The road to the Super Cup
Luke Shaffer of 21st Street Coffee and Tea will be competing in the Barista Competition in Cranberry in February.
Rich Westerfield, from Upper St. Clair, owner of Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon.
Mike Hirshberg, from Upper St. Clair, a barista at Blue Horse Coffee in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., will be competing in the Specialty Coffee Association's Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition in February.
Kathy Walsh, from Upper St. Clair, a barista at Blue Horse Coffee in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., will be competing in the Specialty Coffee Association''s Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition in February.
Lauren Drake, from Upper St. Clair, a barista at Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon, Pa. for 3 years, will be competing in the Specialty Coffee Association''s Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition in February.
Michelle Allen, a barista at Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon, Pa. for 2 1/2 years, will be competing in the Specialty Coffee Association''s Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition in February.
Frank Battista, from Mt. Lebanon, a barista at Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon, Pa. for 3 years, will be competing in the Specialty Coffee Association''s Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition in February.
Drew von Arx of 21st Street Coffee and Tea will be competing in the Barista Competition in February.
Emily Jackson, of East Liberty, barista at Tazza D''Oro.
Zach Selekman, of Freindship, a barista at Tazza D'Oro.
Braden Walter, of Bloomfield, barista at Tazza D'Oro.
Dana Waeld of Bloomfield is a barista at Crazy Mocha''s Oakland location.
Bruce Burman of Butler is a barista at Kairo's Coffee and Tea.
Rocky Raco of Mt. Lebanon is a barista at LaBella Bean.
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Not everyone can make it to Tampa to watch the Steelers take on the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. But next weekend, you'll get another chance to watch the home team defend another heavily contested title, and you'll only have to go as far as Cranberry to show your Pittsburgh pride: Feb. 6 to 8, 30 baristas from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C. will be throwing down at the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Competition.
And, since no one stepped up to host the Northeast Regional Competition, it's taking place in Cranberry as well, which means baristas from some of the best cafes in the Northeast, including well-known spots like Gimme! Coffee and Everyman Espresso, will be coming to Cranberry to compete.
This year is the first time the competition has been held in the Pittsburgh area, so coffee lovers will not want to miss this opportunity to learn more about the art of espresso, mingle with all kinds of coffee professionals and watch as baristas put their skills to the test. As an added draw, pastry chefs from a number of Cranberry-area restaurants and bakeries -- including North Country Brewing Co., Springfield Grill, Sweethouse Bake Shop and Fresh Cup Cafe -- will prepare an array of desserts each day, perfect accompaniments to a specialty coffee drink. The chefs also will perform recipe demonstrations each day. Admission to the competition is free, but a ticket to the dessert buffet costs $10 (or $8 if purchased by Feb. 5 from kivahan.com/barista). Proceeds from dessert and coffee bar sales will be donated to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Pittsburgh baristas not only have home team advantage, but they're also the defending champions: Belle Battista, previously of Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon, took home the trophy last year. Of course, that means that for Pittsburgh baristas, the stakes are very high. "Pittsburgh baristas really have to bring it home," said Drew von Arx, 27, a barista at 21st Street Coffee in the Strip District and Downtown, who'll be competing for the first time.
Ed Wethli, owner of Kiva Han Coffee, the primary sponsor of the event, hopes that the competition will bring exposure to the Pittsburgh-area coffee scene, and for many of the baristas, that's the most exciting part. "We have a really great coffee community here. There's quality representation in the product and people," said Frank Battista, 28. A barista at Aldo, he also happens to be married to last year's MARBC champion.
Competitors each will have 15 minutes to prepare 12 drinks -- four espressos, four traditional cappuccinos and four signature drinks of their own creation. They'll be judged on the technical aspects of the drinks, on their appearance and on their taste. They'll also be judged on everything from the music they play to how well they discuss the coffee beans they've chosen, all while they're preparing drinks and serving the judges. All competitors must use the provided Nuova Simonelli espresso machines, though they can bring their own coffee grinders and must provide the rest of their equipment.
