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Reports From the Road
The Midwest Regional Barista Jam
Author: Aaron Duckworth
Posted: March 20, 2007
Article rating: 8.4
feedback: (0) comments | read | write

Back in late 2006, a Barista Guild of America coordinated Barista Jam was held in Topeka Kansas, hosted by PT's Coffee, and sponsored in part by CoffeeGeek.com. This was one of the first heavily publicized (in advance) Jams, especially for call outs to sponsors and participants, and as such, CoffeeGeek was happy to be involved. Aaron Duckworth was on scene, and provided this report from the event.

Day 1

Cupping at the MWRBJ

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Then some stuff happened, and then it was time for the official Barista Guild of America's Midwest Regional Barista Jam. Whoo-hoo! This gala affair was hosted by PT's Coffee Company and sponsored in part by the oh-so fabulous folks at CoffeeGeek.com (*ahem!* thanks for the beer Mark! *ahem, cough, hack*). It got done up right and the geekyness flowed like tiger-striped rat tail crema on a humid day. Okay, okay. But it was a rockin' good time.

The three-day event started with an evening reception (hosted by Senor Prince and the behind-the-scenes gods of this site) that was held at the University of Kansas - Edwards Bookstore which just happens to be where PT's Coffee Company has their newest location. Coincidence? Maybe. Anyway, there was much food, drink, and acoustic guitar playing quietly in the background. Reigning USBC Champion Matt Riddle of Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea arrived from the airport just as the festivities began. Many hands were shook and business cards were passed around. We were off to a good start.

Day 2

Baristas and barista wanna-bes were greeted the next morning with presses of various coffees. A different single origin coffee was available at each of the five espresso machine stations for pulling shots. Nothing like a single-origin Depth Charge/Shot in the Dark/Redeye to get the morning started off right.

The action started right away with one of the highlights of the entire weekend. Jeff Taylor of PT's Coffee Company and Miguel Meza of Paradise Roasters pulled out all the stops and brought out their best coffees for a triangular cupping.

In a triangular cupping, cuppers are given three cups, two of which contain the same coffee. The cuppers have to analyze the similarities and / or differences in mouthfeel, acidity, and origin / bean processing method and distinguish the one cup that is different. For example, the coffees may have identical acidity levels and types but totally different flavors. Some coffees are easy to differentiate, but some are quite difficult, especially if overall flavor is not the main difference between the cups.

On the table were the following coffees:

  • Brazil Fazenda Ipanema Dulce (PT's)
  • Brazil Yellow Bourbon - Fazenda Cachoeira (Paradise)
  • Bolivia - Calama Marka Estate (PT's)
  • Costa Rica - La Minita Estate (PT's)
  • El Salvador - Los Planes Estate (PT's)
  • El Salvador - Santa Sofia Estate (Paradise)
  • Ethiopia Kaffa Forest - Tega & Tulla (Paradise)
  • Ethiopia Natural Yergacheffe - Idido Misty Valley (Paradise)
  • Ethiopia Yergacheffe - Addis Ketema (Paradise)
  • Panama La Esmeralda Geisha (PT's)
  • Panama Palo Verde (Paradise)
  • Sumatra Gayoland (PT's)
  • Sumatra Laka Tawar (Paradise)

It was crazy...COE and "Best of..." heaven! This was a cupping of a caliber that most people only ever hear about. Facilitated by Miguel Meza of Paradise Roasters and yours truly (that'd be Aaron Duckworth of Espresso dell'Anatra), a three-hour class - one that is normally reserved for something akin to the Roaster's Guild retreat - was rushed into a little over an hour. Baristas were asked to identify each origin and guess which coffee was the odd man out. The origins and cup placement were then revealed and sheets marked for accuracy.

In the end, only one man stood tall: ROAST magazine cover boy Brian Phillips of Kansas City's Broadway Café held the lone perfect score, identifying all 27 cups and the order that they were placed in. Pretty good, even for a head roaster of Brian's caliber. Heck, pretty good for anybody!  

