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The Espresso Olympics

June 24, 2010

This may come as a surprise, but I am not a big sports fan.  Sure, I like to take in the occasional ball game.  I enjoy going to the ballpark and having a beer outside and some tasty vittles from the concession stands.  But outside of the Super Bowl, watching sports on television holds little appeal.

Golf is the worst.

It’s really slow.  Not a lot happens.  And the stuff that does happen you can’t see very well.  Seriously, I can never see the ball as it flies through the air.  Hopefully that problem has been fixed with modern technology, but it’s been a long time since I’ve accidentally stumbled upon a televised golf event.

Still, avid golf fans are mysteriously transfixed to the tube.  For them it’s completely captivating.  After today, I think I have a better understanding of that phenomenon.

You may not be aware, but right now, this very instant, the World Barista Championships are underway in London.  And you can tune into all the action for free, right now from your computer, thanks to live streaming of the event.

I spent more time watching this yesterday than I care to admit.

If you did not click on the link above, and are instead biding your time until the semi-finals and finals on Friday, let me tell you a bit about what you will see.

Each competitor has 15 minutes to make three rounds of drinks for four sensory judges while two technical judges observe every movement the barista makes.  One round of drinks is a straight shot of espresso, another round is a traditional cappuccino, and the remaining round is a signature espresso-based drink.

I’ve heard stories that truly serious baristas shun this competition because frilly signature drinks are beneath them.  But it may just be sour grapes.

After all, pulling rich espresso shots with a generous layer of crema and creating silky textured milk without a trace of large bubbles is a craft.  And when it is honed and perfected, there is precious little to differentiate between two masters, each using equally fine ingredients.  The signature drink will likely always be the tiebreaker.

Watching some of these people work is truly amazing.  Listening to them describe the flavors of their coffee is mouthwatering.  To some I could imagine how these descriptions could sound like pretentious snobbery.  But it is really rare to find exceptional coffee and people who have the tools and the ability to brew it.

You can watch the American barista’s performance from yesterday’s first round.  His name is Mike Phillips and he works at Intelligentsia in Chicago.  Chicago isn’t that far away, right?

Anyhow, he took third place in the World Barista Championship last year.  But the U.S.A. has never brought home the gold in the ten years since this competition began.  Maybe in this eleventh year, Mike will show those Europeans and Scandinavians what we’ve got.

So watch.  Cheer for your country.  And know, if you are a sports fan, that I don’t get what you like about that either.

Thank you to the good folks at Cartel Coffee Lab for tweeting about this yesterday.  Those people out in the desert do some great things with coffee.  Truly.  And I still want to do a long-distance interview over email with them, so I can write a proper post on their glory.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. StanfordSteph permalink
    June 24, 2010 10:09 am

    There goes my productivity for the day.

  2. June 24, 2010 7:35 pm

    Only watched a few (maybe half an hour) yesterday before work, and it’s kind of addicting.

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