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Tales from the Back Room: L.A. Competes in the US Barista Championship in Boston

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The US Barista Championship represents a small fraction of the competitions and activities at the SCAA annual conference in Boston, but it can be a deal breaker in the careers of baristas, turning them into rock stars in the eyes of us coffee geeks. This year, the competition took place on April 11-14, and Angeleno baristas showed up strong.

More than 150 baristas competed in six Regional Barista Competitions to be whittled down to the final 50 that qualified for the 10th annual USBC. Once there, each contestant had 15 minutes to prepare four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks for seven judges.

And their creations are wild. Take, for example, 2012 US Barista Champion Katie Carguilo, who makes her signature drink with jasmine green tea, nectarine, lemon, sugar, vinegar, carbonated water, and Haru -- a washed Ethiopian espresso. Might sound odd for a cup of coffee, but seeing our nation’s best baristas bravely challenging traditional conceptions about what makes up a well-rounded cup is exactly why the competition is so exciting. Also, the drink tastes damn good. And the buzz ain't bad either.

This year’s winner Pete Licata of Kansas City’s Parisi Coffee impressed judges on specific criteria such as taste, presentation, technical abilities, and cleanliness. L.A.'s Charles Babinski, who is the "B" in G&B, placed second for the second year in a row. (Babinksi will soon move the G&B coffee concept from SQIRL to a former Baskin-Robbins in Larchmont, and will open another location inside the about-to-be-revamped Grand Central Market.)

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Using espresso from Vancouver’s 49th Parallel and a signature drink served in ceramic bowls, Babinski once again wowed the crowd -- and the judges -- this year. That feat alone should make L.A. proud, but he also represented us as the Southwest Regional Brewers Cup Champ, took second place in the US Latte Art Exhibition, and participated in the US Cup Tasters Championship. He hustled like a true Angeleno.

Also proudly representing L.A. was barista Jonathen Liu of Cognoscenti Coffee in Culver City and Atwater Village’s Proof Bakery. Discussing the role of the USBC at the SCAA conference, Liu explains, “It definitely serves as a platform to raise awareness about the time, care, and skill level of the specialty coffee barista. It's the one time of the year, when I can honestly say, you see baristas bringing out everything they've been thinking about, everything they've been wanting to share, but just haven't had the platform to. I think it's incredibly necessary for our industry because it pushes our industry to constantly think forward, to connect more with the general public.”

On a more personal level, he says, “I love L.A., but the best part of USBC is seeing friends who don't live here, and making new ones from around the world.”

Like any trade show, the long weekend of competition (and socializing), can become quite tiring no matter how many espressos you enjoy. Babinski recently tweeted to Northwest Regional Barista Champion and 4th place finisher Sam Lewontin of New York City’s Everyman Espresso, “It’s great to be back to serving real customers too. Always surprised by how many actually watch the comps.” Also back to sunny and manhunt-free Los Angeles is Frank La representing L.A.'s Cafe Dulce and Truman Severson and Ryan Redden of Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa.

Of course, the problem with all this competition and newfound geekery within the coffee cognoscenti is that sometimes baristas forget the element of customer service. In fact, being a barista at a high-end coffee bar is associated with the same snobbery that plagued the world of mixology. The challenge facing both craft cocktail bartenders and specialty coffee baristas is taking pride in the quality and presentation of the final product without forgetting that personal and exceptional customer service is just as important for success.

These skills are highlighted during the Brewers Cup finals. While the barista competition involving espresso gets the most attention, complete with debates over contestant’s song choices, the Brewers Cup is a beautiful back to basics reminder of what being a specialty coffee professional means on a day to day basis. Instead of trying to invent a new approach or drink, this competition highlights the skills and techniques required to consistently make a great cup of coffee while providing excellent customer service day in and day out.

Erin McCarthy of Counter Culture New York beat out colleague Jonathan Bonchak to become Brewers Cup champion by displaying tremendous knowledge, affability, and technical skill. Coffee is such an inviting and rewarding crop, but the complexities of a hand brewed single origin coffee can be intimidating to the uninitiated. McCarthy successfully used humor and a personal touch to inform the audience about Counter Culture’s Esmeralda Geisha “Leon” coffee without lecturing. "Geisha varietal is the Meryl Streep of coffee. If a film has Meryl, I know it has potential to be great.”

Now that's something that Hollywood -- and all Angelenos -- can relate to.

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