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The Interview
Interview: North American Barista Champion
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: June 7, 2002
Article rating: 8.8
feedback: (8) comments | read | write
Zoka's with sign

The winner of this year's North American Barista Championship (NABC) at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) is a Roaster and Barista from Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company in Seattle. Dismas Smith is 31 and has only been a Barista for 3 years now, but showed great poise, originality and skills while making it through the various levels of competition at the show, and emerged the winner on the last day.

I had a chance to interview Dismas about his win and his thoughts on the art of espresso, the perfect blend, and the specialty drink he created to win the competition.

Dismas Smith

Q: Do you have what might be called "formal training" for the role as a Barista, or is on the job experience?

A: I've had mostly on-the-job training, but I've taken some classes through the SCAA. I have also done a lot of reading on my own, have watched several coffee training videos, and I participated in a Barista Jam Session in Norway in September of 2001.

Q: What did the Norway event teach you about espresso that might be different from what you typically learn in the US, especially on the west coast?

A: I don't know if I learned anything new, as far as techniques or facts about espresso are concerned, but I was challenged by their seriousness and their level of professionalism for the position of Barista, and just their enthusiasm for espresso and coffee in general.  In fact, the group from Denmark that was there took it so seriously that they were working with the dairy farmers in their area to find the best milk for their espresso. I was encouraged and challenged in meeting the people there.

Q: In Italy, the role or job of "Barista" can often be a career choice, much like a chef or even a sommelier. In America, it's more often seems as a type of McJob. What's it for you, and how would you like the role of Barista to be defined in the US?

A: Although at present I am spending more time roasting, I don't consider the job of Barista to be a passing job. I would like it to be more of a career you could choose and make a living doing, but the presence of the bigger chains cause it to be viewed more like a McJob in many people's minds.

But I think that independent coffee houses that maintain quality and try to keep their employees around will continue to excel, and more people will begin to notice a difference in the coffee they get from the independents than they do from the chain coffee houses.

Q: Probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the "Barista as a career" is something you touched on - cafe owners trying to keep employees around. Better pay for a skilled position is one thing, but what other things do you think cafe owners could do to make this happen?

A: Other than better pay, cafe owners should provide benefits and training - a lot of places don't give extensive training.  Also taking their baristas to events such as the SCAA conventions and allowing them to participate in things like the NABC.  Attending those events have done a lot for our baristas at Zoka.  The employer should also try to elevate the role of barista in the eyes of the customers, by how they treat the baristas, how they talk about them to the customers.  And this attitude should reflect in the hiring practices, too--the employer should give higher preference to hiring people who are interested in coffee as a career, rather than college students who are just passing through.

Click for larger image
Dismas is practicing at the ESI headquarters for the Oslo World Championships, as Jeff Babcock, Zoka's owner, looks over his work. Click to enlarge

Q: What was it like winning the Barista Competition at the SCAA this year, both on a personal and professional level?

A: On a personal level, it was a great accomplishment for me to win the competition. I knew I could win, but never really pictured myself as winning it. Throughout the competition, I kept feeling shocked as I progressed to the semi-final and then to the final, then to winning first place.  I thought someone else from Zoka would probably win, as we have some great baristas.  But I did know I had one thing going for me in that I had an awesome specialty drink and a great presentation.

On a professional level, it helped to confirm to myself my own abilities as a Barista.  I will be interested to see where I stand at an international level, as the Americans have made a poor showing in the past.  There was definitely a level of excitement at this year's National competition about how much the level of performance has improved since last year.  I had people from around the world wanting me to come do training for their staff and requesting my involvement in other competitions as well.  So I'm excited to see where this will end up taking me.

Q: Do you believe there's a definite West Coast style of espresso, just like there are different, established styles in regions of Italy?

A: While I'm really not familiar with the styles of other parts of the U.S., I do think there has been a definite influence on the Northwest area by the early Starbucks roasters on the style of roasting.  The first generation, so to speak, of Starbucks roasters were trained by roasters at Peet's Coffee, from San Fransisco, CA.

