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Tuesday, April 11, 2006 

Coffee artists grind toward national title

An article from Kathleen Purvis in the Charlotte Observer looks at the U.S. Barista Championship, held at the Specialty Coffee Association of America's national conference in Charlotte.

The championship started Friday with 50 competitors, including several from the Carolinas. No Carolinas baristas made it to Monday's finals. But they could have, says Taylor: "Carolina locals have really improved. This area is coming up."

In the contest, the stage was set up with three stands to re-create coffee bars. Each had a three-spout espresso machine, a grinder loaded with specially chosen beans, a work space and a bar. Four judges stood behind the bar, waiting for baristas to serve them 12 drinks in 15 minutes.

"It's supposed to be the five-star dining experience," said Taylor.

Four sensory judges taste the coffee, looking for flavor, aroma, consistency, presentation and temperature. Two technical judges get in closer, looking for cleanliness, technique and machine operation.

Judge Brent Fortune, owner of Crema in Portland, Ore., was finished with his duties, so he sat with us to explain the action:

Arm position is important. When baristas put ground coffee in the handled filter, they have to shape the mound just right, then flatten it.

"Water's lazy," Fortune explains. "It wants to find the shortest route." So the grounds must be even.

Then, baristas press the grounds down with a tamper. This action is vital. A barista makes this movement over and over for hours. Do it with your arm at the wrong angle, and you can eventually hurt yourself.

Plus, it takes 30 to 40 pounds of pressure to press the grounds firmly. So you have to have your arm straight, with your elbow over your wrist.

"This is the stuff we geek out about," said Fortune. "There's a lot of science."

Some other tidbits and information:

*Cappuccino is harder to make than espresso. For espresso, you just need great coffee and the proper grind. For cappuccino, you need great coffee and great milk.

• "A big part of the cappuccino is the texture of the milk." At the U.S. Barista Championships, most finalists used certified-organic whole milk.

• Steaming brings out the sugar in milk, giving cappuccino some sweetness. The balance between the milk and coffee is important. Fortune looks at how far down the milk foam extends.

• "Latte art" is when baristas top cappuccinos with a pattern in the foam. (see above right)

• A traditional pour is topping cappuccino with a circle of foam. Judges want to see a brown tinge of espresso all the way around the cup, "so no matter where you sip, you get coffee flavor."