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This weekend, 46 baristas from eight states and the District of Columbia assembled in a banquet room at the Pittsburgh Marriott North hotel in Cranberry to test their skills in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Regional Barista Competitions.
A "barista" refers to someone who has acquired skill in the art of making espresso-based drinks. At the regional competitions run by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, competitors make and serve four espressos, four traditional-style cappuccinos and four servings of a signature drink, all in 15 minutes. At the same time, they must describe what they're doing to the judges and explain details of their individual presentations, such as the beans they've selected to use in their coffee and the story behind their signature drinks.
Seven judges score each competitor: two technical judges who focus on how the baristas make the drinks, four sensory judges who evaluate the appearance and taste of the drinks and a head judge who monitors the other judges.
This year was the first time the competition has been held in Western Pennsylvania. Ed Wethli, owner of Kiva Han Coffee, which acted as host, was responsible for bringing the event to Cranberry.
After two grueling days of competition, the entrants were winnowed to six finalists from each region.
Though many Pittsburgh-area baristas competed, only one made the finals -- Dana Waelde, a self-trained barista who manages the Oakland branch of the Crazy Mocha Coffee Co.
Ms. Waelde, who has been with Crazy Mocha for eight years, worked with Kiva Han Coffee Roasters to create her own pre-roast blend, including beans from Ethiopia, Brazil, Sumatra and Tanzania. She asked the judges to take note of "the dark chocolate from the Sumatra and the blueberry notes from the Ethiopian [beans]."
Barista competitors select beans based on their flavor profiles and then design signature drinks to bring out these flavors without overwhelming the taste of the coffee. Ms. Waelde's signature drink, called the Cafe Cioccolato, was inspired by the flavors in the bean and the traditional Italian drink the shakerato, which consists of espresso and sugar shaken with ice then strained into a glass. Ms. Waelde's version incorporated spicy chocolate, cinnamon, orange, honey and almond milk.
Belle Battista (previously of Aldo Coffee) was the 2008 winner of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista competition. At 4:45 p.m. yesterday, she passed her crown to Katie Duris of Murky Coffee in Arlington, Va.
Ms. Duris' signature drink incorporated flavors of fig, almond and chocolate. She used a Counter Culture blend of beans in the first round, then switched to a blend from PT's Coffee out of Kansas City. "My shop uses beans from both roasters ... I wanted to recognize both of those relationships," she explained. This was Ms. Duris' third competition.
Amber Sather of New York City took first place in the Northeast regional competition. This is Ms. Sather's fifth competition season. She won the 2008 North-Eastern Regional Barista Competition and has been a finalist in the United States Barista Championship several times.
Though Pittsburgh may have given up some barista bragging rights, the competition reaped other rewards for the area.
Late yesterday afternoon, preliminary numbers suggested that more than 2,000 people attended over three days. Nick Cho, president of Murky Coffee and a board member for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, called it the best-attended regional competition in the event's history.
Mr. Wethli and his staff brought together sponsors and other businesses to create a small trade show, as well as a dessert and coffee bar, to appeal to a general public that might not be interested solely in the competitive aspects of the event.
For $10, visitors could try up to three desserts, as well as a specialty coffee beverage from the Crazy Mocha espresso bar. Guest baristas, along with Crazy Mocha staff, took turns behind the bar, giving everyone a taste of the kinds of drinks being prepared by competitors.
Mr. Wethli predicted the dessert and coffee bar raised approximately $3,000 to benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
At the Marburger Dairy table -- Marburger served as the event's dairy sponsor, providing milk for competitors who chose to use it -- visitors got to taste baked goods and other products made with Marburger milk. "It's been a great, great event, we're thrilled. ... Coffee bars make great dairy customers," said Rita Marburger.
DaVinci Gourmet handed out samples of iced chai tea and smoothies.
The competition generated greater awareness of the area's thriving coffee scene. "This weekend's Northeast and Mid-Atlantic competition was an excellent representation of where we hope to take coffee in the coming weeks, months and years," said Marcus Boni, senior events manager for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, "Kiva Han has done an amazing job of making this a well-attended event and offering a variety of different perspectives on coffee. We hope to continue this relationship and build the relationship with specialty coffee in Western Pennsylvania."
For Mr. Wethli the greatest benefit of the competition was in raising awareness of specialty coffee and of the baristas who work with it: "The people that were in there [yesterday], the people that I talked with -- average people who came because they read about it in the paper or saw me on television -- they were just astonished. They would say, 'I never knew what went into coffee.' "
Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 9, 2009) Yesterday's coverage of the regional barista competitions contained two errors. The photo caption should have said that Dana Waelde was preparing a Cafe Cioccolato; also, some of the beans used in champion barista Katie Duris' signature drink were supplied by Counter Culture.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.