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Professionally Speaking
USBC Perspectives 2009
Author: Sammy Piccolo
Posted: March 20, 2009
Article rating: 8.1
feedback: (5) comments | read | write
Baby Sal next to Barista Competition Sign

What else can I say about the United States Barista Championship that hasn't been said already - it rocked!

I was totally pumped to go to back to Portland, Oregon. The last time I was there was in 2003 for the (now defunct) NASCOR tradeshow when it hosted the North West Regional Barista Competition. Coffee and competitions have come such a long way since then. The 2009 USBC had a dedicated media room, stadium seating, live internet broadcast, live chat, competitor interviews posted almost instantly, a fashion review and way more tattoos than ever!

Competitions are a really unique gathering of some of the most talented baristas in the country. I am always inspired, excited and re-energized about the barista craft and the exciting possibilities within coffee and the industry.

The drive from Vancouver, Canada seemed to take forever. But a stop at Greenlake Zoka Coffee House location in Seattle helped break up the trip and provide much needed espresso. There were so many places on our list to stop, but time was tight. Zoka always tops my list. The barista there, without question, was passionate enough about their craft to redo the espresso until perfection. And I indulged in one of their amazing scones. A new fan of Zoka Coffee is my three year old boy, Sal.

I really looked forward to seeing some of my old Portland friends compete. Phoung Tran (of Lava Java, and the 2005 USBC champion) is an awesome barista and it was great to see her back in competition. Billy Wilson is also great to see, although he's been extra busy lately. He became a new father to a baby girl and also opened BARISTA, his new cafe located in Portland in the same week. He opted out of the competition this year because of these major events. Understandable. Hope to see you back on stage soon, Billy.

At BARISTA Billy currently serves coffee from Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Ecco Caffe. I had a good shot there every time I went and he had an awesome siphon set up. I had a great shot of single origin Brasil roasted by Ecco, I had a nice Ethiopian on the Syphon roasted by Intelligentsia, and an excellent shot of Stumptown's Hair Bender.

Phuong Tran Phuong Tran
Phuong Tran, back in the heat of the action
Working on her drinks
Billy Wilson siphon coffee
Billy Wilson, tending bar at BARISTA
Siphon coffee brewers at BARISTA

I didn't get to see as much of the USBC as I had hoped. Bringing my little boy meant I had to play with trains in the hotel and watch what I could online. We also hopped the street trains and the two of us toured some great cafes in the city. Lots of cafes carry Stumptown coffee. And it was excellent each time - a sign of a city that takes coffee seriously.

The finals of the USBC were awesome. I'm impressed with the level of quality and focus on coffee. All baristas performed at their peak and the scores were going to be tight. Each barista brought his own touch to the performance; Mike Marquardt (Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Co., St. Louis) was impressive with his "Boo-ya" rhino apron and cool sig drink. He lit tobacco and added an aromatic element to signature drink. Cool.

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Mike Phillips, before he was champion
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Chaos in the barista prep area
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2008 Canadian Barista Champion Mike Yung, tech judge for USBC
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Jay Caragay and Pete Licata

Devin Pedde (from Intelligentsia, LA) was polished, smooth and confident. His signature drink also elevated the coffee experience by incorporating spontaneous fruit selections from the judges into his Belgian brewer. Unlike in the semi-finals his brewer brews without a hitch and I think his performance was a stand-out. He involves the judges and I hope that is something they embrace. Sometimes judges aren't ready for innovation or a challenge to the norm or expectations of what baristas do in competitions. And too often this minimizes the risks that baristas will take when competing. Maybe the creativity box should be re-titled "innovation". Creative gets confusing to what judges are really thinking when they score this box, but for innovation and 'creation' these finalists delivered! At the end of the 15 minutes, the evaluation is up to the judges, the coffee performance is all for them - to showcase to them our talent as a barista and our knowledge and appreciation for coffee. The more engaged the judges are the better.

Scott Lucey (Alterra Coffee, Milwaukee, WI). Cool, relaxed and with the best signature drink name I've heard - Liquid Swords. He serves a single origin espresso from Colombia. He cannot say enough about it. Well done.

Nick Griffith (Intelligentsia, LA) also served a single origin espresso. His is from Guatemala. His shots looked amazing and his sig drink was quite interesting. More involvement of the judges. I'm liking this movement. He was so polished he had a great command of the stage. Knowledgeable, well spoken and professional. All the qualities of a champion. It was a pleasure to meet him and his family.

Ryan Wilbur (Intelligentsia, LA). Pulling single origin Guatemala shots and providing great coffee information. His shots look good. His style is interesting - I can't seem to keep up with the fashion these days, I wonder if I can pull off those skinny jeans!

And finally, Michael Phillips (Intelligentsia, Chicago). His espresso was a single origin Bolivia. The most memorable performances are when the barista is dedicated, thoughtful, innovative and in control. And with killer drinks. From my perspective, Mike had all of these. He adjusted his grind for different drinks and separated his shots to provide a range of taste experiences in his signature drink. He pushed boundaries, which was cool and did it all with a balance of humility and passion. Well done!

I had to get back on the road right after Mike's performance. But technology connects us like never before and news travels at the speed of light. Heading along the I-5 the text messages came in. With every announcement I tried to predict the order of the remaining finalists. I couldn't. The WBC this year is going to be better than ever. The talent in one competition room is going to be crazy! Come on; let's show the world what baristas can do.

Sammy Piccolo is a professional Barista and cafe Manager at Caffè Artigiano in Burnaby, BC, Canada. After winning the first three Canadian Barista championships in 2003 - 2005, Sammy recently came back to win the 2008 Canadian Barista Championships held in October 2008 at the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show in Montreal, and he will be representing Canada at the World Barista Championship coming up in Atlanta, USA in April 2009. You can connect with Sammy, follow his training, and ask him questions at: twitter.com/SammyPiccolo.

Article rating: 8.1
Author: Sammy Piccolo
Posted: March 20, 2009
feedback: (5) comments | read | write
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With each new Professionally Speaking feature article, you'll read the words of a professional in the coffee industry, addressing issues that matter most to other industry members. Topics will include commercial roasting, green bean buying, staffing and managing a cafe, and anything else related to the business of doing coffee.

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