For many, the competition is about validating career choices as much as the potential for glory. "It's not as easy as it looks," explained Katy Walsh, 25, a barista at Blue Horse who also competed at last year's MARBC. Emily Jackson, 27, the staff trainer at Tazza D'Oro coffee in Highland Park, will also be competing for the second time. She hopes observers will leave with a greater understanding of the product and of what being a barista actually requires: "[Coffee] has to be properly roasted, properly picked, properly processed, everything has to be in line. The barista is a skilled craftsperson; it's not just making coffee."
- Where: Pittsburgh Marriott North, 100 Cranberry Woods Drive, Cranberry.
- When: Competition rounds will take place throughout the day from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 6, and Feb. 7; the final rounds will be held between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Feb. 8.
- Cost: Admission to the event is free; Admission to the dessert bar and one beverage costs $10 ($8 if purchased at www.kivahan.com/barista before Feb. 5); specialty coffee beverages, $3 each. All food and beverage proceeds will be donated to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
- More Info: For more information on ???For the Love of Coffee,??? visit kivahan.com/barista or call 724-742-2326
Winners of the regional competitions secure spots in (as well as all-expenses paid trips to) the final round of the United States Barista Championship, which will be held this year in Portland, Ore. March 5 through 8. The winner of that will represent the U.S. at the Barista Championship in Atlanta April 16 through 19. Winners of the U.S. and world championships are celebrities in the coffee world, and scoring well in even regional competitions can help baristas advance professionally. Baristas with aspirations to stay in coffee aren't limited to someday owning their own cafe, though some certainly want to pursue that path. Mr. von Arx of 21st Street hopes to get a job on the production side of coffee someday, while Ms. Jackson of Tazza D'Oro hopes to be able to educate other baristas and customers about coffee on a larger scale. Lauren Drake, 21, of Aldo hopes someday to be able to combine her love of coffee with her degree in communications.
For now these baristas are focused on mastering the components of the competition. At the very least, baristas want to make credible drinks and finish within the time frame. At a training session held at Kiva Han coffee a few weeks ago, Luke Shaffer, 32, co-owner of 21st Street, lead a practice session for a small group of competitors. "We'll pull 10 doubles in a row, we'll time ourselves, critique ourselves and we'll weigh our overground coffee to see how we did," he explained to his riveted, and nervous, audience.
At Blue Horse in Mt. Lebanon, Katy Walsh and Mike Hirshberg are practicing two nights a week for two to three hours on a borrowed Nuova Simonelli, "pulling shots and steaming milk," explained Ms. Walsh. The two traveled to Durham, N.C. to get training from their roasters -- Counter Culture -- and to try out the competition machine.
Every decision baristas make, from the type of coffee beans they select to the way they describe their signature drinks, will have an effect on their scores. Dana Waelde of Crazy Mocha will use a blend of five beans she's developed herself, with the help of Kiva Han Coffee Roasters.
Though baristas aren't neglecting any section when it comes to practicing, one component was most often described as the most challenging: The signature drink. According to the contest rules, signature drinks must contain a minimum of one shot of espresso, a dominant taste of espresso must be present, and "the judges must be able to drink it." Also, the drinks can't contain any alcohol, alcohol extracts or illegal substances. Other than that, the sky's the limit, and past signature drinks have run the gamut from delicious to disgusting to just plain weird. "It takes a little bit of chef skills...being able to discern with the palate what goes well with what coffee," explained Ms. Jackson of Tazza D'Oro.
Ms. Jackson's drink last year was a play on a macchiato, with a base of raw cocoa mixed with heavy whipping cream, a shot of espresso and milk foam with orange zest and dried cherries.
Ms. Battista won with a drink called sipa de Espana made from espresso with olive oil, salt, chocolate and a breadstick. As she prepared the drink, Ms. Battista talked about time she'd spent in Spain. Having a good story can be as important as having a good drink, because stories are the best way to help coffee-drinkers connect with the intricacies of specialty coffee.
Of course, the drink also needs to taste good, so having a good palate and some kitchen skills can give you a leg up. We'll see if it helps Bruce Burman, previously of Kairos Coffee and Tea, who was a fine dining chef before he switched to coffee.
We'll soon know whether Pittsburgh can hold onto its coffee bragging rights, but win or lose, if these baristas have anything to do with it, the future of Pittsburgh coffee is very bright.
First Published January 29, 2009 12:00 am