Brewing for the Hometeam

Wolfie Barn takes his turn behind the steamer.

I've fancied myself a more than capable coffee connoisseur since learning how to make my very own cappuccino on a countertop espresso machine in my kitchen. After months of trial and error, I'd satisfactorily determined how long to pull the espresso shot and steam the milk for my personal enjoyment.

I thought I was in a league of my own. Yeah, I was wrong.

Any ounce of brewing pride I had ever harbored boiled away instantly the moment I stepped off of the 7W Event Studios elevator in Midtown Manhattan and onto the floor of the Coffee and Tea Fest NYC this past Saturday. The labyrinth of stands and booths that snaked through the room before me offered everything: tutorials on Japanese tea ceremonies, secrets of optimized caffeine extraction, and live Tarot card and tealeaf readings. 

Tucked in the back corner of the show floor was the reason I was here: the Northeast Regional Barista Competition.

[PHOTOS: Brewing for the Hometeam]

Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the scene's cool intimidation. The competing barista stood front and center, fully outfitted with a microphone, effortlessly pouring iced caffeine cocktails into champagne coupes, all while describing the coffee bean's aromatic traits. Two judges with clipboards hovered and four other tasting judges stared stonily.

After watching several barista presentations, I suddenly felt as though I'd never tasted a true cup of coffee in my life, not to mention I was painfully underdressed. Everywhere I looked, there stood dapper vest-clad competitors, each sporting his or her choice of plaid bowtie, leather suspenders, or tattoo sleeve.

When I finally met up with Boston baristas Daria Whalen and Wolfie Barn backstage in the preparation room, they seemed unfazed by the 26 other competitors buzzing about the room as they polished their dishware one last time.

Daria Whalen competes as the judges look on.

After transporting a coffee grinder the size of a nightstand from the Newbury Street Espresso Royale to New York via Amtrak, along with eight other bags filled with all the coffee beans, saucers, cups, and accessories needed to compete, this stage seems relatively easy. Besides the expected nerves and stage jitters, the pair seemed at ease.

[READ: "Boston baristas brace for regional competition," by Andrew McFarland.]

"One good thing is that Wolfie and I have tried to be honest," Whalen says as she juices bunches of green grapes in preparation for her signature drink. "If it's like a script, it's impossible to remember."

"Once I started, I was fine. I've done so many run-throughs, it was like tunnel vision," Barn says, who opened his presentation with individually printed menus outlining his presentation. He christened it: "tea time with this mother."

"When I made eye contact with those judges, they smiled back at me," he says.

Using the spirit of that moment you taste your first, great cup of coffee for inspiration, Whalen coolly completed her signature drink, an acidic, yet sweet, blend of grape juice and Papua New Guinean espresso, with plenty of time to spare.

Although they were unable to place in the finals--New York City baristas swept five out of the six slots--Whalen and Barn expressed only enthusiasm for the success of their fellow contenders, who they'd grown to know over the weekend.

"I'm just glad it's over," Whalen says, adding that the dedicated time and effort she spent bettering herself and her craft was worth it--definitely something that will last long after the scent of coffee fades from the 11th floor of the 7W Event Studios.

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