Now there are 3rd and 4th generations of roasters here who have been trained by those original roasters (in some ways, myself being one).  However, that saying, even within Seattle the style of espresso can vary greatly from store to store--there have been other influences than just Starbucks.

Q: Give us a list of the most important things a practiced Barista must do for the preparation and delivery of every espresso shot.

A: Assuming the grind has already been adjusted right for the machine,

  1. Have a consistent hard tamp (about 30 lb pressure)
  2. Have a clean portafilter and machine grouphead.
  3. Have freshly ground, fresh roasted coffee (that has de-gassed at least 24 hours)
  4. Fill and tamp the portafilter and return it quickly to the group head (to maintain temperature)
  5. Pull shot as soon as coffee-filled portafilter is returned to the group head (or coffee may burn)
  6. Pull shot into a pre-heated cup

Q: You mentioned tamp with 30 lbs of pressure. You may or may not be aware of this, but this is an often hotly debated point around the Internet - to tamp, or not to tamp. The argument is frequently given that in Italy, little or no tamping is used in the preparation of the shot - more of a "leveling" action. Why do you believe a strong tamp is important?

A: Well, first of all, I was trained that way, and in the barista competitions (both National and World Competitions) the tamping method is expected.  You will get marked down for not tamping.  But also, I once worked with a guy who didn't tamp--just did a leveling and barely tamped.  While he was an excellent Barista, and his shots were often beautiful, his method seemed to be messier.

I would also think it would tend to get the group head dirtier, because you'd basically be using the group head to do the tamping for you and you would get grounds pressed up in the screen.  So the dirty group head would make for poorer-quality shots (because you don't have time to do the kind of cleaning it would necessitate between ever shot).  Then there's also David Schomer's theory about the water going through the point of least resistance--an uneven tamp would cause overextraction of some and underextraction of other parts.

Q: Your list of steps to follow (mentioned above) is very similar to the steps preached by most advanced espresso fanatics at home, but unlike you, many of them have the luxury and time to do these things methodically, and more important, slowly in the home. Speed is of the essence in the commercial environment - are all these steps possible while maintaining a high production rate, especially the clean grouphead?

A: My list of steps is what we practice at our bar; after a while the steps become second nature.  I've heard it said that in other bars they feel they must cut certain corners, but we've never felt the necessity to do that.  As far as keeping the grouphead clean, we give it a quick rinse, by turning the water on and off, between every shot.  We do deeper cleaning on it less-frequently.

Q: Describe the drink you built as your "custom" drink when winning the NABC at the SCAA this year, and also tell us how you developed it.

Not quite Latin Love
Not quite Latin Love: Dismas' winning drink is easy to build and can be varied. Here, normal whipped cream and chocolate, cinnamon and sugar is sprinkled on the drink.

A: My drink was call Latin Love. For a number of reasons, I had wanted to develop a Mexican theme--one of them being that I would be competing on Cinco de Mayo. The drink I decided to make was an iced drink that was not much larger than a shot of espresso so that I could emphasize the espresso I was using.

I started by adding my Mexican chocolate mixture to two cocktail shakers then I added two shots of espresso to each shaker. I then mixed the shots and Mexican chocolate with a spoon, added ice, put cap on shaker, and shook shakers. This part always seemed to get a positive response from the crowd.

I then took the top part of the shaker off and poured into three Sherry glasses. I then added whipped cream mixed with Mexican chocolate, shaved white chocolate on top, added a cinnamon stick to each glass, and served. I also had cookies shaped like sombreros and small chocolate-dipped red peppers to finish off my presentation. The cookies and peppers were made by my wife.

My inspiration for this drink came from several sources. In September several members of my company went to Norway to participate in the Nordic Barista Jam Session. While there Tim Wendelboe, the Nordic champ and second in the World Championships, made for me the drink that he made in the World Competition. It was just an iced espresso with raw sugar shaken up. I thought it was awesome. It was very small and simple and it brought interesting flavors to the espresso.

