Teunissen. “It’s like the Formula One. If there’s new stuff, then five years later, you see it in normal cars.”

12 perfect drinks
What differentiates true baristas from mere java jockeys?

Forget your local Starbucks. Their spectral presence lurks (it is Seattle) but the three dozen competitors display a world of talent you’ve never seen unless your neighborhood coffee house is downright obsessive.

Competitors are expected to pull a perfect shot of espresso in 20 to 30 seconds. That’s where any similarity to your average cup ends.

Each competitor receives 45 minutes: a quarter-hour each to set up, serve 12 beverages and leave their station pristine. Technical judges poke and prod the equipment, reviewing the most niggling details. Espresso pucks must be firm and smooth even after extraction; machine heads must be clean, grinds must be just right. Any small glitch and points are deducted.

Four sensory judges stand at a makeshift countertop, waiting to be served three drinks apiece: espresso, cappuccino and a competitor’s signature drink, which can take months to invent.

First, the espresso itself must be perfection incarnate — just the right balance of sweet, bitter and acid, with just the right consistency and color of crema, the foamy mass atop the shot.  Quality is key; many competitors even roast their own coffee.

Next, milk. Cappuccinos must balance coffee flavor and the textures of both steamed and frothed milk. None of these even vaguely resemble one of those everyday drinks that throw a dollop of milky foam atop bitter coffee. These must taste like liquid velvet. Most are finished with latte art: intricate patterns drawn atop the cup by carefully manipulating the milk pitcher.

Finally, the signature drink — at which point a barista’s role transcends mere coffee and enters the chef’s realm. These drinks can feature anything (except alcohol) though judges have hinted they prefer drinks that highlight the espresso, rather than drowning it in sugar and syrup. Blenders, mixers and portable burners are a common sight. 

New Zealand champ Carl Sara, a six-year veteran, came armed with Insomnia, a mix of espresso with honey, ground cinnamon, mandarin orange peel and a bit of cream on top. As a coup de grace, he served the shot-sized drinks atop a platter of dry ice, to whoops and gasps from the 500-strong crowd.

“Still no doubt when you finish the drink, it’s coffee,” noted his father Kelvyn, rooting from the front row.

Perfect concoctions alone won’t advance you to the finals. The barista has become the focal point of the entire coffee industry — part chef, part server, part host, part sommelier, and then some. Each part must be performed almost simultaneously, in mere seconds, all while making change and small talk. “You want the whole experience that embodies the café,” said Bronwen Serna, last year’s U.S. champ.

Points are awarded for flair, and can be deducted for even the tiniest faults, like forgetting to serve sugar. Personality is crucial, and competitors must treat judges like customers, even setting the table and presenting them with menus. Danish champ Troels Overdal Poulsen asked judges to “imagine this happening in a restaurant” — as a coffee course to complete a grand meal.

Moreover, competitors are expected to engage in a chatty patois as they work, talking the judges through their routine. It can be a nerve-wracking game of expectations; precise descriptions of flavors in each drink must match what judges actually taste.

As if this weren’t enough, judges check that each cup is identical in taste, appearance and temperature. A single command performance is impressive, but competitors must achieve the same peak results with each drink over two days of preliminary rounds and a third day of finals.

“If you’re getting a good cup one day, you want to get the same cup the next day,” said Justin Metcalf, a Melbourne, Australia, coffee consultant and the WBC’s head judge.

A truly global contest
The Olympic comparison fails in another way, unless you’re thinking of handball or kayaking: The WBC is by no means dominated by the United States, even the North Americans. In the competition’s six-year history, only two North Americans have reached the finals, including Piccolo, who made it twice. The Scandinavians have an uncanny knack for winning; Norwegians or Danes captured four of five previous titles.

Still, being the best barista in America is no mean feat. Tran, who runs Lava Java in Ridgefield, Wash., and trains baristas at Seattle’s Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea, hoped to wow judges with her Crimson Sage latte, made with a hint of white pepper and sage-infused milk. She was downcast after failing to reach the finals, but intends to focus on coaching. (Yes, baristas have coaches.)

“We had a good chance,” she said. “It was a good opportunity for us because it was in Seattle.”

Piccolo, who brought his own sizable cheering section across the border, worked in a blur of frenetic energy. He sweatily dashed about his station, chatting with judges in English and broken Italian (one judge was Italian), then lifting his arms in triumph with just seconds on the clock after serving his final drink — Hemispheres, a mix of coffee zabaglione, vanilla chantilly and caramelized pear. “I try to use the whole 15 minutes,” he said.

In the end, he placed third and will retire from the world circuit. He’s 26.

One of the WBC’s coups has been to draw competitors from what they call “grower countries” like India and Costa Rica, where coffee is actually planted. This year, for the first time, they welcomed an African competitor.

“We only use the finest coffee in the world — Kenyan,” said barista Dominic Ruo Munge of Nairobi Java House, which operates five shops and a roasting facility.

Munge grew up picking beans on a 6,000-acre coffee estate. Visits to coffee-milling stations perked an interest in the rest of the process.

Troels Overdal Poulsen, a barista from Copenhagen, Denmark, smiles after receiving the trophy for winning the World Barista Championship Monday, April 18, 2005, in Seattle. Poulsen beat out contestants from more than 30 other countries to win the competition. Baristas each had 15 minutes to prepare and serve judges four espressos, four cappuccinos and four beverages of their own creation. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)Ted S. Warren / AP

After learning how coffee was sorted and graded, he won a training scholarship and has been behind the counter for four years now. He roasted his competition Kenyan AA beans himself, and after landing in Seattle, left them on a cold window sill to maintain peak flavor.

Munge’s view of coffee culture is downright philosophical; he describes it as a bridge between developed and developing nations. And you have to believe him when he points out that his customers’ love of coffee is a world away from the Starbucks drive-through: “For a Kenyan to take a coffee worth a dollar, he has to think twice.”

‘Peace of mind’
In the end, the Danes won the day again this year — no huge surprise since Copenhagen’s Café Europa, where Poulsen works, produced two other world champs. 

Poulsen’s drink was a deconstructed masterpiece: mild melted pepper in a porcelain spoon, then sweetened espresso and cold lavender syrup.

“I’ve never seen so many different elements in one coffee,” said Indian contender Sanjeev Kumar.

Poulsen was casual and relaxed, the very model of a carefree server as he rapidly produced flawless coffees. No mean feat for a man who drinks five espressos a day. He practiced for months to keep his nerves at bay, and it paid off.

“I managed to find peace of mind,” Poulsen said. “It came out that I was calm when it counted.”