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
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
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.