Boston baristas brace for regional brewing competition

Wolfie Barn practices his technique

A barista competition might not evoke images of training sessions lasting into the night, or enough blood, sweat and tears to fill a few espresso demitasse cups, but for the last two months, this has been Daria Whalen and Wolfie Barn's reality.

After closing up shop at Espresso Royale Coffee on Commonwealth Ave every night, Whalen and Barn resume their spots behind the counter for some rigorous practice in preparation for the Northeast Regional Barista Competition. Under the steady eye of their coach, veteran judge Ryan Soeder, they've pulled countless espresso shots, perfected foam patterns, and studied the art of "at origin" coffee production, long after the evening's caffeine has fizzled out.

The rules of the competition, which takes place February 25-26 at the 7W Event Studios in New York, are straight-forward: make three rounds of drinks. Each competitor has 15 minutes to produce four espresso shots, four cappuccinos, and finally four "signature" drinks of their own choosing---Whalen has concocted an espresso shot mixed with grape juice, and Barn will be serving an iced Earl Grey with espresso and an orange twist in a stemless wine glass.

Oh, and they do this while entertaining and educating their panel of four tasting judges on the history of their particular blend, as two technical judges monitor their every move. No pressure.

Appearances are everything; even the chosen cups and saucers factor into routines, or "presentations," and the resulting atmosphere is a tension-packed cross between a Master Sommelier exam and an Olympic diving competition.

The regional, national, and international levels of the competition are a Mecca for those involved in the ever-expanding world of artisan coffee. This weekend's competition is held in conjuction with The Coffee and Tea Festival, a trade goods expo next door.

Whalen and Barn, along with Calen Robinette of Voltage Coffee and Jonathan Montanez of Render Coffee, are set to represent Boston area baristas.The Espresso Royale duo received sponsorships from Counter Culture Coffee and Pavement Coffee, after approaching the cafés for support.

As first-time competitors, Whalen and Barn can appreciate the somewhat ridiculous nature of the contest while understanding that it's all a part of the game. As a result, they haven't cut any corners in preparing their presentations.

"All of the sudden, I'm in this world where this is completely normal," Whalen says, as she describes connoisseurs coming to blows over which Ethiopian farm produces the best coffee bean.

With over four years of barista experience between them, Whalen and Barn see the competition as an opportunity to develop their skills and push the limits of their beloved brew.

While the skills they've garnered might earn them recognition from their peers, Whalen and Barn can only hope that their expertise will be appreciated by the judges they interact with every day: their customers.

"For a customer, I think it's hard to see what makes one espresso shot better than another," Barn jokes. "In some ways, it's a shame that it's not just about making tasty coffee."



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