Upon returning to Seattle I immediately tried to duplicate what I'd had in Norway. After several tries--mainly of finding the right amount of sugar--I was successful. I thought to myself that if I ever competed again I would like to use something like this as my drink. After at least six months or more of no great ideas, I started to think about the fact that the NABC would be on Cinco de Mayo, which reminded me of the Mexican hot chocolate that my mom used to make when I was a kid. So after experimenting with several different recipes, I found something that I really liked and that I thought others would like.

When I got that part done I realized I wanted some whipped cream with Mexican chocolate added but I wasn't sure how to do it.  So I enlisted the help of one of our bakers. Lastly, I felt it needed something else and I came up with a cinnamon stick.

Q: What machine setup do you have in the home.

A: At home I use a thirty year old La Pavoni that I picked up at a church garage sale. My home grinder isn't great--a new one is on my Christmas list.

Q: Are you aware the current line of "prosumer" espresso machines made for the home, including machines like Pasquini Livias, Isomac Millenniums, Wega Mini Novas, and others? What's your opinion of them, and do you believe quality espresso is possible in the home?

A: Yes, I believe you can get quality espresso in the home.  If you want it, though, it's going to cost a bit to get it--the (machines) I know of cost around $1000 or more. I also know there are good home grinders, similar to commercial ones.  If you have a good machine and a good grinder, and have the proper knowledge, you can make excellent expresso at home.

While I haven't had the opportunity to use most of the machines you mentioned, I have recently had the chance to use an ECM Giotto, and I was very impressed by the shots I was able to get from it.  It was just as good as any shots I'm able to pull from the commercial machine in our store.  The only downside I noticed was that its steam power wasn't as good as what I'm used to--I had to really work with it to get good foam.  Other than that, I think it's an excellent machine. We're going to be starting to sell them in our store now, and I may be using one at home as well.

Q: What is the perfect espresso blend?

A: The perfect espresso blend for me is what we use at Zoka.  It is called Espresso Paladino. It is a work of love by the man who taught me how to roast, Tim McCormack. I am not at liberty to divulge its contents, but I can say it has lots of body and a wonderfully sweet finish that can last for an amazingly-long time. I have yet to find one I like better, and it is not for lack of trying.

Q: Any other secrets of crafting the perfect espresso you can share with us?

A: I would say you need at least five to six different coffees. Some Indonesians for body, Central Americans for body and sweetness, a little Brazil never hurts, and a little African is good but personally I would stay away from Ethiopia for espresso. Most importantly, you need a passion and love for good coffee, and a desire to learn.

Q: Why no Ethiopian beans?

A: Well, Ethiopian beans, especially the Sidamos, tend to have a citrusy note to them.  This doesn't go well with what I consider to be a good espresso flavor.

Q: Chocolate tones are one of the most pleasing flavours in espresso for me personally - what single overriding flavour do you seek out most in espresso?

A: For me, I enjoy a very sweet espresso--one with lots of body and that leaves a sweet and lingering aftertaste. I don't like espressos that are too acidic or sour.

Q: Do you believe milk-based espresso drinks need a different (and possibly more forceful) blend than straight espresso or ristretto drinks do?

A: I've heard that said before, and I know of at least one place here in Seattle that has two different espresso blends--one for their milk-based drinks, and one for their straight espresso, but I haven't seen the need to do it myself.

Q: Thanks for chatting with us today, Dismas, and best of luck in the World Championships coming up.

A: Thank you, it's been great chatting with you. I'm also glad to become acquainted with your web-site--I've enjoyed looking over your articles and reviews.  I'll let you know how I do in Norway.

Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Company is located at 2200 N 56th Street in Seattle (website). Drop in and see the SCAA North American Barista Champion at work!

Article rating: 8.8
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: June 7, 2002
feedback: (8) comments | read | write
The Interview Column Archives  
Column Description
The Interview features in depth and informative discussions with some of the leaders, players, and unique characters in the world of coffee and espresso. From Barista champs to innovators in the espresso world, from coffee farmers, to coffee roasters, you'll find some interesting insights with each new interview posted.

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