A study in milk at the MWRBJ

After the monster cupping (and simultaneous Seed to Cup presentation by Jeff Taylor), it was time for the baristas to take over. Holly Bastin of PT's Coffee Company and Matt Riddle taught espresso techniques for various skill levels. Later in the afternoon, Kim Lovelady of The Coffee Break in Kansas City, Matt Riddle, and Aaron Duckworth went over milk frothing / texturing techniques.

Matt and Aaron capped the afternoon by segueing from advanced milk frothing techniques to a latte art presentation. It was standing room only around one of two GB/5s that were loaned by ESI. Aaron thought it was a mob of barista paparazzi trying to snap photos for Barista Magazine, but Matt knew the truth. All of Matt's pours were shown. Some featured beautiful rosettas with lots of intricate detail; some looked more akin to an amoeba or something one might find growing in a petri dish.

The purpose of showing the less-than-fantastic-looking lattes was to teach what happens when something goes wrong. Too much aeration and you lose detail; get your milk too hot and your silky microfoam turns to inert watery sludge that isn't really good for making designs in lattes. In many cases, milk that hot will also have an unfavorable taste. Paying attention to what happens to espresso drinks that are slightly off can teach you a world of subtleties that make a difference in the final cup. Great espresso preparation begins by identifying each variable and systematically eliminating them.

We ended the second day with some free jam time so baristas could play around with the different machines and grinders. In addition to the GB/5s and FB80 courtesy of ESI, we also had a Synesso Cyncra, brought by up-and-coming Kansas City based roaster Caffè Parisi, and an Astoria Gloria. Mahlkonig sent a whole battery of grinders to sit beside the Mazzer Roburs with the Reg Barber tampers at the ready. We still can't find some of the smallwares that Visions Espresso donated; we hope they ended up in good hands. Oh well, that's what happens at barista events.

After the jam time, we headed out for pizza and then to a local brewpub that featured 101 beers on tap. We gave our palates a different type of workout.

Day 3

Day 3 started a bit slower than Day 2. (A few people were exceptionally glad about that as they had tried a few too many of those 101 beers.) USBC Judge Holly Bastin and Stacey Brown, both of PT's Coffee Company, went over espresso troubleshooting and how to fix common problems such as those caused by excessive humidity (a common problem during those hot Midwestern summers) around the grinder.

Then Jeff Taylor and Matt Riddle gave an awesome presentation about the history and purpose of the Cup of Excellence program and the impact that it has had on cup quality for both the farmer and the consumer. Jeff described how he buys his green coffee beans for PT's and the relationship that he has formed with outstanding importers like Volcafe Importers and Cafe Imports.

Matt Riddle and 2005 Midwest Regional Barista Champion Pete Licata of PT's Coffee Company described their strategies and methodologies behind preparing for a barista competition. (By the way, the 2007 MWRBC, hosted by The Roasterie, Inc. will be held in January 2007) Much of the information centered on the background theme of the USBC, which is specifically designed to make the contestant a better barista in the everyday café setting. Four of the six 2006 Midwest Regional Finalists were present and each chimed in here and there with the voices of experience.

Leroy Shatto of the Shatto Milk Company describes how quality milk is produced.

Ever met your dairyman?  We had the opportunity to listen to ours talk about what makes his milk so special. Leroy Shatto of the Shatto Milk Company came down from his farm in Osborn, Missouri (about an hour north of Kansas City). He talked a bit about life on the farm and how, while many of his dairy colleagues have turned to growth hormones to increase their herds' milk yields, his farm never has. "It's the easiest thing we never did," says Shatto.

Unfortunately, it almost brought the farm to the same fate as many small dairy farms...foreclosure on land that had been in the family for generations. A federal grant to study value-added agriculture along with an Small Business Administration loan and some clever marketing vaulted the Shatto Milk Company into one of Kansas City's most prized super-premium food brands in just three short years. Kansas City's Espresso dell'Anatra spent eleven months on a waiting list just to use their milk after Aaron used it to finish second place in the 2005 Midwest Regional Barista Competition, missing taking top honors by eight seconds. (You snooze, you lose!)

While the farm does not use growth hormones to overstimulate their cows into increased lactation, they have never pursued the USDA's Organic certification because if one of their cows becomes ill, Leroy will opt to use antibiotics if they cannot bring the cow back to full health using homeopathic options. This is the exact same course that they followed for their children, and he refuses to treat his herd any differently. To be sure, any cow that has received any antibiotics must be carefully screened and meet state non-contamination requirements before being allowed to contribute to the milk supply. It was VERY interesting. If you get the chance, track down your dairy farmer, I'm sure they would be glad to talk milk with you.

The last event of the jam had been whispered about but few had any details. Sandy Hon, Kim Lovelady, and Aaron Duckworth had worked tirelessly on the big finale and now the moment was at hand. Could it be? Yes! It was time for the Iron Barista Competition!  

The room was divided into three teams: the Pretty Pretty Princesses, the Brokeback Baristas and the Hairy Hermit Harrars. Each team was given a box with the following ingredients: agave nectar, a fresh chayote, coconut water containing acai, a fresh Hachiya persimmon, fresh lemon, bags of mulling spices, fresh red plums, fresh pomegranate, fresh tamarind pods, and a fresh small pumpkin. (Hey! It was right before Halloween, so back off!)

A tray displaying some of the ingredients that were made available to the Iron Barista teams.

Each team was also required to use one ingredient from Torani - an easy sell, because they had brought their new Pure Flavor base that several people were eyeballing from across the room. Teams also had access to community ingredients: Agar agar, fresh baby bananas, whole bee pollen, blackstrap molasses, dried and ground chicory, dried chipotle peppers, citric acid, fresh ginger root, dried hibiscus flowers, dried hops flowers, jackfruit, ground mace, fresh mint sprigs, whole star anise, and fresh thyme. Crazy, huh?  

Teams had to make two beverages from scratch in about an hour. Any non-community ingredient had to be sourced from a sponsoring vendor in the room; the team then had to purchase the use of the item by performing any task that the sponsor asked. Songs were sung (loudly and badly), group cheers were led, sonnets and haikus were composed, coffee knowledge was tested, and Jeff Taylor had to be made to blush without touching him, all before the ingredients or use of equipment were given up.

In the end, Alex McCracken of Kaldi's Coffee in St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri, and his team of Hairy Hermit Harrars won the challenge. Each member of the team received a 12 oz. bag of Cup of Excellence #14 Bolivia Pico del Tucan and a branded travel mug from PT's Coffee Company. Of the winners, ONE was chosen at random to receive the grand prize of a Reg Barber tamper, a $100 gift certificate to Kaldi's, Bellisimo's Extreme Barista DVD and a 12 oz. bag of Cup of Excellence #2 El Salvador Los Planes coffee from PT's, as well as a thermal French Press to brew it in. Sweet action, huh?

Baristas then stuffed their schwag bags full of what Coffeetools and Cafetto products were left, along with back issues of Barista Magazine to pad their café libraries, and hit the door, none the worse for wear. It was a great event full of energy and enthusiasm, very much worthy of bearing the Barista Guild of America's seal.

It is the greatest hope of the organizers and sponsors that any and all information gained, argued over, mulled about, or simply thought of in passing be used to make a better beverage for your customers on a daily basis and to continue advancing the notion of great espresso as a culinary art form. Until that concept is accepted into pop culture around the world, we'll just have to be content to be called what we have been for decades: Coffee Geeks.

Aaron Duckworth is the owner of Espresso dell'Anatra, one of the premier coffeehouses in the midwestern United States. A two-time USBC semi-finalist, Aaron has retired from active competition on the USBC circuit and is now judging instead. He is currently training up his son, Jacob for the 2019 USBC. When not doing coffee, Aaron is very active in his church or spending time with his family.

Article rating: 8.4
Author: Aaron Duckworth
Posted: March 20, 2007
feedback: (0) comments | read | write
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